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Microbiologist, author encourages students to follow their true passion

Published: 
Monday, January 5, 2015
Dr Roger Ramsammy, molecular geneticist and microbiologist and author of several textbooks in physiology and anatomy, relaxes at his home in Woodbrook. PHOTO: CLYDE LEWIS

Few people would take the type of risks Dr Roger Ramsammy took to secure his education. At just 24, Ramsammy decided he wanted a better education, so he bought a ticket to Washington DC. He did not write SATs or have any transcripts, but was determined to get into Howard University and rise to the top.

Now, at 55, the former Mucurapo Junior Secondary and Woodbrook Secondary School student is the Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Northern Virginia Community College’s Manassas Campus (NOVA). He is also a well known molecular geneticist and microbiologist, author of several textbooks in physiology and anatomy. He hopes to become president of the prestigious college next year. 

In 2007 he was one of four authors selected for US President Barrack Obama’s initiative to create online textbooks. And recently, Dr Ramsammy was invited by Obama to join other professionals in education at the White House to help brainstorm how to make the US the world leader in college graduates, at an event called the White House College Opportunity Day of Action.

A quest of faith, resilience

Getting to where he is now was no easy road and it demanded determination, resilience and faith.

“In 1983 I was playing with the Carib Hockey Club and I got an opportunity to travel with them. We were very poor and this was my first opportunity to travel abroad, and there were some issues with our flight and we had to stop in Washington DC,” he said, during an interview with the T&T Guardian during his Christmas vacation at his home in Woodbrook. 

“While there, we had a bus tour. The bus tour took us down to Howard University. When I was there, a history professor spoke about Dr Eric Williams and how he came to be and on my way home I realised sports was not going to do it for me,” he said. He was so inspired by Dr Williams’ story that three days after he returned home, he bought a ticket and set off to Washington DC.

“I grabbed my stuff and I left for DC. I went back on a tourist visa. I just knew I wanted to go to school. When I got up to the counter at Howard University, the woman told me that people apply for years before they get in here, and they have their transcripts transferred from their schools. I didn’t know what to do and that night I spent in a shelter. I told my mom no matter what, I’m not coming back. I’m going to get into Howard somehow.”

This was beginning of a challenging journey for Ramsammy, who despite being faced with such adversity, refused to return home.

He would stay in a shelter for the next three months as he tried to figure out the next move. Eventually he went to a language school so that he could change his status from visitor to student; he was then able to enroll in the University of Washington DC, which was open to anyone who graduated high school. It is there that his life would change; a new path opened to him when he met Dr Joan William Thomas.

Sleeping in the library

“She saw me one day sleeping in the library, because I didn’t have many places to sleep at the time, or to live, and I was still struggling. She gave me a job in her laboratory to do research. Once I started working, things started to change for me. I was able to rent a garage and start living there, and buy books. After my first year, I became a straight A student.”

His diligence and application would pay off as he won a full scholarship from the National Institute of Health. Winning that scholarship helped Ramsammy immensely as it paid for his housing, books and tuition. He did not waste the opportunity given to him and maintained an impeccable record during his stay at the university.

“I was able to graduate from there as a pre-med biology major, and then I got accepted at Howard for their Masters programme four years later.”

His love of Dr Williams’ story would keep serving as his beacon for attaining maximum success; he even tried to do his thesis in quicker time than his mentor. During this time he received several accolades, including one for the best young minority of science award. 

From drug research to teaching

Ramsammy continued to push forward and began studying the timing of genes for his Phd. He did research into a drug called Tamoxifen which is commonly used in treating breast cancer. 

“My job was to study the timeline and understand how the genes get turned on, so that we could turn them off, so that in cases of people with breast cancer, we could turn it off by using a simple drug.”

His work earned him such high recognition that he was accepted to a programme at the Georgetown University Lombardi Cancer Centre, where he began doing research on tumours.

At this point, just about ten years into his studies, his life took another turn: he developed a new love besides biology—teaching.

“I began teaching molecular biology and as I was teaching it I realised a lot of the students started gravitating towards me. They just liked the way I interacted with them.”

Ramsammy would soon have to make a major decision as his love of becoming an educator grew.

“At that time there was a little fallout for me, because my graduate research mentor, Dr Winston Anderson, who was from Jamaica and was one of Howard’s elite professors, was pretty proud of me—I was the first of his group to get accepted by the Mayo Clinic, which is one of the most prestigious clinics in the world. I went up to the Clinic and they interviewed me and accepted me to teach in the medical school and do research. He even threw a party for me because he was so proud; but I don’t know what happened…I had the big job, a big offer and big money, but I just loved when I was teaching the minorities.”

Following his own path

He made the difficult decision to refuse the prestigious offer that he had been given to pursue his true love of education. 

Ramsammy, who has now been married for 15 years and has three children, decided to become a professor. This decision placed a wedge between him and Anderson, he revealed.

“I couldn’t see what they were seeing. All I could see was what I had to do. I chose to do what I believed would make a big difference in people’s lives,” he said.

With this new purpose in mind, Ramsammy took up a job offer at Palm Beach State College, Florida, where he spent 18 years. He credits this experience with helping his career blossom. He explained that it was while at that college, he developed his own unique teaching style.

“In my first 13 years, I was Professor of the Year five times. I used to make my own animations. I would sit down and make animations about how cells in the heart work. I would also make green screen movies and show them as if I am working on the heart valves or balancing on the blood vessels."

Dean at Florida State

His unique approach earned him Florida State Professor of the Year in 2003. His work at the college would not go unnoticed and he was made associate dean. This role made him responsible for overseeing all the math, engineering and science programmes. Eventually, because of his continued commitment to helping minorities survive at graduate college, he became the dean. In 2007 he would be sought out by the President of the US.

“In 2007, President Obama and Carnegie Mellon University began a search for four authors. These four authors were to write online textbooks. I know it was through Gates, Lumina and the White House. They donated several millions to Carnegie Mellon to find these four authors, and I was one of the authors selected.”

It was because of this initiative and his significant contribution to the project that several universities throughout the US started seeking the professor for his advice on managing a campus. He settled on Nova which boasts about 80,000 students.

“The task that I was chosen for by the president of Nova, Robert Templin, was to come in and run the Manassas Campus. I also had to run the Stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) for the entire Northern Virginia region.”

Encouraging US kids in science, maths

After just two years of running the Stem programme, in April of this year Ramsammy was given an award for the most innovative Stem programme in the state of Virginia by the governor, Terry McAuliffe. This was because of the work he did through Nova on a project called SySTEMic Solutions, which encourages children from as young as kindergarten to get familiar with the benefits of the Stem programme.

The reason so much focus is being placed on Stem is because there are so many jobs in the field that are not being filled.

“Right now in northern Virginia we have close to half a million jobs in the technology or Stem field that we cannot fill. These jobs now have to be filled by people from other countries. My job is to devise a plan to increase my Stem students, mostly from the under-represented groups.”

Research Park project

Ramsammy has been entrusted to add a research park to NOVA in the next three years, which will be called Nova’s College Wide Stem Initiative (NCSI), which is also an initiative of President Obama. The park is expected to help fill many of the vacant job positions by 2020.

Ramsammy admitted that minorities still face major challenges in getting educated in the US, and so he has started several programmes to help. 

“I created a group called the Global Learning Centre and I put them out into the community. They go out to these under-represented folks and try to get them to come down to the college. We let them know that we will pay for their books and the first part of their education. We even developed special courses like English for plumbing and English for janitorial services.”

One of his dreams is to open a local version of Nova and have a working relationship with the Ministry of Education in T&T, especially where accreditation is concerned.

“I will work from abroad to make sure that this country gets the accreditation that they deserve. I will do whatever I have to do to make sure it happens. One of the things I wanted to ask the Minister of Education here is how can I open up a branch of Nova here.”

He believes anyone can accomplish their dreams if they remain focused and follow their true passion.

“I always say money and those things will come, but first you have to do it from your heart. I can tell you that I have never done anything for some type of monetary gain. If you do what you truly want to do from your heart, everything you want will come to you naturally. Never focus on negativity and always focus on the task ahead of you.”

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