Wed | Aug 21, 2019

Jamaican researcher tells of love affair with science

Published:Sunday | May 5, 2019 | 12:25 AMCarlene Davis - Gleaner Writer

Having been dubbed a slow learner and failed every course in her second semester at university, ace researcher Dr Theresa Rambaran is passionate about seeing more girls proving their mettle in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Rambaran, whose research at the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine at Umeå University in Sweden centres on the development of plant-based supplements to counter heart-related diseases, has even founded an organisation geared towards encouraging STEM education among girls – ACLaS, or A Classy Lady of Science.

Her love affair with science began as a child growing up Bamboo, St Ann, with her parents and three siblings, as it was common knowledge that ailments were first treated from the diversity of herbs and other plants in backyard gardens, not scurrying off to the doctor.

“I, therefore, always had a sense of inquiry about how this actually works, and so in 2011 when the opportunity presented itself for me to embark on research geared towards the fulfilment of a PhD in this area, I was quite elated. I started researching berries, which are known for their antioxidant properties, and I assessed their phytochemical composition and biological properties,” said the 2019 postdoctoral fellow.

NOT DESTINED at first

But Rambaran was never obviously destined to achieve scientific excellence. Her parents, she said, had their own unique way of incentivising academic achievement.

“I remember my father would race us as children to complete mathematical calculations such as the addition of three-digit numbers. We would use a calculator, and he would do the calculation mentally, and he would always beat us.

“She (mother) started what I call a reward system where if you wanted something, you had to earn it. I recall being told that in order for me to get my hair chemically processed, I had to pass my Common Entrance Examination, and not just pass, I had to pass for St Hilda’s Diocesan High School, where my sister was a student,” said Rambaran.

The St Ann native said that this was no easy task, because she was labelled a slow learner in basic school and her mother was encouraged to have her repeat a year before allowing her to advance to primary school. Her mother objected to the request.

Rambaran said that she did well at primary school, passing the Common Entrance Examination and was rewarded as her mother promised.

At 17 years old, Rambaran started university at The University of the West Indies (UWI), which was not without struggles, financial and otherwise.

“My first semester went downhill and my second semester was nothing short of a catastrophe. I failed every course I sat in second semester, not because they were difficult or I could not manage, but because I failed to even attend my classes.

“Even at this moment, I cannot explain what happened. At times I think I had difficulty grasping that I had achieved what I did in the time I did ... . I simply told myself that what was happening was unacceptable. By my final year of undergraduate studies, I got a perfect GPA for both semesters,” said Rambaran.

She then took a year off from studies and then went to the St Augustine campus in Trinidad where she completed an 18-month programme in one year and graduated top of her class with a distinction, and read for a master’s degree from the Faculty of Engineering.

Having started her PhD at UWI, Mona, and after receiving a scholarship from the European Union, she conducted almost one year of research on the berries at the Center for Drug Discovery at The University of the South Pacific in Fiji, where she was one of the first Jamaicans to enrol.

Since completion of her PhD in 2016, Rambaran started EZ Eats, a convenience food company that currently offers a Jamaican fruitcake blend designed to significantly reduce preparation time for the typical Christmas cake.

PRESTIGIOUS SCHOLARSHIP

In 2018, she was awarded the prestigious Marie Sklodowska-Curie Seal of Excellence by the European Commission, and a year later received the Kempe Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.

“This has afforded me the opportunity to conduct research at the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine at Umeå University in Sweden. Currently, my research involves the use of clinical trials to guide the development of supplements from Nordic berries which are intended to counter cardiometabolic dysfunctions,” said Rambaran.

She explained further her passion for STEM subjects and for girls and young women to engage in pharmaceutical research.

“It is the common practice for students who are doing well in the sciences to be influenced to pursue medicine, but if we should really think about it, the aspect of medicine which most of us love is the ability of a medication to rid us of our ailments.

“... Without scientists, there would be no pharmaceuticals to prescribe – and I do not say this to discredit medical doctors (my brother is a medical doctor) – but I say this to highlight the fact that the practice to neglect STEM and direct brilliant minds to medicine is bound to leave a great void, which will be to our detriment,” said Rambaran.

carlene.davis@gleanerjm.com