Seeking success against HIV

-Guyanese scholar Daniel Ram searches for cure at Harvard

Following a string of successes in his academic pursuits, Guyanese scholar Daniel Ram has set his sights on finding a vaccine for HIV which he believes could be developed in a decade’s time.

The 29-year-old recently completed his studies at Tufts University in the United States where he was awarded a full scholarship to purse a PhD in Immunology. He is currently back home on holiday with his wife, Alice, and his family at the Ram’s Lusignan, East Coast Demerara home.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have always wanted to be a scientist…I have always wanted to work with infectious diseases and right now I am at the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Harvard Medical School where I am post-doctoral fellow,” Ram told Stabroek News in a recent interview.

Daniel Ram holds up his Phd in Immunology
Daniel Ram holds up his Phd in Immunology

The scientist is no stranger to academic excellence as he was the top Guyana and Caribbean student at the 2003 Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) examinations. Before that, he placed seventh in the country at the Secondary School Entrance Examinations. He also holds a Degree in Chemistry and Biology from Concordia College in the USA.

While at Tufts, Ram said, he was always fascinated with Natural Killer (NK) cells. “I always wanted to work on NK cells, now I actually got to work on the NK cells. I worked on mice and the project was basically to try and identify why some of the mice that I had, didn’t die from lethal drug that causes liver damage,” he related.

Currently, he said, he is doing work on a viral vaccine not just for HIV but also hepatitis. “The predominant focus however, is on HIV,” he emphasised. Asked if this means he is going to come up with a cure for HIV soon, he laughed. “So the more I read up and studied about it over these past few years, it’s a very complicated disease, a very complicated virus,” was his response.

“All viruses are complex but this one is a problem. I would like to…We’re trying something very new with this particular approach so I would love to…but the realities are that this is such a complicated virus, it is going to be difficult but I think we’re closer now than we have ever been. So maybe. Let’s see in ten years,” he added.

According to Ram, the drive to succeed is one that is inspired a great deal by God who he says plays a crucial role. “A lot of people think that science and religion or science and Christianity don’t mesh well. But I couldn’t explain things without God. A lot of the work that I do, it’s me seeing how intricate God has created organisms and how little we know. So the more I study, the more amazing it becomes,” he said.

Daniel Ram (2nd right) surrounded by family members. His wife Alice Cao Ram (2nd left), mom, Dr. Ruth Ram (far left) and dad Dr. Chatterpaul Ram (far right)
Daniel Ram (2nd right) surrounded by family members. His wife Alice Cao Ram (2nd left), mom, Dr. Ruth Ram (far left) and dad Dr. Chatterpaul Ram (far right)

“I think I do this because I enjoy doing this but by doing this, I think it is a glimpse into the mind of the divine, the mind of God,” he said.

Ram does not think he is exceptional. “Honestly, I still don’t. I think it is possible for anyone to. The issue I have with exceptional is that then it gives the perception that only a very few people could do it. The only reason I think why more people don’t do it is because they don’t have the support from community or family. So that’s the difference, if people had the same kind of support, not just financial,” he asserted.

As regards his success so far, Ram credits his achievements to his parents who were always supportive. “My parents even though they are busy, they would sit down and speak with us, go over what we’re doing in school and I feel like a lot of people don’t have that,” he said.

The journey to success has been filled with many bumps and strong family support played a crucial role in keeping Ram from giving up. “It has not always been a smooth road. If I had to go through this by myself, I would have failed. If I had to go through university by myself, I would have dropped out. During graduate school, I almost dropped out about two years ago. Things were really bad in that place…my boss then didn’t see a future with the work I was doing. It was kind of complicated to get an answer in an animal model. He didn’t like what I was doing…so it took me an extra year and a half,” the scientist recounted.

While many may want to call him a “bookworm,” it was not all hard work and no play for Ram who still found some time to engage in extracurricular activities.  “I didn’t have that much time to do anything or that many things. But I actually became a staff member for a rock climbing wall at the…Institute of Technology…and usually I would go bike riding around Boston, sightseeing or I am normally relaxing,” he related.

The scientist shared two bits of wisdom for others who are currently completing studies, which he said, were also shared with him. “Firstly, I would tell them to trust in the Lord and keep your eyes focused on the Lord and everything will be fine,” he said.

“I think faith plays a crucial part in these sorts of pursuits. A lot of times especially in PhD programmes, things fail and it’s all about being patient and understanding what your purpose is.  For me, my purpose was, I see a bigger picture beyond so if I just keep working at it, I will eventually get there,” he asserted.

“The second one is what some professors shared with me. It is oftentimes that we look at the people that are ahead of us and I think, ‘my goodness look at all that work that needs to get done,’ but they didn’t just wake up and get there, (it) is all a series of incremental steps. That series of steps is filled with a lot of failures and frustration but when that success comes, it makes all the failure seems worth it,” he emphasised.

The need to give back is something that has been instilled in him by his family, and it is in this regard that he would not only like to establish a research institute, but also contribute to the education sector in Guyana. “I would still like to establish a research institute. When I started graduate school…I think it is true with life that you have these grandiose ideas and then the older I get, I think the realities of the world come crashing down and it’s not as easy as I thought it was, but at the same time, the world is also more exciting than I thought it was so I would still love to open the institute. It is still a passion,” he exclaimed. “I like to work with existing structures and see how I can contribute to them. I mean the University of Guyana, the University of the West Indies, it would be great to partner with them, with NAREI (National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute) and also the Ministries of Health and Infrastructure if there is a place for me to fit in, not just for me to help but I also want to feel useful. The way I see it, it is mutually beneficial. I get to use the skills that I have and I am offering the services that I can give,” he said.

Ram’s father Dr Chatterpaul Ram, a dentist and pastor of the Baptist Church, is happy that his son has been able to achieve much. “This is what he wanted since he was small. We consider as parents that we are able to support our children so that they could be able to materialise their dreams,” he told Stabroek News.

“All we had to do was to encourage and support him. Every parent dreams that their children can contribute to society and pursue their dream. We really feel good that a wonderful chapter of our lives has been written and to start a next chapter now but I am not certain what that chapter will be,” he said. “We are happy to see him make a contribution to society. Hopefully this is just the beginning of things to come,” the father added.

Asked if this achievement means he is done with school, the younger Ram laughed. “Probably not done with school. Probably never. Part of being a scientist means it never really ends,” he said.


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