Chemistry Major Fights Blindness In Ghana

As a prolific undergraduate researcher at York College/CUNY, Daryl Ramai had studied two therapeutic drugs/molecules among various other areas in biochemistry.

Ciprofloxacin and Tetracycline. Fascinating; but it wasn’t until he spent the summer 2011 in Ghana, West Africa that the full implication of these two molecular agents came into focus.

Ramai, a Chemistry major and graduating senior, spent seven weeks in the Sub-Saharan nation as a Global Health Fellow with United for Sight, an American organization, which helps to fight blindness in developing countries. He was selected to join the group’s trip to Ghana. And that is where he had his “a-ha” moment.

“Being curious about the eye drops being used and the main medicinal agents involved, I began reading the drug description and to my utter surprise, I saw the two molecules I had been studying in the lab,” he said. “It was a translational experience indeed. Going from bench top in the (the lab) to witnessing application in the field. These drugs are potent wide-spectrum antibiotics, my studies centers around the interaction at the protein level in the human body.”

Ramai, a former FDA intern under the guidance of Dr. Deb Chakravarti at York, and winner of the Frances Kelsey award 2010, worked in the department of Microbiology in the detection of harmful food-borne pathogens. In addition to this, he was trained for the Ghana mission in the office of Dr. Wilson Ko, a Flushing, Queens-based ophthalmologist who also provided him with donations of implant lenses for cataract patients. Dr. Ko gave Ramai the opportunity to shadow him and his staff as he treated patients in his office and during eye surgeries in the theatre.

Ramai also took 350 pairs of eye glasses in addition to the 100 eye implant lenses for the correction of sight and poor vision in patients which he collected from Vision USA.

Ramai, who is originally from the island of Trinidad, will be applying to medical school for the fall of 2012 and has an interest in global health delivery and research. And at York he has had plenty of research opportunities both on and off campus with members of York’s outstanding faculty.

Under the guidance of Dr. Julio Padovan, a specialist in hemoglobin studies and mass spectrometry, Ramai was able to conduct research at Rockefeller University in a state-of the-art nationally recognized laboratory during his sophomore and junior years year at York. Dr. Padovan, an adjunct professor at York, was Ramai’s first Chemistry professor at and graciously provided the opportunity at his home institution.

Ramai also studies and collaborates with the York College labs of Dr. Ruel Desamero, Dr. Emmanuel Chang (mentor), Dr. Louis Levinger (Biology), and others. He has also worked collaborated with external CUNY colleges such as Queens College and said the experience has been phenomenal.

“We have a great system here at York,” he said. “The instrumentation is first class. My roommates (also chemistry majors) in Ghana were students from Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon and they did not know about certain instruments and techniques that I learnt here at York.”

What took him halfway around the world according to Ramai was his desire for a meaningful experience that would be at once humanitarian and a contributing element to his education and research back at York. He did not want the usual two-week study-abroad summer program that is usually the lot for undergraduates in summer.

“I was looking for a volunteer experience that would be culturally immersive and educational,” he explained. “I searched online and found several. Then I found Unite for Sight which conducts a Global Health Delivery certificate program under its Global Health University. My pre-departure training involved course work in topics such as global health, community eye care, ethics and professionalism, social entrepreneurship, and much more. Certification in Global Health Research, which Ramai also acquired, also contains an intensive curriculum.

“The patient interaction is invaluable”, he says “I made it my goal to ensure that the patients understood that I was there for them if they had any questions or concerns, and that they understood all treatment if given.

He added that he quickly learned phrases of two popular local languages, Twi and Ewa so he could communicate more effectively.

According to Ramai there are only 45 ophthalmologists in the nation of nearly 26 million people. United for Sight is successful because, according to Ramai, they invest in local infrastructure and human capital. They believe their role is to assist and empower the locals to improve life and healthcare for themselves.

“We believe that the locals know best,” said Ramai. “They know the signs and subtleties so we must seek their guidance rather than them seeking ours. I made my first diagnosis in Ghana. I diagnosed a patient with immature cataract and suspected glaucoma and when the Ghanaian doctor I was assisting examined the patient he gave me a high-five, I got it right!”

The future physician is now ready to have another similar experience.

“I realize there’s a lot more work to be done and I would like to be an agent for social change in these developing countries,” said Ramai who is considering an opportunity to do a study-abroad in global health in India this winter. “I know we can do better.”

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