Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 14th 2015 Contents June 14, 2015 www.guardian.co.tt Sunday Guardian
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MAYBE I'VE SEEN too many sci-fi movies, but as I sat in Dr. Nicole
Ramlachan's office, while this lovely, sweet-faced woman chatted
and laughed, I wondered briefly if I'd come to the wrong place.
Surely someone involved in genetic research would be wizened,
ethically challenged, most certainly male, and cackling over bub-
bling glass beakers as he discovers the formula to bring his
rat/human hybrid to life....
"We need to learn
not to be afraid of
shouldn't we use
technology to end
By Roslyn Carrington Photo by Richard Cook
But Dr. Ramlachan is no such thing. As she details her colourful aca-
demic background, I grow more and more impressed. Her qualifica-
tions include a PhD in genetics from Texas A&M university --- "Go
Aggies!" she whoops --- and a research position at the University of
Guelph. Quite a detour from her early ambition to be a veterinarian.
"I discovered there was more to science than spaying and neutering
cats and dogs."
Her work history is varied, from teaching in small-town Canada ("It
snowed in June!") to 3rd world postings with Canadian Aid agency
CIDA in Honduras, and with an international OAS agency CATIE, to
countries like Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. "I
worked with the group that sequenced the cacao genome."
She recalls her experiences in Honduras, living among people who ex-
isted in incredible poverty, but who didn't seem aware that they were
poor. "They have nothing to compare themselves with. They have
family, they go to school, they have something to eat, and they're
She has fielded job offers at CDC in Atlanta, FAO in Rome, the WHO
in Geneva and here in Cocoa Research, but still the lure of "pure" ge-
netics kept calling. "I don't want to get taken up in 'plant research' or
'animal research' or 'human research'. A gene is a gene. DNA is DNA,
and I am a geneticist."
In 2010, she came home to a position at UTT, running the biotech-
nology interdisciplinary programme. She also consults as a geneticist
with NGOs, Government, private laboratories and universities on nu-
merous projects and services. She has worked with MDs in genetic
testing and genetic engineering of skin grafts for burn victims with
stem cells from umbilical cord blood, the Ministry of Justice on the
DNA Bill for forensic DNA analysis, and with local buffalypso in an ef-
fort to perpetuate their high calibre genetic heritage.
She would like to see more awareness of the role of genetic testing
in diagnostics here in Trinidad. "People don't realise that with genetic
testing you can diagnose a disease in 30 minutes, as opposed to wait-
ing days for a standard test." Genetic testing can predict the likelihood
of developing a number of diseases, and even help you make up your
mind on a course of action BEFORE the disease strikes.
As an example, she cites Angelina Jolie's double mastectomy, a deci-
sion she chose to pre-empt the possibility of developing breast can-
cer, in the light of the extremely high genetic odds that she would.
Even in paediatric care, genetic testing could prevent misdiagnoses
that are quite frequent in T&T. "I'd like to see us step into the 20th
Century --- not even the 21st Century --- because a lot of us in T&T
aren't there yet, in terms of genetic testing."
She also thinks that campaigning for genetically modified foods is a
battle worth fighting. "The word 'gene' is a bad word, but it's ridicu-
lous. You eat foods with genes every day. But people won't know the
truth unless you tell them."
She laments the unnecessary suffering she sees people go through
out of sheer ignorance. "To their dying breath, some people will tell
you that genetically modified foods are bad, but you can't walk
through a supermarket and buy a product that doesn't have GMO
ingredients. Nobody has a problem eating grafted oranges, but these
are genes that aren't combined in the wild. The only way we can feed
the starving populace in the world is because of GMOs. We need to
learn not to be afraid of technology. Why shouldn't we use technol-
ogy to end suffering? The scientist part of me doesn't understand it,
and the mother part of me doesn't understand it."
While many of her peers are shying away from working in T&T be-
cause of the red tape and administrative obstacles she constantly
faces, she is determined to stay here to make her contribution. "We
need to change the old guard, remove the societal blocks people cre-
ate by habit. If we don't change our mentality, we will never be a first
Having a 10-month-old baby takes up a lot of her time, but she is
quite happy to have become a mother at a later age. "It makes me a
better mother. I have proven myself already, so I take my mind-set
out of the rat race. I am able to give my child the attention she de-
serves without my ambition getting in the way."
She credits her bold and independent thinking to the leeway her par-
ents gave her; they allowed her to go to high school in Canada at age
15, and have always encouraged her in her career choices. "I was never
crippled by the question of what would happen if I fail. It has nothing
to do with pride; it has everything to do with no fear."
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