Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : April 8th 2018 Contents SUNDAY 8 APRIL, 2018 -- UWI TODAY 17
A Booster Shot
The conference room at the Department
of Life Sciences was so crammed -- more
than a hundred people -- that students
found themselves sitting at the same table
with the examiners, and as they kept ling
in, one of the doorways had to be opened
so more could stand and listen.
For Antonio Ramkissoon, standing tall
behind the conference table, few would
have known that he had kicked off his
shoes and was padding around in his socks
the entire time. As he nears the completion
of his thesis, he is delivering a seminar
which he has called "Breaking Antibiotic
Resistance: A novel innovation that rescues
It is ground-breaking work at many
levels, and it is a reminder of how many
of the most magni cent discoveries come
because someone looked at something in a
completely di erent way. He makes it clear
he has not found a new antibiotic -- no new
class has been found for nearly 40 years --
but he has found something that boosts
existing ones. Think of it as the impact of
carbonation on water, from at to zz!
Its potential to medical care and
pharmaceuticals makes it a discovery of
global significance, and that's about as
much as can be revealed at this stage.
But look out for more on Antonio
Ramkissoon because soon the world will
have a lot to say about him and his work as
part of the drug discovery research cluster
in the Departments of Life Sciences and
But Dr. Ramsubhag is far from disheartened. He loves
a challenge. And more importantly, he has seen the result,
many times, of helping students nd their creative and
"In many cases once you light that spark the student
takes o in such a direction with such a speed that they
overtake you in that particular project. is is the bliss that
we can achieve as educators, when a student develops so
much. You make the investment in time. You create that
spark. And the student just takes o . And they gone," he
Antonio, whose work has been so successful that it may
eventually be looked upon as the seed for a new Caribbean
pharmaceutical industry, has certainly taken o .
"Our relationship goes well beyond the normal
student-supervisor," he says of Dr. Ramsubhag. "He has
been fundamental in my personal development as a young
scientist, professional and man. I cannot have asked for a
better mentor. His passion for microbiology has infected
me as well and he taught me that spending hours in the lab
is no problem when you are passionate."
A progressive community
When he speaks of students and learning, Dr.
Ramsubhag is not speaking as a dry and distant educator.
He's telling his own story.
"I hated school," he says of his childhood. "I always
re ect on my background. I know where I came from. And
I see the potential in people. I would never look at anybody
as not being able to achieve."
He grew up in the agricultural community of Rochard
Road in Penal, the youngest of nine siblings from a family
"It was tough in a sense but it was also an enjoyable
experience. I would look for any reason to stay home from
school and when I did I would work in the eld or the farm,"
Dr. Ramsubhag recalls.
He had problems with reading, as well as the rigid and
rote structure of school. But outside of the classroom his
dynamism was on full display.
"My existence was for cricket and music," he says. And
he delved deeply in both.
Emulating the older boys of Rochford Road, who were
part of a team called "Blue Max, Ramsubhag and his young
cohorts formed "Blue Boys" cricket club. e crew went from
ages nine to 15 but that didn't stop them from building their
own cricket grounds and establishing iron discipline for
members -- no practice no play. He was team leader, captain
and even welder at 15-years-old.
Likewise, he learned the mandolin and performed
Indian music at community events. is led to him joining
the band Dil Ki Awaaz, a popular group still in action today.
In the demanding environment of professional music, he
was challenged to train and conquer his fears, eventually
becoming lead guitarist of the band.
Farming, cricket, music and community, that was his
life and he was happy with it.
"Although the community could be seen as backward
back then (the 1970s), we were very progressive. Even my
family, they may not have been academic but they always
appreciated knowledge, ideas and learning," he says.
Today he looks back at his early experience as the
foundation for his innovative mindset. Eventually he fell in
love with science and would turn his creativity to research
that could enhance farming.
"I appreciate deeper knowledge. I am passionate about
understanding how things work," Dr. Ramsubhag says,
also crediting mentors such as Professor Pathmanathan
Umaharan (Director of the Cocoa Research Centre) and
microbiologist Dr. Alfred Donawa for their role in his
development as a scientist.
Innovation requires resource
Currently, Dr. Ramsubhag is especially excited about
new methods of microorganism screening that will yield
greater results from samples taken from soil. Because of
Trinidad's rich biodiversity there is opportunity to discover
new compounds with pharmaceutical applications.
" e potential is enormous," he says.
But the researchers are challenged by limited resources
in technology and skilled manpower. In fact, Antonio's
very promising research required the postgraduate student
to work unpaid during the vacation period, while Dr.
Ramsubhag had to use his own money to buy materials. e
disconnect between what the country needs, the innovative
work being carried out in places such as the Life Sciences
Department, and the investment being made in that work
on a national level is astounding.
"It is a complex issue," he says. "UWI has people with
talent and competencies that can match any institution
in the world. In terms of academic publication our rates
are as high as many of the top universities. However our
patent rate is woefully low. is means our academics are
channeling their energy into what they deem as possible
in the funding environment. We don't have a culture of
innovation because we don't have a national infrastructure
that supports innovation."
However, Dr. Ramsubhag remains hopeful. "I believe
the Government is developing a national innovation policy,"
he says. Speaking speci cally about the future of natural
products research, he adds, "We have shown the potential.
As we improve our screening capability hopefully something
signi cant will be discovered and policymakers will take
note and put the necessary funding mechanisms in place
to contribute to a new industry."
And a er all, why shouldn't he believe? Life has shown
him that in farming, sports, music, research and teaching,
once you do the work and do it to the best of your ability,
you will see the reward.
"His work on microorganisms is producing exciting
results that, if supported by further research, can lead to
the development of pharmaceuticals, an export-driven
industry estimated at a current value of US$1 trillion,"
reads a statement from the ANSA McAL Foundation.
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