May 20, 2024

Opening Session: Embrace Your "Peculiarity"

By Abby Roberts

When Sammy Ramsey, PhD, began the opening keynote session at AIHA Connect 2024, he introduced himself as an entomologist—he studies insects, particularly bees and bee parasites. But Ramsey would not go on to discuss the occupational hazards of working with “clouds of stinging insects.” Instead, his keynote encouraged attendees to embrace the qualities that give them unique perspectives on the world around them as sources of potential creative and scientific breakthroughs.

Ramsey had wanted to be an entomologist since he overcame a childhood fear of insects at about eight years old. His parents, he said, had helped him when they dropped him off at a public library with instructions to learn as much as he could about the creatures. “People fear what they don’t understand,” they told him. He emerged from his research with a new passion for insects.

By high school, his dream of becoming an entomologist remained strong, but only a handful of U.S. universities offered undergraduate entomology programs, and he would have to address several challenges to receive an acceptance. His high school was rated the second worst in his state, so Ramsey had to teach himself subjects that his high school didn’t offer. Finances were a more significant obstacle, since neither of his parents worked full time, and two of Ramsey’s siblings were already in college. He knew competition for scholarships would be fierce. “I was an odd enough highschooler,” he said, “that I started thinking through, how am I going to actually make this work?” He targeted scholarships with an essay component, reasoning that fewer people would want to write the essays. Of the 29 scholarships he applied for, he received 28.

Ramsey, who is Black, had also realized that U.S. culture typically imagines entomologists as white people.

After completing his undergraduate degree at Cornell, he began his PhD studies. “Things got a little spicy here,” he said. First, his advisor told him that she didn’t think he should get a PhD. Ramsey, who had already conducted and published research in undergrad, pushed back. The advisor relented, under the condition that he maintain a 3.5 grade point average for the duration of the program (Ramsey maintained a 4.0).

This acquiescence lasted only until his first PhD committee meeting. Ramsey recalled his advisor telling him, “Something about you just doesn’t seem like doctoral material, so I’ve decided to dismiss you from the program.” Perplexed, Ramsey asked if he had offended anyone, and was told he had not. Instead, his advisor said he lacked the “skill set for science.”

“What is the skill set for science and what am I lacking?” he said.

“I can’t quite put my finger on it, but you don’t have it, and it can’t be taught,” she said. “You really shouldn’t be surprised. You were a high-risk student to begin with.”

Ramsey later discovered that no Black people had ever graduated from the program before. Two former researchers, both Black, had left under similar circumstances. He filed an appeal of his dismissal with the ombudsman, which went all the way to the dean. While this was underway, professors sent him unpleasant emails and confronted him in hallways, threatening to quit if he graduated. Eventually, he was reinstated into the program on the condition that he give the project he’d been working on for two years to his former advisor. He would have to find a new advisor and project.

At about the same time, Ramsey was excommunicated from his church, where he had been a worship leader. The congregation had previously accepted him as a queer person, but someone had threatened to report them to the church hierarchy if Ramsey stayed. “Being peculiar often is a matter of you being at the intersection of things that people don’t think should intersect,” Ramsey said. “The intersection of my orientation with my faith eventually resulted in me being excommunicated from my church. They just couldn’t deal with it.”

“It seemed like everyone was telling me I didn’t belong,” he added. His “peculiarities” seemed to create barriers in both his academic career and personal life.

Back at university, only one researcher was willing to let Ramsey join his lab—he learned after graduating that his former advisor had told the others not to accept him. His new advisor studied bees, so Ramsey became a bee researcher. When people ask him how he got started on this specialization, Ramsey often wonders, “Do you want the answer that will make you uncomfortable about systemic racism? Or do you want the short, cute answer?”

Bees are incredibly important to the environment and the economy—as the third most valuable livestock after cows and pigs, the insects are worth $18.7 billion to U.S. economy annually. Nonetheless, Ramsey hadn’t initially considered studying bees. Bee researchers all over the world were studying a mite, known as Varroa destructor, which is associated with nine different diseases and colony collapse disorder. Known as a “bee serial killer,” Varroa mites have infected almost 100 percent of bee colonies. They were believed to feed on the bees’ blood, and no one could find a way to kill them. Ramsey wondered how he could contribute to this research, since so many entomologists were already working on it.

He spent several months following references to find the source of the claim that Varroa mites sucked bees’ blood. It originated from a very old paper written in the former Soviet Union, which had never been translated from Russian. A Ukrainian friend translated it for him. The paper was far from conclusive that the mites fed on blood.

Ramsey also looked closely at bees and their parasites. The Varroa mites’ feces contained compounds called purines, which aren’t typically found in blood. A conversation with his father made Ramsey surer that this was a new direction for his research. His father had gout, and his doctors suggested that he change his diet as part of the treatment plan. While helping his father research his health condition, Ramsey learned that gout is caused by a buildup of purines, and that doctors recommend that people with gout refrain from eating liver. “The parasites might be chomping on the bees’ liver instead of their blood,” Ramsey realized.

He explained that he maintained “soft boundaries” between his work and personal life. He allowed himself “to be continuously thinking about things. Most of the time, when we think about leaving work, we think about pretty hard boundaries,” he said. But by deploying soft boundaries, “elements of what I’m doing at home can be applied at work and vice versa.” Sometimes, relaxing may allow a person to make a discovery they previously overlooked.

Ramsey set about gathering evidence for his new theory. The nine bee pathologies associated with Varroa mites, he found, could all be caused by disruptions to the bees’ liver (technically, their fat body). Then, he fed one group of bees a liquid that caused their liver to glow red, while a second group received a liquid that would cause their blood to glow yellow. Both groups were exposed to Varroa mites: the parasites glowed red. When he cut the mites open under a microscope, he saw that their insides contained parts of the bees’ liver.

But he knew he would have to overcome other scientists’ implicit bias to convince them of his findings. “When I show up to a conference to talk about this,” he said, he knew that other researchers would “see someone they’re not used to seeing.” So he gathered a third stream of data: this time, he extracted blood and fat body from the bees, which he used to fill capsules modified to look like bee larvae. The mites did not respond at first. Remembering his childhood experiments in trying to keep insects alive, he recalled that the mites were blind, so he made the capsules look and smell like bee larvae, too. The mites that fed on the capsules containing fat body survived and even laid eggs. This research led to Ramsey being honored with multiple awards, in addition to securing him his PhD.

“When you look at the world differently,” said Ramsey, “you ask different questions. A lot of us have been told that the peculiarities that exist in us are a problem.” However, he added, “Creative thinking is born of peculiarity. Peculiarity is actually an asset.”

The problem is that this realization is not widespread. “There is a pronounced and disturbing lack of diversity” in science, he said. In 2017, he was the only Black person in the U.S. to graduate with a PhD in entomology.

But despite his difficult experience, Ramsey learned something about himself. “I learned that it actually makes so much sense for me to be confident in what it is that I can accomplish, for me to navigate forward and try new things,” he said. He now teaches science communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has also been featured in a Hulu documentary, has received a National Geographic Wayfinder award, and is currently researching another bee parasite in Thailand.

Abby Roberts is assistant editor for The Synergist.

Read more coverage of AIHA Connect 2024.