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Dr. Suresh Narine: The World Renowned Scientist from Herstelling

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BY CORRESPONDENT

 

The world today dwells in the abode of scientific advancement in different sectors. In fact, the present picture of the world that we see would not have transformed without the contributions of scientists whether it’s in medical science, astronomy or engineering and technology.

Their names are engraved in the sands of time because of their work in the welfare of mankind.

Joining the list of greats we’ve ever seen changed the world with their inventions and research, is an astounding Guyanese—Dr. Suresh Narine.

With 150 peer-reviewed publications, two books, 22 patents and the creation of environmentally friendly economic activities in Guyana, Canada and beyond, Dr. Narine has certainly become our beloved superstar of science.

He recalled during an extensive interview with the News Room, growing up in the small rural village of Herstelling, nestled on the East Bank of the Demerara River. He was the youngest of four siblings and the only male.

Narine said that while he grew up in a very traditional Hindu family, he was always webbed in a cocoon of love and care to which he accredited his self confidence at a very young age.

The humble Professor said that he believes this was the single most important pivot for a career in Science and Technology research; for the uncompromised love from his parents set the stage for a career which, almost by definition, will witness many more failures than successes.

He said, “Herstelling in the 1970’s and 1980’s was an impoverished community.  And for us village youth, there was little that seemed hopeful. I grew up in a period which saw the traditional heroes of village life – the teachers and the educated, the clergy –  be replaced by the growing number of, mainly men that were involved in an increasingly criminalized state in Guyana.”

“The country was locked in the grip of a dictatorship and even the most basic things in life were absent – toilet paper, wheat flour, split peas.  As a criminalized economy emerged, the smugglers that were a source of this contraband became confused with modern day Robin Hoods.”

In spite of the state-of-affairs then, a sound education remained Narine’s key to success. The Canadian based scientist recalled with exquisite clarity, the reception that he and his childhood friend, Nasir Jabar, enjoyed in Herstelling simply because they had secured places at the famous high school, the Queen’s College.

“Suddenly, there was not a single cake and soda parlour in Herstelling where we were required to pay.  I am afraid the incidence of jaundice which followed this notoriety indicated that both me and Nasir were not shy to bask in the celebratory status that our accomplishment secured.  I also remember, with a great degree of sadness, that when I chose to take my place at Queen’s, my youngest sister chose to join the workforce, to help pay for my education, rather than continuing her own at that time.”

Narine said that it is a sacrifice for which he is to this day grateful, and thinks that at many stages throughout his career, when quitting seemed to be a welcome respite from multiple challenges, her selfless sacrifice born out of love kept him in the straight and narrow.

The Scientist noted also that mentors played a pivotal role in shaping his value system.

“As a precocious child, I was easily bored, and learnt to read by the time I was three or four, because I was immersed in a family whose pastime was reading.  I can’t say I remember efforts to learn to read – it just seemed natural that the first time I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm was when I was around five, as a fairy tale.”

Dr. Narine recalled that there was a gentleman who everyone in his village called “Teacher Katchey”. He said that at the time, Teacher Katchey seemed like the most charming, debonair person ever.

“He was always neatly dressed, always had an umbrella, and always greeted the adults around me with such sobriquets as ‘Young Bowdnarine’…which had a remarkably enchanting effect on me – imagine, my larger than life dad being called ‘Young Bowdnarine!’ I still remember how proud I was when Teacher Katchey learnt I could read, and insisted on telling ‘Young Bowdnarine’ that he had spawned a child prodigy!”

Professor Narine said that Teacher Katchey became one of the first of a long list of mentors who gave their time freely to help along an unruly youngster within whom they must have seen some potential.

He noted that there was also “teacher Sankar”, who took him along to primary school, long before he was of age to even attend kindergarten.

“He got into trouble with the authorities for that, and I remember how devastated I was to no longer sit in the first standard with students who were eight, and having to go back to kindergarten to sit with students who wanted to play with toys. Herstelling could be a violent place, too, though, and the growing criminality in the country at that time sometimes collided with my heroes…”

Dr. Narine recalled that Teacher Sankar was at one time, badly beaten in the village.  He said that his “common entrance” teacher, Mr. Herman Sanichar, a popular young teacher, was also violently murdered in his own home.

The renowned scientist said that the horrible incidents had a deep effect on him and have played a significant role in his commitment to community development, the promotion of positive role models to youth, and the importance of developing economic growth models for exploitation of science and technology, which filters down to small communities.

Dr. Narine noted that attending Queen’s College was very transformative. Coming from a close knit village, his first sense of class stratification in Guyanese society was encountered at Queen’s.

“This was where the elite of Guyanese society went to school, but also where all the kids who had done well at the Common Entrance examinations, across the length and breadth of Guyana, ended up.  I was painfully aware of my rural ways and speech, and I travelled to school using public transportation, whilst many of my peers had chauffeur-driven cars to take them to school.”

“It was at Queen’s that I learnt the value of being rounded, and whilst I was never an athlete, I represented my house in table tennis and cricket, and was a devoted member of the Scouts.  Indeed, I went on to become the Captain of Moulder House, and also represented that house at debating and elocution competitions.”

“I also became very politically involved, as a member of the GUARD movement – Guyanese Action for Reform and Democracy.  I ended up speaking on the GUARD platform as a high school student, and started to spend a lot of my time in participating in and organizing student protests.  A growing awareness of the relationship of politics to the plights of unemployment, increasing criminality, racism and the devaluation of the role that educated people played in my little village began to emerge.  And with it, my commitment to my community became even more deep seated.”

Dr. Narine asserted that when the Ordinary Levels Examinations rolled out, he did spectacularly well.

He was particularly pleased that he had scored a double distinction in English Language and Literature which was recognized at Queen’s with the Ivy Loncke prize.

But even though he found himself more attracted to the arts, history and politics there was just something irresistible and mysterious about the world of physics, chemistry and mathematics.  It came as no surprise that he pursued these subjects and did exceedingly well at his Advanced Levels Examinations.

Increasingly dissatisfied with the state of Guyana and the lack of opportunities for young people, Narine began noticing with increasing resentment the devastating effect politics had on his village and the rest of the country.

He started working at the Barclay’s Bank, got engaged to be married, and resigned himself to a career in banking, which he found to be dreadfully boring. Although he was offered a scholarship as a Guyana Scholar, he had become so dis-enamored with Guyana that he refused to take it up and migrated instead.

After a particularly rebellious year or two, during which he experimented heavily with drugs and alcohol, he finally settled down at Trent University to pursue an undergraduate degree. Still in love with the arts, he challenged his skills by taking both science and arts courses in his first year.

Dr. Narine said that like most international students, he was entirely broke, and so whilst taking seven courses, he also held down various menial jobs.  Cocooned in the bosom of a doting family for most of his life, he revealed that he had not even learnt to use a washing machine.

“I still remember throwing in my white and colored clothes into the laundromat machine, together with a bar of Lifebuoy soap (my ma had insisted on sending a carton of them up with me, figuring that the soaps in Canada would somehow alter her ‘one son’).  Of course, the clothes all came out a charming shade of pink, with a thin coating of Life Buoy over everything,” Narine intimated.

At Trent, Narine related that he became immersed in all aspects of University life and indulged in the wondrous world of philosophy, economics and politics.

“I met Professor Alan Slavin, who was to become a lifelong mentor to me.  Al is one of those extremely rare mesmerizing physics teachers – in his class, the world of Physics simply sprang to life. In my first undergraduate year, he invited me to work in his research laboratory in the summer, and this experience ended the flirtation with the possibility of a degree in history and politics.”

“Slavin’s experimental condensed physics laboratory opened up a world of fun for me.  I remember how sad I always was, growing up, whenever I would finish a good book.  But the world of discovery as an experimental physicist and chemist was for me like a good book that never ended.  So, I pursued a joint degree in Chemistry and Physics, and earned minors in Economics and Philosophy at Trent.”

By that time, Narine said that he was on his way to becoming an academic, though it had been a torturous road.  He excelled at his classes because he was simply  having fun; and reaped the benefits of this by receiving scholarships for the duration of his undergraduate degree.

It seemed natural that he would simply move on to a Master’s Degree in Chemical Physics in Slavin’s laboratory, which he did, and received a prestigious Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada scholarship.

“Yet, I guess I had not entirely lost sight of my Herstelling.  My mother, armed with more Lifebuoy, attended my MSc. Graduation, and seeing how she had aged since I was last at home, forcefully reminded me of my origins and my little village on the Demerara.”

Rather than take up an offer to pursue his Ph.D. in condensed matter physics at Princeton on a full scholarship, Narine chose instead to pursue a Ph.D. in Food Science and Materials Physics at the University of Guelph, then and now, the premiere Food Science institution in Canada.

His reasoning for this was simple – no one would hire a condensed matter physicist in Guyana, but a degree in Food Science may allow him to find gainful employment.

This decision again changed his life. He convinced his Ph.D. supervisors to let him take a Materials Physics approach to understanding foods, in particular lipids.  At the time, this was a somewhat risky step, but well worth it.  “I think I co-published 21 publications during this period, in some of the most well respected journals in the world.”

There were multiple all-expenses paid invitations for him to speak around the world at academic conferences. And by the time he had concluded his Ph.D., in two and a half years, he was already considered among the top five academics in the field of lipids.

In fact, he had not even finished his Ph.D., and was already offered a high paying job as a senior research scientist with the food giant, M&M Mars.  Just around this time, his wife was blessed with the heavenly news that they were about to welcome triplets.

“So, on to Mars, I went, living in Pennsylvania and working in New Jersey.  Indeed, my triplets were born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – a source of many great conversations.  At Mars, I learned that when the world of science is wedded to the world of commerce, amazing things can happen which had pivotal impacts on people’s lives.”

“I think I ceased to be a purely fundamental scientist from that time onwards.  Mars remains one of my favorite companies, and to this day I still collaborate with them.  There, I learnt how to commercialize research.”

“Shortly after, I was recruited by the University of Alberta, as the Alberta Value-Added Research Chair. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed working for M&M Mars, I disliked the vast differences in quality of life between haves and have not’s that I saw in the United States, and I felt that I would not like to live there.”

He made decision to return to Canada at the University of Alberta. Not too long after, Narine, returned to his homeland upon the invitation of former President Bharrat Jagdeo to take up the directorship of the Institute of Applied Science and Technology.

Dr-Suresh-Narine

The successful scientist said that there was literally no functioning scientific infrastructure, and no trained scientific staff left at the institute.  He learned that to inject Science and Technology into the agenda of a developing nation, it would require one to be a good lobbyist.

He said that while he has brought many technologies to the marketplace, and has out of this, enjoyed a life of success and some fame in Canada, the United States, Europe, Israel and Southeast Asia, his re-injection into Herstelling  and the technologies he and his team have commercialized in Guyana have been of most value to him.

Narine said that he is grateful to the Government and People of Guyana for having placed enough trust in him and his staff to allow them to get to the stage where they are now able to make meaningful changes to the lives of young men and women in thousands of little Herstellings across the length and breadth of Guyana.

He concluded, “In my own lifetime, I have watched the educated become heroes again in Herstelling.”

Narine is also poised to receive the 2016 Distinguished Research Award from Trent University. This award is one of the University’s top honours.

At Trent University, Dr. Narine is a revered professor in Physics, Astronomy and Chemistry, and serves with distinction as the Director of the Trent Centre for Biomaterials Research (TCBR).

Professor Narine’s impressive academic career also includes numerous awards such as the prestigious “Growing Alberta Leadership Award for Innovation” received in 2005 for pioneering the development of technology to produce polyurethanes from vegetable oils among many other accomplishments.

He is currently the Ontario Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Engineering and the NSERC/GFO/ERS Senior Research Chair in Lipid Derived Biomaterials.

For his work in the development and commercialization of biofuel technology in Guyana, Professor Narine was awarded the Guyana/Canada Special Achievement Award in 2007 and in 2011; he received an award from Guyana for his contributions to Science and Technology in Canada and for his contributions in this field towards the development of Guyana.

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