By Romona Rahat
Vidia Surendra Roopchand currently holds the title of Principal Research Scientist at the top American firm Pfizer, where he spent the last 27 years of his life in the vaccines division and is on the team supporting the efforts to develop a much needed COVID-19 vaccine – a vaccine that is in dire need to save mankind from this modern-day plague that has paralyzed the world.
How did a boy from the tiny island of Wakenaam, located in the Essequibo River, grow up to be a Principal Research Scientist at the world’s largest global biopharmaceutical company?
Born on August 1st, 1967 and named after the Nobel Prize winning West Indian author V.S. Naipaul, he is the eldest of three children of Roopchand (Teacher Reds, ret. Head Master) and Sherine Roopchand (Teacher Sherine, ret. Head Mistress).
His other siblings are Ricky Roopchand, who is the manager of the Hope Estate, and the late Karishma Roopchand.
His nickname is “Bobin” from the bobbin in the sewing machine. His maternal grandfather Roshan Bacchus was a tailor hence the nickname.
His interest in chemistry started when, for his 11th birthday, his parents gave him a book titled “The How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry”.
The intrigue and potential of chemistry excited the young boy as he read the book from cover to cover at every chance that he got.
The story of the German scientist Friedrich Wohler, whose synthesis of urea in the late 1820’s disproved the vital force theory enthralled him.
Initially, his parents and relatives seemed puzzled by this interest but his parents eventually got on board since the boy seemed totally hooked on his chemistry book. His Uncle Ronald Rahat (Toe), an electronics and engine repairman recognized the boy’s potential and provided a safe space in his workshop and away from the naysayers where the future scientist could read his chemistry book.
He feels that his Uncle Toe was a man ahead of his time as the gentleman was reading books about computer language in the early 70’s. His uncle provided much encouragement and structure for the future Pfizer vaccine researcher who would one day be part of a global effort to save mankind.
His early formal education began at the Sans Souci Methodist School. After his Common Entrance Exams in 1978, he was placed at the Anna Regina Multilateral School where he lived in the dormitory for his secondary school years.
Those years at ARMS greatly allowed him to expand his horizons in science and in life. He credits all the teachers and dormitory staff at ARMS (1978 to 1984) for his sturdy foundation and fondly remembers Miss Cheryl Argyle who, after he told her that he wanted to be a scientist, shrugged her shoulders and said, “If that is what you want to be, then that is what you want to be, don’t be ashamed to dream!”
It was not all academics at ARMS, as he learned a lot about interacting with people of all different backgrounds while living in the dormitory and thinks his whole outlook on life dramatically changed during those years.
All of the racial stereotypes quickly vanished and he started to see people for who they were as individuals and not what they looked like, he also became less intimidated and began welcoming challenges.
He also remembers riding around in the Land Rover with HM Maxwell Cox and his dorms brothers, (famed artist) Winslow Craig, Andrew December, Stephen Luke, Cromwell Sinclair, Roopram Doobay and Geoffrey Babb.
He thinks that Maxwell Cox had a very strong influence on him during those formative years. A lot of his “street smarts” came from “Coxie.”
But the biggest event at ARMS was more of a cosmic event because he met his future wife Nadia there in 1982!
By the time he left ARMS in 1984 after writing his GCE O’Levels and CXC and sharing the Best Graduating Student prize with his Sans Souci Methodist School classmate Fazia Glen, he knew that Chemistry in some incarnation was in his future.
He arrived at the University of Guyana in September of 1985 with the intent of studying Applied Chemistry but upon arrival at Turkeyen he learned that Applied Chemistry as a major had been discontinued.
As a result, all of the potential Applied Chemistry majors of 1985 including our own Carl Kanto, Orland Copeland and Leslie Ramalho had to switch majors to Chemistry.
When speaking about his UG years he seems most excited about two experiences, neither of them academic. The first one was his stint in the Guyana National Service (SPOC 87-03, Kimbia) where he got into the best shape of his life due to the morning road runs and afternoon weight training. And the second one was the student protest after the 1989 budget when the students protested against the University of Guyana’s plans to fire striking lecturers.
It was during these student protests that he would forge strong bonds with his fellow students such as Keith Branch and Lin-Jay Harry Voglezon.
After graduating with distinction in the class of 1990 along with a few other notable Guyanese such as President David Granger (they were both distinction students) and Coleen Patterson, he headed to New York for his graduate education.
In New York he received two master’s degrees, one in Immunology from New York Medical College and one in Chemical Engineering from Columbia University (Barack Obama’s alma mater).
And later, he landed at Pfizer.
Pfizer, headquartered in New York is known for leading brands such as Prevnar, Eliquis, and breast cancer drug Ibrance to name a few, is one of the organizations leading in the quest for a human COVID-19 vaccine. The Pfizer vaccine candidate, being developed with partner BioNTech, is based on new m-RNA technology and draws from many aspects of modern-day biotechnology and mathematical modelling.
When asked about how he handles the pressure of knowing that the world is waiting and that the fate of mankind largely depends upon scientists’ ability to deliver a successful vaccine, he says, very calmly, that he thinks that his whole life so far was prepared for such a scenario and he quoted Ernest Hemmingway who wrote: “Courage is grace under pressure”.
He believes in God and feels that this helps him to be a better scientist. He proudly reminds me that Pfizer has been in a situation like this before in 1942 when they had just a few months to make penicillin for Allied soldiers during WWII.
His expertise in immunology and chemical engineering places him at the nexus of vaccine development because modern vaccine development utilizes a very broad spectrum of skills ranging from virology, immunology, biochemistry, chemistry, molecular biology, computational science, chemical engineering, clinical science and regulatory affairs, it is certainly not a one man show. New technology excites this guy from Wakenaam, who loves the gym, is a passionate gardener and a father of three children, Joshua, Rachel, and Daniel.
When he asked about the chances of success of a COVID-19 vaccine he is both optimistic and prudent and says that the clinical data will tell and that nature will guide us.
He loves to quote William Coley, a cancer surgeon who in 1890 said “Mother nature often gives us hints to her most profound secrets”.
He also loves a quotation by Thomas Jefferson who said: “We must be bold in our pursuit of knowledge, never fearing the path of truth and reason and the answers it may yield”.
He is proud of his Wakenaam and Guyanese origin and thinks that in this time of a global crisis, he is representing Guyana and everyone who helped him get here, both personally and professionally.
He is extremely grateful to his parents and relatives, his teachers, the village elders especially Uncle Toe, Uncle Jack, Ashton Thomas, Bishop Roland Binda, the Bhoodai family and of course his wife Nadia, their children, and his mother in law.
If this vaccine succeeds in the clinic and COVID-19 gets extirpated from the face of the earth then the Guyanese people would have contributed to a global effort to save mankind!
Science will win, he assured me. (Contributed)