Faculty Spotlight: Ramee Indralingam
May 31, 2013
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Chemistry Professor Ramee Indralingam, Ph.D., was educated in a system created by the British in the era of colonial rule (1815-1948). It was a system she describes as “rigorous and rigid”: around the age of 13, students were split into tracks, based upon signs of aptitude. Those who did well in math and science were tracked into science courses, while others studied humanities. Strictly segregated by sex in most urban schools (at least until university), female students studied with female teachers; male students studied mostly with male teachers. Women sometimes taught male students, but male teachers did not commonly teach female students. At age 14-15, students took O-level (“ordinary level”) exams, a qualification in its own right but also a prerequisite for the more academically rigorous A-level (“advanced level”) exams, taken after two additional years of college-level study. The results determined who could attend university—and what they would study if admitted.
Sri Lankans deeply value education, and there was no cultural stigma—as there was at the time in the U.S.—attached to women and science. Thus, many girls were tracked into science courses. Looking back, Ramee recalls that she had “no burning desire to be a chemist.” But she liked math and did well in science: she was placed in the science track. She had a better sense of what she didn’t want than what she did: she knew she wasn’t interested in medicine, she didn’t like hospitals, and she wanted to stay as far away from cockroaches as possible: “I chose chemistry because biology required dissections—of cockroaches. I was OK with everything else, but I wouldn’t touch a cockroach with a 10-foot pole.”
While studying at the University of Colombo, the oldest and most highly rated university in Sri Lanka, she interned in the national forensic lab. There, CSI-style, she analyzed evidence from crime scenes. After some initial (and easily imagined) hurdles, she found she really liked the work: “At first, I found it really difficult to eat lunch—the smell (of putrefying human flesh) permeated everything. But after a month, I was partially used to it.” Still, she decided that she really didn’t want a career cutting up and analyzing stomachs…or having the smell of rotting flesh constantly in her nostrils. So, once she graduated, she took a job with the government agency that oversees food and drug safety.
When her husband landed a job in Nigeria, they left Sri Lanka–just before a period of escalating tension and civil unrest. In Oyo State, roughly 100 miles from Nigeria’s largest city, Ramee taught biology and chemistry to high school students preparing for the West African Educational Certificate Exams. Up to this point, she had never considered a career as a teacher. In fact, when high school friends suggested teaching as a potential career—because they found that she could explain very complex concepts clearly—she quickly dismissed the possibility. No, she had no interest in teaching. They spent four years in Nigeria, leaving when Ramee decided pursue the Ph.D. in Chemistry. She chose to do so at the University of Florida.
Ramee sees nothing remarkable in having lived for extended periods of time on three continents—or in having the courage to embark on a new life halfway around the world, far away from family and friends. With characteristic modesty, she insists, “I am just an ordinary person.”
At Stetson, Ramee is certainly not ordinary. She is an extraordinary teacher among many excellent teachers, affectionately known to her students as “Dr. I.” Her greatest pleasure comes from helping students grasp difficult concepts. She relishes the moment when she can see “the light go on” in their eyes, or when she plays a part in helping them do something they didn’t think they could do: for Ramee, “there is nothing greater than that.” In 2006, her General Chemistry courses were identified as examples of best practices in a national study of chemistry courses conducted by the Center for Educational Policy Research (CEPR) on behalf of the College Board. Students are at the heart of her scholarship as well as her teaching: she regularly makes teaching the focus of her scholarship, studying the effectiveness of lab experiences on student learning. Two of the new lab experiments that she developed and incorporated in her Analytical Chemistry curriculum have been recently accepted for publication. She also has a scholarly interest, as a chemist, in the characteristic aroma compounds in herbs and spices. The results of one such project, “The Volatile Compounds in Curry Leaves,” was presented by a student researcher at the American Chemical Society’s National Meeting at New Orleans in April.
Finally, the generosity of spirit—the willingness to use her own talents in the service of others—that marks so much of Ramee’s work is equally evident outside the classroom. She chaired the Department of Chemistry for five years, and helped manage the transition to the new unit curriculum. She has served as the university’s gender equity advisor, and takes a special interest in how gender issues impact staff. She recognizes that, compared to faculty, it can be more difficult for them to speak up or to advocate for change. She is, as well, the only woman to have held a faculty position in Stetson’s Department of Chemistry. She is active, too, in the Orlando section of the American Chemical Society, where she serves as chair of the Public Relations Committee and editor of the Newsletter. Because so many people, including former academics, retire in Florida, Ramee introduced a new feature column, “A Chemist Remembers,” which gives retired chemists the opportunity to share stories of significant accomplishments or moments in their careers or departments. It has become one of the Newsletter’s most popular columns. Finally, in addition to everything else, Ramee finds the time and energy to volunteer at a local hospice, where she helps prepare meals on weekends.
To be so genuinely and generously focused on the needs of others, as Ramee clearly is, makes her anything but ordinary.
Karen Kaivola, Ph.D.
Associate Provost for Faculty Development/English Professor