After coming to London as a refugee, Rama studied in the UK and the US, and is now setting up his own research group.
Rama is of Tamil origin and spent his early childhood in Sri Lanka. His family moved to the UK as refugees in the 1990s and he grew up in East London. In search of the best education, Rama’s family moved house many times so that he could take the 11+ exam and go to a grammar school for free.
“Growing up we didn’t have much, but my parents always protected my sister and I from feeling economically underprivileged.”
With his parent’s encouragement, Rama went to Ilford County High school, where a fascination with the periodic table sparked his passion for chemistry. Rama continued his studies in chemistry at Imperial College London and developed an interest in metal reactivity and the roles of metal ions in biology.
“The biggest challenge at university was adapting to the new environment. Since arriving in the UK as a child, I had hardly been outside of East London. Although Imperial was relatively close, an hour commute, it was a completely different environment and culture to what I was used to. It took me a long time to adapt.”
"My experience changed everything"
At the end of his third year undergraduate studies, Rama took the opportunity to work in Professor Michael Hill's lab during a summer placement, where he investigated Group two molecular catalysis. Not only did his experience lead to two publications but it encouraged him to undertake further research.
“I was very happy with this achievement and by being exposed to chemical excellence at a very early stage, my future goals were set very high. Before joining the lab in the summer, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do a PhD, but this experience changed everything.”
After his undergraduate studies, Rama went on to study for his PhD, exploring the interaction of metal complexes with quadruplex DNA under the guidance of Professor Ramon Vilar. During this time, he published in several high-impact journals, presented his research at the Dalton Transactions Younger Researchers Symposium and co-authored three book chapters.
Rama’s biggest challenge in his career was when he moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, where he joined Professor Stephen Lippard’s group to carry out postdoctoral studies.
“It was hard not to be intimidated by joining arguably the best bioinorganic research group in the world, full of future chemistry leaders. It was a huge step up for me and I didn’t know if I could make the cut! In the end, I think it is now safe to say, I did okay!”
Rama is currently an academic at King’s College London, where he is in the process of setting up his own research group, and delivers inorganic lectures to undergraduate students. His research aims to use the structural, optical, redox, magnetic, and catalytic diversity offered by metal-containing small molecules to design and develop new generations of metallo-pharmaceuticals, for the treatment of cancer and other diseases.
“It’s wonderful to have the responsibility of my own research group and gives me an opportunity to contribute to chemistry and give something back.”
"You can do anything you set your mind to"
Rama sees that there are very few role models for aspiring scientists from underrepresented groups, but there have been significant improvements to include more underrepresented groups within science. At his own institution, King’s College London, they are aiming to promote excellence through race equality by participating in the Race Equality Charter Mark. “I think we can take active steps to address race equality and help underrepresented groups achieve their full potential,” he says.
With chemistry allowing us to see the world in a completely different perspective, Rama explains that the applications of chemistry are so diverse. As a strong believer in hard work and persistence, Rama advises others to set their goals high.
“If you truly set your mind to something, you can achieve it, whatever barriers you may face – so keep going, there are no limits!”
Words by Jenny Lovell
Images courtesy of Fang Wang
Published April 2015