Tell us about your current career position.
I am a professor of biochemistry and a Steenbock professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I also serve as chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences here at UW-Madison.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
During high school in Uganda, I took Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. In those days, such a combination would lead to either medical school, veterinary school, or basic science with no other options. I was offered a scholarship by the Ugandan government to study medicine abroad. Due to a breakdown in communications, I was unable to receive the scholarship from the government and my scholarship was awarded to the next student in line. As a result, I decided to stay at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda to pursue science. After completing my B.S. degree in Biochemistry and Chemistry, I was appointed a special assistant in the Biochemistry department while I worked towards a master’s of Science in Microbial Biochemistry. Upon completing my master’s degree, I was appointed lecturer in the Biochemistry department. Within the first two years as lecturer, I was selected to receive a Fulbright fellowship to study for a Ph.D. in Biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. The training I received at Makerere University Uganda and Johns Hopkins University Medical School is what ultimately prepared me for my position today. The decision I made to accept the faculty position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1992 was an accumulation of many years of work and toil which proved to be more than worth it.
How did you first become interested in science?
I was first intrigued by science when I was eight. I enjoyed science more than my other courses. My attention was caught by the engaging ideas of living organisms and respiration, locomotion, reproduction, and the concept that all livings organisms were made up of units called cells. I began to wonder how all of these concepts were interrelated to create the human body.
Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path? If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?
There will always be difficulties with experiments and one will run into barriers that cause one to take a couple of steps backwards. That is what science is all about. When I was an assistant professor at Georgetown University, I struggled to find funding for my research program. I believed that there was no way I could continue with my research. It was at the point where I began considering joining industry and abandoning teaching due to lost confidence. The anxieties I had about getting tenure at UW-Madison was another experience that tested me. The process was strenuous and demanding, but once I was tenured, all the exertion was worth it.
What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds that want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
On average, around 10% of the experiments a researcher performs will have a perfect outcome. That is a small number in comparison to how many experiments one will do in their lifetime. Science is the process of trial and error, and there will be significantly more errors than anything else. In science, every day is a new day. Each day there is a new obstacle and in the process of overcoming that obstacle, you gain the strength to continue. In spite of the many failures one will run into, my advice would be to keep trying and never give up. You have to persevere and be patient.
What are your hobbies?
I love spending time with my family, walking, and traveling. I have six children and each of them has influenced my life in their own, unique way. My wife has been an inspiration to me, as well as the fact that she has supported me from day one. I like traveling because I can relate with people from diverse backgrounds while learning about their heritage and culture. It helps me have an increasingly worldly outlook on our society. The best part about science is that it ties all the things that I love together into one cohesive concept.
What was the last book you read?
It was Fitness Measures and Health Outcomes in Youth, published by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the US National Academy of Sciences. It discusses the challenges in identifying fitness tests related to health in youth and recently spurred interest in fitness as one of the key indicators of health. This connects with my interest in obesity research.
Do you have any heroes, heroines, or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
My parents were tremendous role models. They were farmers who worked hard to provide a better life for their children. Without their advice, direction, and guidance, I do not know what kind of person I would be today. Others inspirations have been my teachers at all levels of school. Whenever I felt as though my research path was turning into a downward slopping hill, they noticed and gave me the proper encouragement. They instilled the confidence I needed to maintain, sustain, and persevere in my goals.
What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
My passion for science has always kept me in this field. It is an ever-extending world of knowledge where there is no such thing as knowing everything. I admire the fact that even at my age, I am still learning and my interpretations of the world only get stronger through the intelligence I have gained through science. I continue working hard in science because of my family and the young people I teach and train in research. Just as my parents were there for me, I want to be a role model for my children and students. My children and my students are the strongest reflection of who I am. I would want nothing but the best for them.
James Ntambi is the winner of the 2012 ASBMB Award for Exemplary Contributions to Education.
To learn more about James Ntambi and his research, go to: https://www.biochem.wisc.edu/faculty/ntambi/