Ritankar Das, the top graduating senior at the University of California, Berkeley, is the recipient of the prestigious University Medal. The University Medal is awarded to an outstanding graduating student with a minimum GPA of 3.96. With a phenomenal grade-point average of 3.99, 18-year-old Das is the youngest to receive the medal in at least a century. He double majored in chemical biology and bioengineering and minored in creative writing. His other top honors include the Departmental Citation in Chemistry and induction into the ASBMB Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Honor Society. Ritankar is an exemplary student, excelling in academics, community service and poetry. His future plans include a master’s degree from Oxford University and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In this interview with ASBMB Today, Das emphasizes the importance of seizing every opportunity that comes your way and having the willingness to learn and expand your horizons intellectually, scientifically and artistically.
A GPA of 3.99 is a remarkable achievement. You were the recipient of a chemistry departmental citation followed by the prestigious University Medal, which carries a purse of $2,500. What were the contributing factors to your success?
I think the most important people have been kind and dedicated parents and educators like teachers and professors, as well as other mentors who have helped and guided me along my academic, scientific, artistic and professional journey. They are definitely the folks responsible. I believe the only reason any of this happened was because of the early help that they provided.
What role did UC Berkeley play in honing your research interests and professional trajectory?
Berkeley is an amazing place. It is a place where you are taught to think across disciplines and across boundaries. One of the main things I learned while I was here was unifying science and the arts. They are both extremely important in solving challenges of the future. Technical knowledge will need to be augmented with creative thinking, and the most promising solutions often lie at the interface. And the best way to learn about science and the humanities is to find common patterns and themes between these seemingly disparate subjects and use these themes to reinforce concepts and theories learned from either perspective. Berkeley is extremely good at that; you could be talking about enzyme catalysis and connect it to poetry, and these kinds of connections make everything come alive.
What was the best experience of studying at Berkeley? Did you have any favorite research interests or a favorite research project?
I wouldn’t say any one of them was specifically my favorite. They were all very educational, often in very different ways. You learn different things from different folks. Prior to Berkeley, I worked at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and my very first lab was my kitchen. During my undergraduate years, I worked at the U.S. Department of Energy, the Energy and Biosciences Institute, on campus. Additionally, I was in Taiwan last summer working at Academia Sinica. All these different experiences in the U.S. and abroad in fields as diverse as government and academia helped me learn how the same problem is approached in different ways. It was very important that I got diverse experiences and learned about scientific methods and strategies to solve problems culminating in a full breadth of knowledge.
What is your dream research project?
I don’t have a specific dream research project. I have a dream of how things ought to look, of what things can happen. I like to be flexible about how I get to the end goal. You have to change and be willing to adapt. I have been very interested in alternative energy as early as high school. In a high-school biology class, I began wondering how the current worldwide energy crisis effectively could be solved if humans were able to extract energy from the sun as efficiently as plants do. This curiosity led me to create a device that worked on the principle of plant biology to harvest solar energy. This was done after extensive research from textbooks and the Internet and fruitful mentor discussions. I began using a blender and other kitchen instruments to perform experiments. My interest in artificial photosynthesis resulted in me applying classroom knowledge to solve real-world challenges. I see an experiment as a means to an end and not necessarily a goal in itself.
You have been involved in numerous community-outreach events and are the founder of See Your Future. What was the source of inspiration behind this?
One of the other things about which I am passionate, besides scientific research, is scientific education and educational access in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. See Your Future is a student-run nonprofit that presents science content to middle- and high-school students through in-class demonstrations, videos, interactive activities and games. The goal is to inspire students with limited resources to pursue careers in science, technology and engineering, and this is a very important societal need. We are really student-centered in the way we approach education.
Let me give you an example: We know that science, technology, engineering and mathematics already play a very important role in young people’s lives. Young people have inherent access to a lot of concepts like cell phones, laptops, television, et cetera. As a part of the science class, they are first introduced to a certain law or equation, and they don’t see its connection in a real-world scenario. We try to take the backward approach in teaching science: We start with the child’s inherent curiosity and then introduce the fundamentals. One of the basic questions that kids ask is “Why is the sky blue?” It seems like a straightforward answer, but that isn’t the case. You begin with the fundamental idea of color and then extrapolate it to how the eye detects it and build on it sequentially. Thus we harness the existing curiosity in young minds and build upon it, as opposed to manufacturing curiosity by first talking about diffraction.
One of our current campaigns is the question-answer campaign, where students ask questions on something they experience in their day-to-day life and we answer them in the video format. Some examples are “How does music come out of the radio?” and “How does the scientist predict whether it will be a sunny or a rainy day?”
The answers are quite complicated, and we try to use the visuals in answering them, and that goes back to the whole idea of connecting the humanities and the sciences. Fundamentally, I want to look back and see that I was instrumental in making a big difference in people’s lives as a good public servant and give back a lot to the community that made a lot of this possible.
Moving away from academics and work, what are your hobbies?
I love poetry. Here at Berkeley, I have been involved in the Poetry for People program, which is housed in the department of African-American studies. It’s an outreach for an underrepresented community in addition to being a program. We organize poetry slams in local community colleges and high schools. I had a chance to publish my poetic works and judge the Bay Area Youth Poet Laureate Competition. It’s a really good way to reach out to the community. An apt metaphor to use here is the Sather Gate. It’s a main gate that leads to the Berkeley campus on the south side. This gate is very interesting, as it is an open arch and is devoid of doors. It is the best metaphor for the Poetry for People program, as it is in Berkeley but is out for the entire community without any boundaries.
What’s your advice to the youngsters in terms of pursuing their goals?
I would like to answer this by reading out a part of my recent commencement speech: “As actor Andy Samberg once said, ‘I am as honored to be here today as I am unqualified.’ I am just one of the 6,000 graduates who will go on to win Nobel prizes, pen world-changing stories and create industries.”
It’s extremely humbling to be a part of the group like that and an immense responsibility to try and represent a class as diverse, articulate and accomplished as that of my fellow graduates at Berkeley. For this reason, it’s very difficult for me to advise someone. In my brief lifetime, I have yet to experience much. One of the quotes that is very inspirational to me is by Arnold Schwarzenegger: “Never listen to the naysayers when they say it can’t be done.”
I would like to sum it up with the words of Steve Wozniak: “If you love what you do and are willing to do what it really takes, and if it is within your reach, it will be worth every penny!”
Kamalika Saha (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a graduate student in the biochemistry and molecular biology department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.