Biologists Follow the Path Less Traveled
Doug McInnis '70
College science graduates--a
group which includes three
Nobel laureates--have among them the rich and famous.
Particularly in the biological sciences,
graduates of earlier years tended to become doctors, college
professors, or industry researchers. That's still true.
But many biologists have left the well-traveled path.
include a genetic counselor,
an assistant coroner, a nurse-midwife, a horse breeder,
an herbal educator/spiritual counselor, an acupuncturist,
a lead poisoning prevention coordinator, and a
of Chinese medicine. It seems there's a lot you can do
a biology degree.
those who choose the beaten path, the options are far
more complicated than a few decades ago. Geneticists already
have transformed our food supply and may soon do the same
with our bodies. Computer science is turning to DNA as
a potential replacement for silicon to power future generations
of computers. Biologists are trying learn how herbal remedies,
which pack the shelves of health-food stores, react with
prescription medicines. Astrobiology, the science of alien
life forms, is on the front burner at NASA. And researchers
are trying to untangle the intricate relationship between
our minds, our bodies, and our health. Society also needs
biologists to help fill the demand for administrators,
civil servants, and lawyers. They will regulate these
emerging fields and mediate the disputes that arise as
we tackle the sticky legal and ethical wickets of cloning,
research, organ replacement, and instances of 21st-century
technology gone awry.
English, biology is the most popular major at Oberlin.
And the likelihood is that there will be work for all
of these graduates, says Roger Laushman, professor of
biology and a specialist in plant population genetics.
"We really are now in what can be called the age of biology,"
he said. "Now we can do the kinds of things in biology
that before we could only dream of."
we offer a glimpse into the diverse lives of three biology
graduates whose careers--or the paths leading to them--are,
if nothing else, unconventional. Two of the three were born
into science. Kristin Williams '83, the daughter of an industrial
chemist, paints birds for a living. Mike Heithaus '95, the
son of two Kenyon College biology professors, handles half-ton
tiger sharks in his research off the Australian coast. The
third, Said Ibrahim '87, followed a less traditional route
into the sciences but opted for a more traditional career--he
is a doctor in Cleveland. The son of a police officer, Ibrahim
traces his interest in medicine to his youth in Somalia
as he watched World Health Organization doctors treat his
family. "I was fascinated by their power and the respect
they received from the community," he recalls. "I dreamed
of becoming a doctor."
most students, the way into Oberlin College begins with
an application. In Said Ibrahim's case, it began with
a bribe. The money greased his way out of Somalia, bought
a black-market passport, and paid airport security to
look the other way while he slipped aboard a flight from
the East African nation. Repressive Somalia frowned on
emigration, especially when the would-be emigrant was
a member of the national basketball team.
is a well-known name for most applicants. Ibrahim, on
the other hand, had never heard of the small Ohio college.
He came to the Midwest in 1984 to play Division I basketball
at Cleveland State University and to get an American education.
The day after his arrival, his plans turned to dust. After
a disappointing tryout, Cleveland State's coach revoked
Ibrahim's scholarship offer and instead presented him
with a one-way
ticket back to the country he had just escaped. Devastated,
Ibrahim refused. He left campus and found himself in the
ranks of Cleveland's homeless, wandering down Euclid Avenue
with $30 in his pocket. "I learned very quickly that $30
doesn't go very far in America," he recalls. "I had lunch,
which took about $12."
then on he survived on his wits and the kindness of strangers.
"I didn't know anybody in Cleveland," he says. "I didn't
know anybody in the United States." Knowing that he probably
faced a jail cell if he returned to Somalia, Ibrahim looked
for help, turning first to the immigration office, then
to legal aid, where he met an African-born lawyer named
Mohamed Chambas. The lawyer agreed to put him up while
Ibrahim sorted out his life. Beyond food and board, Chambas
also suggested Ibrahim look into Oberlin, where Chambas
doubled as a government instructor.
applied to the college, the first applicant ever from
Somalia, but was rejected, with a suggestion that he first
prove himself academically at a community college. Ibrahim
agreed. There was a problem, however. His student visa
barred him from working anywhere but the college he was
attending, and he had no money for tuition.
turned to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, hoping a news story
on his dealings with Cleveland State would shame the university
into helping him. The story landed on the front page.
Cleveland State ignored him, but two strangers, a couple
who had just returned from teaching at the National University
of Somalia, read the article and paid Ibrahim's tuition
at Cuyahoga Community College.
penniless, Ibrahim needed a place to live. A Cleveland
dentist heard of his plight and offered him a room in
an old Euclid Avenue mansion that he kept for parties
and professional gatherings. Again, there was a snag.
The mansion was heated only to about 50 degrees, high
enough to keep pipes from freezing but frigid by Somalian
no money to turn up the heat, Ibrahim avoided the mansion,
using it only as a place to sleep. Instead, he holed
up in the East Cleveland Library or rode Cleveland's
Rapid Transit back and forth between East Cleveland
and the airport. Both offered a place to study for the
straight-A student, and they had heat. His meals consisted
of spaghetti, spaghetti, and more spaghetti, a diet
punctuated by leftovers from the dentist's weekend parties.
It was slim pickings by American standards, but he wasn't
homeless, and it beat a Somali jail cell.
a year, Oberlin came through with a full academic scholarship
and a place on its basketball team for the six-foot,
eight-inch center. During basketball season, Ibrahim
crawled from his dormitory bed at 4:30 a.m. to his job
washing dishes at Dascomb's cafeteria. From 8:30 a.m.
to 4:30 p.m. he was in class. From 4:30 to 7 p.m., it
was basketball, then on to the library, where he studied
until 1 a.m. "Except for the weekend, that was my life
at Oberlin," he says. He couldn't have been happier.
endless hours of work won Ibrahim admission to Case
Western Reserve University's medical school, where he
was the first Somali to graduate. He married Oberlin
classmate Lee Erickson '86, a family practice physician,
and today has two young children. His time is split
between Cleveland's Veteran's Administration Medical
Center, where he practices internal medicine, and his
teaching position at CWRU's medical school.
life still takes place within a few miles of the stretch
of Euclid Avenue he once walked with $30 in his pocket
and nowhere to live. But he is now an American citizen,
no longer homeless, and will most likely never again
worry about his next meal.
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