How embracing his strengths helped Samuel Ramsey, aka Dr. Sammy, fight to save the honeybee, and to exemplify the fact that diversity is the most successful survival tactic in the insect world
Honeybees around the world may owe their future survival to Samuel Ramsey emphatically embracing all sides of himself: from his skin color and whom he loves, to his beliefs and background.
Ironically, it’s his fellow humans who almost stopped him from beelining to a groundbreaking scientific discovery, simply because they lacked the imagination to see him—a self-proclaimed “bundle of diversity”—as a successful scientist.
“They just looked at me like I was a problem,” says Ramsey, describing the moment in graduate school when a handful of academic leaders tried to shut down his career. Because he didn’t have the right background, the right resources or wasn’t statistically likely to succeed because of his race, he adds, several of the very people who were supposed to support him in achieving his doctoral degree in entomology were instead doing their best to make sure he never got one.
Luckily, Ramsey’s story has a sweet ending: He is now Marvin H. Caruthers Endowed Chair for Early Career Faculty at the BioFrontiers Institute and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at CU Boulder, a National Geographic Explorer and founder and director of the Ramsey Research Foundation, which funds international initiatives and open access research to understand biological threats to honey bees and other pollinators around the world.
Ramsey tells this personal and professional story, among many others, on the latest episode of PBS Nature podcast Going Wild with Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant. The third season examines how diverse explorers of the living world found their way into their respective careers, the challenges they’ve faced—both societal and scientific—and the people who have championed them along the way. It’s a very human look at several of the world’s top animal experts.
“I am the confluence of a bunch of qualities that people would likely consider to be disparate,” says Ramsey onGoing Wild. “I am a queer person and proudly a person of faith. I am a scientist, and in addition to that I am an African American. I am someone who is just a social butterfly. I love being around people—and oftentimes, people don't think of all of these qualities in this context, as an academic.”
Ramsey shared more with Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine about the experiences he discusses on the new podcast episode.
On being Black in science and academics
On average, Ramsey notes, only one Black person gets a doctorate degree in entomology each year in the United States. That statistic is “staggering to consider,” he says.
Although almost every university in the country now has diversity initiatives, “we are still not near where we need to be,” he says. In the same way that animals often come into an ecosystem and alter it to make it favorable for their species, diverse students cannot be accepted into homogeneous school cultures and then simply be expected to succeed.
“We need to make an environment where diversity can thrive,” says Ramsey.
On being religious and a scientist
Being religious, especially Christian, may not make Ramsey a minority in the United States, but it does within academics and the sciences. Politics and society often pit being a person of faith against being someone who practices or understands science.
But where the world sees conflict, Ramsey sees opportunity. “I don't think that the two need to fight each other,” he says.
“Being a person of faith at the same time [as a scientist] is a constant reminder to me that nothing, no matter how incredible it is, nothing and no one has all the answers,” says Ramsey. “Something that is important to how I do science is that ability to recognize that so many other things can contribute to how we understand the world.”
On the diversity of life and love
Growing up in a family in which both of his parents were pastors strongly influenced his faith. But as a young person, that influence was a threat to another of his identities: being gay. It was only in college that he was able to come out to his friends and, finally, his family.
While they were initially hostile to his news, studying ecology had given Ramsey the perfect analogy to help his family understand and, eventually, love this part of him. His being gay was “one aspect of the diversity that God has built into this world,” he says on Going Wild.
“There's not just one form of tree, or one form of bug, or one form of mammal. The way that God even exists in scripture, God exists in diversity as a triune of individuals: as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So, if the Bible says that God inherently is love, why would we expect that love would be the one thing for which there is no diversity?”
On being not just one, but all of these things and more
Implicit bias, notes Ramsey, is one of the most difficult challenges to face as a diverse scientist. People often aren’t used to seeing a scientist with “wild and fluffy” hair, or someone so young, or someone openly gay, he says. And so subconsciously, many peers and colleagues, or even the public, may struggle to take him seriously or respect him as an accomplished scientist.
Yet he knows the strengths that come with his diversity: “Being different led me to approach this problem differently,” he says of making the groundbreaking discovery that Varroa destructor mites prey on honeybees’ body tissue and not their blood.
“The most successful group of animals on this planet is the way that it is because they've diversified in so many directions,” adds Ramsey on Going Wild. He continues to show up proudly as his most genuine self in science and society each day to make it clear that “that there is no one way for scientists to look or sound.”
On sharing his story
These days, Ramsey isn’t just an academic; he’s also a science communicator. In graduate school, he created songs and videos about various bugs—one of which is featured in the podcast—and is the host of Crash Course Biology on YouTube. As approachable and enthusiastic “Dr. Sammy,” he regularly speaks with all manner of radio, TV and podcast hosts about the realm of biology and his work.
“If the pandemic taught us anything, it taught us that we as scientists have to be engaged with the general public,” says Ramsey.
However, it wasn’t love at first sight with bugs: He was initially terrified of them. He was the only kid who didn't want to go outside at recess, because that’s where all the bugs were. It was only when his parents brought him to the library to learn about bugs that Ramsey began to identify with them, and his curiosity finally outweighed his fear.
It’s this personal transformation from being scared of spiders to hunting down elusive honeybees that still inspires him every day to share himself and his work with the world.
“There are little kids out there that have no idea what an entomologist is, they've never seen one before,” says Ramsey. “You can't be what you can't see, and I'm allowing them to see something different.”
Listen to Going Wild here, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Episode: Is This the Bug to End All Bees?(And What You Can Do About It) | Going Wild with Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant | Podcast | Nature (pbs.org)