If it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, the adage certainly describes Samuel Ramsey’s path to pest management. Ramsey turned his childhood entomophobia into a passion for insects, and that into a degree from Cornell University and a position as staff entomologist at American Pest, Fulton, Md.
“As a kid I was terrified of insects, but my parents didn’t want any of their children to have irrational fears,” says Ramsey. “So my mom had me go to the library and check out a bunch of entomology books. Once I started reading about insects, I fell in love with them. Insects went from the focus of my macabre fears to the creatures that I’m the most passionate about.”
Ramsey’s early-found love for insects combined with hard work and determination fueled his lifelong educational aspirations and his career path. “At seven, I told everyone who would listen that I was going to be an entomologist,” Ramsey says. And he’s never looked back.
Great Mentors. Education was highly valued in the Ramsey household. Both of Ramsey’s parents were avid readers and instilled a love of reading and learning in their children. Though initially skeptical about his growing fascination with insects, Ramsey’s parents supported his interest. “My parents thought it was pretty weird at first, but after they saw I was serious about it, they started to nurture it,” Ramsey says. “My mom loved the idea that I wanted to be a scientist.”
In elementary school in Prince George’s County, Md., Ramsey attended classes for gifted students. It was there he met Kathy Hackett, a teacher whose husband happened to be an entomologist. “She told me she had never met an African American entomologist before,” Ramsey says.
After recognizing Ramsey’s interests and his academic abilities, Hackett and her husband took him under their wings, fostering his ambition. “They became my second parents,” says Ramsey. “They would always bring something back for me when they attended the annual Entomological Society of America convention.” A convention that Ramsey hoped to one day attend.
In high school, Ramsey left his mark. Despite distractions at what he describes as a “kind of a dangerous school,” Ramsey achieved the highest grade point average at the school, and maintained it for three years. He went on to receive academic awards on both the local and state level for his work. Outside the classroom, Ramsey was an active volunteer and accumulated nearly 4,000 hours as a student tutor and also served as a youth minister.
During high school summers, Ramsey interned in Dr. Galen Dively’s entomology lab at the University of Maryland and later was accepted in the Cornell University Summer College. At Cornell, Ramsey worked with Dr. John Losey and became involved in the Lost Ladybug Project, a nationwide project to track the distribution of ladybugs throughout the United States.
Ramsey planned to attend the University of Maryland after high school graduation, but the undergraduate entomology program was eliminated before he could apply. A friend suggested he consider Cornell. “I applied to the school knowing that I didn’t have the funds to attend,” he says.
With tuition, room and board totaling about $48,000 per year, Ramsey knew he would have to earn more than $200,000 in scholarships and pay to get through Cornell — a daunting task. But once he was accepted, Ramsey forged ahead. “I applied for every scholarship under the sun,” he says.
Ultimately, Ramsey earned dozens of scholarships, including the prestigious Horatio Alger National Scholar Award, given to students who have shown integrity and determination to overcome adversity, and the academic potential and aspiration to make a contribution to society. Ramsey fit the requirements and was one of about 100 students to receive the honor in 2007. More than 40,000 students applied for the scholarship in 2011.
It was the Horatio Alger Award that Ramsey spoke about with Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and acting member of the Horatio Alger Association, when the two met at an event that year. Justice Thomas was so impressed with Ramsey that he gave him his phone number and told him to call if he ever needed anything.
As it turned out, Ramsey did need something later that year and looked to Justice Thomas for help. Ramsey was selected to represent the U.S. in the field of life sciences at the London International Youth Science Forum in London, England. But Ramsey didn’t have a passport, or the six-to-eight weeks it normally takes to get one. With the trip around the corner, he called Justice Thomas out of desperation.
“I called his chambers and left a message,” Ramsey said, recalling his mother’s reaction answering the phone when the call was returned. “She placed her hand over the receiver and basically shouted in a gruff whisper, ‘Sammy, there’s a Supreme Court Justice on the phone for you.’”
Justice Thomas called back within an hour, and made an appointment for Ramsey to secure his passport the next day. Ramsey made the trip to London and his presentation was a success.
A bright future. Once enrolled at Cornell, Ramsey worked tirelessly to pay for his schooling and maintain an outstanding academic record. He continued to work in the entomology lab, where he focused on the predatory nature of ladybugs and the insect’s propensity to feed on mammalian blood. In 2010, he presented his research findings at the annual Entomological Society of America conference and won the president’s award for outstanding undergraduate research. Not only had Ramsey finally made it to the industry event he had looked forward to as a young student, but once there, earned accolades from his new peers. Ramsey’s research on “vampire” ladybugs is currently in the process of being published.
During summers, Ramsey interned in the clerk’s office of the Supreme Court. There he performed a range of duties which included regaling Justice Thomas and his staff with insect-related anecdotes.
While continuing his academic work, Ramsey taught lessons in entomology at local schools, participated in campus leadership teams, and organized a weekly “science versus religion” discussion on campus. A born entertainer with an exceptional singing voice, Ramsey has auditioned for “Glee Project” and “X-Factor” and was a finalist in the “American Idol Experience” at Walt Disney World, where he came in second to Shannon Magrane, who appeared in season 11 of “American Idol.”
For now, Ramsey is focused on applying his knowledge and enthusiasm to his role at American Pest. In August, Ramsey began classes for a doctorate in entomology at the University of Maryland.
Though just beginning his career in pest management, Ramsey has already proven his knack for seizing opportunities and creating others through hard work and perseverance. And according to another of Ramsey’s mentors, he is just getting started. “Just from his demeanor, you can tell Samuel is going to be a superstar,” says Cleveland Dixon, president of Holiday Termite & Pest Control in Springfield, Va. “He’s extremely humble, but very talented. He’s going to be an important contributor to the industry.”
The author is a Milwaukee, Wis.-based freelance writer. She can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.