Considering his numerous accolades in the field of neuroscience, Davidson College professor Julio Ramirez could isolate himself from students and focus solely on research.
And yet every year, several students work directly with Ramirez on meaningful research projects, including trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease.
Ramirez's philosophy, which he calls "terching," combines teaching and research.
"I'm helping these students come to their own conclusions," he said. "To see in their eyes this beam of light, this expression that they get it and they've come to a solution - it helps them feel empowered. That's incredibly rewarding."
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President Barack Obama recently named Ramirez as a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
The annual award recognizes teachers and institutions that enhance the participation in those subjects of underrepresented groups: minorities, people with disabilities and women.
Only 10 other mentors earned the honor this year.
Recipients recently visited the White House, where they met with Obama. Ramirez said the president and he share similar views on the future of education.
"We're going to have to have an incredibly well-educated citizenry if we're going to compete on a world level," said Ramirez. "Our competitors in India, China and Germany will pounce on our failures to educate our children properly."
The 55-year-old Davidson professor said science hasn't always been on the back burner in U.S. schools. Growing up in Bridgeport, Conn., Ramirez saw a considerable emphasis on science and math. He attributed that to John F. Kennedy's emphasis on the U.S. space program.
"That was the beginning of my love affair with science," said Ramirez, who added that he often found inspiration reading about such science greats as Marie Curie. "The mystery, the grandeur, the awe of discoveries - I loved it all."
But over time, and especially in light of the recent economic downturn, schools across the nation have taken the focus off of science and math.
Ramirez cited a recent report from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. According to 2009 data, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 25th in the world in mathematics and 17th in science.
Ramirez said it is imperative that the United States not ease up on innovation and research and that education not continuously be put on the chopping block during budget discussions. Otherwise, he said, the United States is at risk of falling so far behind that it will never again regain its status as a world leader.
Since Ramirez joined the Davidson faculty in 1986, he has worked with more than 100 students on research projects on the recovery of memory function following brain injury.
With his colleagues, Ramirez founded many organizations locally and nationally that support undergraduate research, including the Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, the psychology division of the Council on Undergraduate Research and two national mentoring programs, SOMAS and SOMAS-URM, the latter of which focuses on underrepresented groups in the neurosciences.
"I sit in on his classes from time to time, and he's always engaging students. He keeps them riveted," said Ed Palmer, chair of Davidson's psychology department. "He's had a distinguished career here with many of the students he worked with in the lab going on to become doctors and professors."
One of Ramirez's former students, Mercedes Robinson, plans to apply to medical school this summer. The Class of '09 graduate said Ramirez gave her invaluable hands-on research experience as an undergraduate, which she believes will help get her into a graduate program.
"He's always thinking ahead, and of what's best for his students," she said. "The way he values his research and what he does makes you passionate about doing research and being in the clinical field."