Report – By Mabel Muller
A young American Samoan is showing that success in higher education is possible, despite Polynesia’s lack of educational resources.
Andrew Pati Ah Young, 27, has just been awarded doctor of philosophy in biological chemistry from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Having spent all of his high school years in the small island of American Samoa, Ah Young was inspired to pursue science by the influence of one passionate teacher, Dr Joserose Jyothibhavan.
“This journey into science developed when I was in high school and I met a very inspirational teacher from India, who moved to Samoa and taught science.”
Ah Young says studying science in Samoa was difficult as educational institutions “didn’t have some of the resources or top-notch technology to train students”.
The lack of facilities and expertise in American Samoa is a shame because there is huge potential, says Dr Jyothibhavan.
“It’s an island. If you want to get some chemicals or supplies, we won’t get it. Papers online, we have to pay for and we don’t have funding and we don’t have any libraries to access that freely.”
With the support of Dr Jyothibhavan, a determined Ah Young participated in a handful of international science competitions.
The recognition from these competitions helped boost Ah Young’s reputation and he received a full-tuition scholarship in the United States.
“This was a once in a lifetime opportunity so I took that.”
Moving to California at the age of 17, Ah Young says the most challenging thing was not having his family with him.
“The first six months were the hardest. I was homesick all the time and I didn’t know anyone. I was on the phone with my family every single day.”
Ten years later, with a PhD in his hand and a published research article, Ah Young says he’s finally seeing the fruit of his academic labour.
Dr Pascal Egea, Ah Young’s thesis advisor, says that being published is essentially what all scientists aim to achieve.
“The most important thing for us scientists is to publish papers. That’s the metrics of accomplishment in academics.”
Ah Young is now looking forward to working for pharmaceutical company, Genentech, as a paid researcher and will then try to establish himself as an independent scientist.
His mother, Luisa Ah Young, in tears of joy, could not contain how proud she was of Ah Young’s achievement, especially without any family-financial support.
“We as parents, haven’t spent any money, not even a penny, on the functions he’s attended.
“I praise God for everything. I’m over-excited for what Andrew has done for us, for him.”
Dr Jyothibhavan now uses Ah Young’s success to motivate his current students.
“Students in Samoa need motivation.
“Somebody always has to be there to push them and show them this is a world where we can achieve excellence, like Andrew. So I take that to streamline their focus.”
Mabel Muller is of Tongan descent and is in her final year of a Bachelor of Communication Studies with a major in journalism at AUT University.