A fraught, but formative education

Publication Date

The time he spent at Union was formative for Ranya Alexander ’64, but not in the way most people today think of college being formative.

In September 1960, "Union was an all-male, nearly all-white ‘little ivy league’ juggernaut in engineering and medical school preparation," Alexander recalled.

The College’s prowess for training future doctors was good for the pre-med major – who is now a successful physician and biotech innovator – but its demographics presented some difficult challenges.

Dr. Ranya Alexander '64

"Before school started, my roommate, who happened to be Jewish, informed me that he was asked by an administrator if he ‘minded rooming with a Negro,’" Alexander said. "I was the only resident Black freshman in West College in 1960. I had only one fistfight and lost the run for class president by 8 votes."

Despite a narrow election loss among his peers, some faculty were less supportive.

"My distinguished biology professor, complete with an Oxford/Cambridge accent, included in his lecture the ‘fact’ that Negroes have a much higher pain tolerance threshold and can hence take more discomfort," Alexander said. "He ventured no opinion on emotional pain."

"In addition," Alexander added, "my mother’s Parents Weekend visit to campus was followed by more than one professor commenting to me on ‘how well she spoke English.’"

It didn’t end there. Early in his first year, another faculty member recited lyrics from a 1920’s song during chemistry class.

"My chemistry professor elaborated on silicon by animating and describing this element, as ‘you know, what the darkies beat their feet on… Mississippi mud,’" Alexander remembered. "All eyes turned my way. I gathered my books and silently left the classroom."

"I did not return to that class and as there was no incomplete or withdrawal allowed, I received an F," he added. "That F, plus, I am sure, the Premed Committee’s infamous senior year endorsement letters, kept me out of medical school for years."

For six years, to be precise – even though the National Medical Fellowship organization had awarded him a full scholarship to any medical school to which he gained admission.

"With my applications, I included the NMF letter and an explanation of my first-year chemistry grade, but to no avail," Alexander said. "Over two dozen medical schools rejected me. Howard and Meharry, the only predominately Black U.S. medical schools at the time, were excluded from being acceptable by the NMF."

While hard to bear, these experiences shaped him.

"My English professor had given me a C on an autobiographical essay, calling it ‘too fanciful to believe’ since it included accounts of dancing onstage with Josephine Baker, Paul Robson rehearsals at our apartment and knowing Malcolm X," Alexander recalled.

(His mother, Marilyn, a community organizer and supporter of the arts in Harlem, the Mecca of Black culture, also worked many years at NBC. As such, she knew many prominent figures of the day.)

"I left school, but my father ordered me back on the train, reminding me I had earned a full scholarship – pending grades – and that ‘an education is not promised or given, it is taken!’" Alexander continued. "At Union, I learned to work very hard. I was ultimately proud of my diligence."

Students should see that generational difference often leads to misunderstanding and cultural awkwardness, but this is usually not intentional malevolence. However, as my dad said, 'an education is not promised or given, it is taken."

He graduated in the middle of his class and went on to earn an M.D. and Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California, Davis. He also completed residencies at Yale University (pediatrics) and UCLA (emergency medicine), as well as neuroendocrinology fellowship training at the University of California, San Francisco.

A former assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA and Charles Drew Post Graduate Medical School, Alexander served as the San Diego medical director of Schaefer Ambulance Company, an associate director of Sharp Rees-Steely Medical Group, and San Diego regional director of Partners Urgent Care. He is a co-founder of the website Wellness.com.

And now, he is the founding chief operating officer of a small minority-owned biotech company in San Diego. Innovative California Biosciences International (ICBII) is dedicated to developing technologies that can cross the blood-brain barrier to potentially treat neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

"The blood-brain barrier is a physical barrier of cells lining blood vessels in the brains of all mammals," Alexander explained. "It protects the brain from chemicals, toxins, bacteria and viruses. Unfortunately, it also keeps out 98 percent of conventional drugs and virtually all antibodies."

"We believe neurodegenerative diseases and brain cancer have not been cured largely because no current drugs can get through the blood-brain barrier in effective enough quantities," he added. "But our SMART Molecule technology can get through."

SMART Molecules begin as small antibodies (1/10 the size of regular mammalian antibodies). They are modified chemically to attach to receptors on the blood-brain barrier, enabling transport directly from the blood to the brain.

ICBII just finished preclinical animal studies using mice carrying genes programmed to produce human disease. These animals may have Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease-associated plaque in their brains.

"With SMART Molecules, we can reduce the mouse brain’s sticky plaque by 66 percent with 12 weekly injections," Alexander said. "We are now searching for funds to begin clinical trials to prove that our pending drugs cause no harm to humans."

Looking back on his journey from Union to where he is today, Alexander offers these thoughts.

"I sincerely hope my brief time at Union College led to greater tolerance, enlightenment, understanding and wisdom on the part of my professors, as it surely has for me," he said. "All Union students have the ability to succeed; they should be nourished and cultivated, not discouraged and discounted."

"And students should see that generational difference often leads to misunderstanding and cultural awkwardness, but this is usually not intentional malevolence. However, as my dad said, ‘an education is not promised or given, it is taken.’"

Which is why Alexander counsels "hard work."

"Union only admits students who can graduate. You do have the intellectual capacity, but you must exercise the will and then persist," he said. "By now, Union offers professional guidance and cultural sensitivity. Use them."


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