“I said, I’m an American and I have a right to study this and it doesn’t matter if I’m not very good at it, I’m gonna study it anyway,” said Harris a first-generation Pakistani who will be graduating from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in May.
The personal pep talk worked. He majored in Natural Sciences, studying general, organic, biologic, and pharmacologic chemistries. He has published one peer-reviewed journal article and a second has been accepted for publication this summer. He has been awarded the Organic Chemistry Award, the General Biology Award, the General Physics Award, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. This fall he will attend SUNY Stony Brook as a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry.
Harris’s journey was always a bit uncertain and at times, tenuous. He was born in the U.S., but moved back to Pakistan with his parents when he was a baby. Even though his parents divorced, his mother knew that if they stayed, her son would likely have to follow in his father and his grandfather’s footsteps as a lawyer, he said. The country’s patriarchal culture dictated who he would be. So she took drastic action.
“My mother actually ran away with me to the United States, because she didn’t want anybody to put restrictions on what I think and what I can accomplish,” he said.
While he is now on good terms with his father, growing up in New York City with a working mom proved to be very tough. Harris’ mother has worked at a t-shirt factory since he was 9. In high school, he was mostly friendless and spent most of his time trying to fit in instead of on his studies. While he watched classmates graduate and head off to college, he thought for sure he’d be left behind. It wasn’t until he met with a counselor from the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) that he found a way back to learning and education.
“By the end of high school, I sort of felt ashamed because my peers were heading off to colleges but I had nothing,” he said. “I hadn’t done anything for myself or my mother so I was ready to change. HEOP and Fordham gave me a second chance. I had an interview. During the interview, I said, ‘I’ll try my very best and I’ll never let you down.’”
In spite of his promise, Harris continued to take risks, but intelligent risks, with his education. Despite professors seeing his talents in the humanities, he knew deep down that he was attracted to chemistry.
“My essay writing was very good and that’s what they thought I should do and they told me that,” he said. But science beckoned.
“I was very curious; I wanted to know what molecules looked like and what reactions take place in the body and allow us to live.”
Harris said that given his background, he relished having academic choices.
“I love the freedom here because you can come to Fordham and you can leave as anybody you want to be—an English professor or a doctor,” he said.
Initially, Harris thought that was going to take the pre-med route, but that “didn’t come through.” During his first class in chemistry, he was sick much of the time and didn’t do well, finishing with a paltry grade. He credits his mentor Assistant Professor Marie F. Thomas, Ph.D., for keeping him on track and nurturing a nascent interest in research. Soon after the rough start, he began organic chemistry and “fell in love.”
“What I really liked about organic chemistry was the structures, drawing the molecules, studying the atoms, and understand their personalities,” he said. “These molecules are characters in a story and that’s how I saw it. It just made sense that this little guy takes away that proton and passes on that negativity to another molecule that better stabilizes it because it has more resources.”
This semester he is taking molecular biology and pharmacological chemistry, learning about the pharmaceutical industry and how the drugs are designed. His earlier research examined different ionic liquids which could lead to making degradable materials that could potentially replace plastics and help create cleaner energy.
And recently, he switched gears again.
“Now what I’m really interested in is drug discovery. I’m reading a lot of books on that. I’m really not in it for the money, I want to be a professor,” he said. “My goal is to help the underdogs, people who don’t understand, just like myself, and ask them why they don’t understand.”
Harris said learning chemistry builds confidence.
“To be able to solve abstract problems, to think critically, can help students think they can do anything if they put their mind to it,” he said.
He added he’s not terribly nervous about graduating; he’s been dating a bit, and he’s looking forward to starting his Ph.D. program. He has kept his goals loose, except for one.
“It’s my dream to get a good job so my mother doesn’t have to work anymore.”