"My name is Joel Paul Ramesh Balkaran, and I grew up in Todd’s Road, central Trinidad. I have one older sister who is in her final year of medical school at UWI. My mum is a primary school teacher, while my dad used to teach tertiary level business administration but now runs a farm with the Ministry of Agriculture.
While I attended primary school nearby at Montrose Government Primary School, for secondary school I went to Presentation College in San Fernando, primarily because my parents are from south Trinidad and my sister was already attending Naparima Girls. Pres was a hugely formational part of my youth.
My favourite food is my mum’s lasagna, and as a South boy, I love Mayaro and have fond memories of spending time there during school holidays when I was young."
In an interview with Guardian Media's OMARINE NANAN, this is what the 24-year-old Harvard University graduate who will be pursuing his PhD at Oxford University had to say.
You have completed a scholarship at one of the most respected tertiary institutions in the world, did you ever envision yourself there?
I certainly did not think that I would have the privilege of attending Harvard! But I knew from early in secondary school that I wanted to get an Open Scholarship and study internationally, and I knew that I would shoot as high as possible in the hopes that God would help me find favour.
What guided you toward bio-medical engineering?
I was always interested in pursuing a career in the medical field because I want to have the ability to help people in need, but I also had a curiosity for building and designing things from young (starting with Legos of course). Bioengineering allowed me to harness both of those interests together to approach medicine with a problem-solving view; the ideal synthesis for my analytical side and desire to be part of the medical field, especially as I have an aversion to blood and pain.
What exactly is bio-medical engineering?
It’s quite a varied field, but in essence, it is meant to be a complement to medicine in that it creates technologies that make medical treatments easier, more effective, and in some cases creates new treatments where none exist. For example, all the machines in a hospital are designed by bioengineers, especially those more inclined to the electrical engineering side of BioE. On the opposite side, bioengineers also design new prosthetics and replacement organs, ranging from new heart valves, to an artificial pancreas. The area of BioE that I have focused on is drug delivery–this is founded on the idea that you can have a drug that is incredibly effective at treating a disease, but if it cannot get to the target site in the body easily, then it is useless. A common example is insulin; it would be easiest to take insulin in a pill form, but because the stomach digests the protein before it can be absorbed into the blood, we have to inject insulin instead. Drug delivery BioE research would aim to find a new way of delivering insulin without needing to inject multiple times a day, whether it is a slow release patch, or a new type of capsule that can protect the insulin from being digested.
This description certainly isn’t comprehensive, but it gives you a general picture of what BioE hopes to achieve. It does all this through the same problem-solving approach that is found in all engineering disciplines.
How were your goals attainable?
My parents instilled a good work ethic in me from young, and a recognition that nothing good comes without hard work.
What was the role of your family in attaining your academic achievements? Can that role be underscored enough?
My family’s role has been immense, and I would not be anywhere close to who I am without them. My grandparents’ names are Darling and Paul Balkaran (on my dad’s side) and Evelyn and Samlal Ramlakhan.
What was it like to leave Trinidad for an environment that would have been so different and also which did not afford you the comfort of family around?
Pres taught me how to find a family in a new place (I was the only person from my school to go to Pres San Fernando because my primary school was in central Trinidad), and that definitely equipped me perfectly to find friends who would stick by me. In terms of different food and culture, I have always felt a deep connection to our culture as Trinbagonians and relied on that to tide me over in times when I was miles away from home. The friends I made there are some of the closest people I will keep in life going forward.
How was your campus life? Did you meet other locals and students from the Caribbean?
Yes! There was one other Trini who has since left, and now that I am leaving there are two more. There are also lots of people who were born in the US but whose parents are from the Caribbean. I loved experiencing new things through campus life, like doing ballroom dancing for the first time.
What did that experience teach you to appreciate about Trinidad?
The closeness of our society and people. There is a uniqueness to how we bond together as Trinis, and I am glad I was able to take that with me to Harvard.
What did it show you that we can do better?
I think sometimes we tend to cover our emotions with layers of callousness; especially among men in T&T where a ‘macho’ culture is prevalent. I would love to see us having those difficult discussions that require us to open up our minds to criticism and self-reflection.
You are about to embark on your PhD at Oxford, another gold standard education institution, does someone who has come as far as you have still have anxieties and fears about entering a new environment, at that level?
It is still quite a new place, a new country, and a new group of people I will be surrounded with. Having been abroad for four years already, I feel much more comfortable adjusting to the new environment than I did when going to Harvard in 2016, but every new experience is difficult.
Is there a place and a person in Trinidad or anywhere that greatly influenced your philosophy and how you live?
Certainly, my time at Pres was greatly influential in my philosophy and worldview; from the fantastic teachers who went out of their way to help us learn, to my friends who became brothers, Pres gave me a second family that I could always count on. That experience taught me that so long as I loved and cared for those around me, I would always find friends who would have my back–something that helped my adjustment to Harvard tremendously.
Outside of academics, what are your interests and hobbies?
I am an avid sports fan and can become engrossed in any sport given the chance! I love watching cricket, football, tennis, squash, and I have even picked up a bit of the American sports during my time there (although their football still isn’t real football). I also enjoy playing music and have been playing the piano for the past 20-odd years both classically and in church. I also play the guitar casually at home. I love a good game of scrabble and enjoy building puzzles and reading.