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Jamar Whaley

College: Queens College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

Turning Last Place Into First

Jamar Whaley hasn’t had it easy. Not when he quit Stuyvesant High School because he was unprepared. Not when he talked his way into a networking job without a GED. Not when he fired himself, rather than laying off a subordinate who needed work more. Not when he clawed his way into Queens College after rescuing a crack-addicted friend. Not when Teach for America sent him to a violent Houston middle school.

And not now, when at age 36 Whaley (Queens College, B.A. magna cum laude in psychology, minor in media studies, 2011) confronted thyroid cancer and seeks admission to a neuroscience doctoral program, where he can use his $126,000 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. It is the most prestigious award for graduate students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

But graduate school is at least a year away. First, he is to leave on a 2013 federal Fulbright Fellowship to study at the internationally known Beijing addiction clinic run by Ran Tao, who is noted for his work on Internet addiction disorder.

Whaley developed his NSF and Fulbright applications in tandem. The United States is said to rank second behind China in the number of Internet addicts, who “neglect academic work and domestic responsibilities and suffer financial problems and social isolation similar to substance abusers,” Whaley writes in his NSF proposal. His prospective doctoral work would involve functional magnetic resonance imaging to compare how Internet addicts’ brains function normally and when encountering addictive triggers.

Whaley’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth, now 91, raised him from infancy in Flushing. “I want to do for the world what my great-grandmother has done for me,” he said in 2009. “I want to make sure others can have a life and excel after they have underachieved.”

Recognizing his talent, middle-school teacher Jami Rosen pushed him to take the test that got him into Stuyvesant, one of the city’s best. “I did well in standardized testing, but I didn’t have the tools to survive,” he says. Asthma had frequently kept him out of class. He flunked out.

In 1997, without a diploma or GED, he talked his way into a technical job with Exodus Communications in Jersey City. By 2000, he was a middle manager, supervising 10 consultants who handled computers and networking for companies that included Viacom and The New York Times.

On 9/11, “we had friends in the towers,” including support staff, he says. Exodus was forced into layoffs. “It came down to me and one of the people I was managing. I took the package and asked them to let my employee take my position. He had greater needs. I’d grown up poor and had saved the money I made,” he says.

He spent time in Oklahoma with friends and passed several computer- and network-related certification tests. “This made me think I could study and do well.” But as he was preparing to return to New York, he took time to help a friend through drug rehabilitation. To better understand her experience, he volunteered at a drug-abuse clinic.

His middle-school mentor had gone to Queens College, so he applied there but had to argue for a chance to take the CUNY admission test. “When I found I was accepted, it was one of the happiest days of my life,” he says.

Whaley originally planned on clinical psychology, but an experimental methods class led him into research in associate professor Robert Ranaldi’s learning, motivation and drug addiction laboratory. After attending a national conference as a Minority Access to Research Careers fellow, he noted the scarcity of minority primary investigators and graduate students in his psychology and neuroscience programs. He decided to become a role model, including by joining a peer-mentoring program.

In 2009 – the year he also won a federal Goldwater Scholarship – he participated in the Yale Biomedical Science Training and Enrichment Program, a 10-week summer research program, particularly for under-represented minorities, that is funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

After graduation, he went to Houston to teach science to impoverished minority students. He found it a miserable experience, although he speaks with pride about helping a failing youngster named Melchi pass into eighth grade. “He called me on his 15th birthday and told me that he had a 90 average in science and that my belief in him made him realize that he wasn’t stupid and could do better.”

It wasn’t until Whaley got back to New York that he discovered the thyroid cancer; his prognosis looks good after surgery. “After a long, rough road, this has been the toughest,” he says. “Getting the NSF reaffirmed my being where I need to be. I knew I would fight cancer as hard as I could because there is so much I want to do. My time for giving to others isn’t over yet.”

But at the moment, Whaley needs help. His fight against cancer has left him and his great-grandmother destitute, and he’s scrambling to raise funds to finance his study in China and her upkeep. Donations may be made at http://www.gofundme.com/cancertofulbright.