Alumni Profile: Christian Njatcha
Christian Njatcha considers himself fortunate. “Fortunately,” he says, he found Harrisburg University. “Fortunately,” a professor introduced him to the wonders of pharmacology. “Fortunately,” his adviser guided him every step of the way.
“I sometimes feel so blessed because everything is working out for me,” he says.
But “fortune” didn’t position Njatcha to emigrate from Cameroon, burnish his high school diploma with U.S. high school credits, master English, enroll in HU, excel in the classroom, tutor HU students, establish sports clubs, coach soccer for city kids, and win full scholarship to the University of Minnesota’s elite pharmaceutical graduate program. He is a goal-driven, hard-working young man who says that HU is helping him achieve his dreams.
The story begins with Njatcha’s parents. His father, urban planner Jean Claude Njatcha, had come to Maryland and was striving to bring his five children to the U.S. His mother, Rose Julienne Njatcha, works for the Cameroon Ministry of Social Affairs. She impressed on her children the value of education.
“She’s done everything in life for us to be really, really successful,” Njatcha says. “She wouldn’t even buy clothes for herself because she wanted to make sure we had textbooks to read.”
Njatcha arrived in the U.S. in 2007, at age 18, with his sights set on “nothing less than a Ph.D.” Living in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, he spent nine months earning his U.S. high school diploma though he had a Cameroonian diploma — to qualify for grants and scholarships. His search for a manageable urban setting took him to Harrisburg.
“I was looking for schools, and I didn’t know which one I was going to go to,” he says. “I knew for a fact that I wanted to get into science and either become a chemist or a mathematician.”
After a year in Harrisburg, he found HU and decided it was the school for him. Through two courses taught by assistant professor of biotechnology Dr. Peter Meek, he became fascinated by the science pharmacology — the study of drugs and their interactions with specific targets such as receptors and signaling pathways in humans and other species.
“Human beings have really complex bodies,” he said. “It is important to understand the biochemical reactions underlying both the therapeutic and adverse effects of drugs, because my ultimate goal as a future pharmacologist is to identify effective treatments for diseases.”
Njatcha’s HU professors helped him “learn what research is all about.” With physics assistant professor Dr. Samuel Benigni, he built a polarimeter. The device invaluable in the beverage, food, and pharmaceutical industries uses light to determine the purity of substances such as antibiotics and amino acids by measuring their angle of rotation.
“I was able to develop a lot of critical thinking skills,” he says. “I’ve benefited a lot from the great, great professors at HU. They don’t just talk about what they’re teaching. They talk about everything related to real-world applications and graduate school. You’re not going to be happy if your professors are not passionate about what you do.”
Dr. Christina Dryden, associate professor of integrative sciences, was Njatcha’s adviser and professor for several courses. He had “never seen a professor who’s so nice and willing to spend time to make sure that you’re learning.”
Dryden says that Njatcha was thirsty for every drop of knowledge that professors could share. He made an impression from the start because “he was a student who automatically knew what he wanted to do.”
“He has natural talent,” Dryden says. “He’s smart. He’s driven. He’s friendly. He works well with others. He had to decide what path he wanted to go.”
Dryden helped Njatcha understand that he shouldn’t have to pay for post-graduate studies a critical factor due to limited resources because researchers have grant money to subsidize such talented, driven students. An invitation to an exclusive University of Minnesota preview weekend introduced him to the pharmacology program. Out of 1,000 applicants, five were accepted including Njatcha, on a full, five-year scholarship with 95 percent health benefits.
Njatcha doesn’t know exactly where his research will take him, but he hopes to be “somebody who publishes a lot of papers. I am going to Minnesota to be successful and graduate as a well-rounded scientist, because I know that it will open a lot of opportunities for other students at HU. All we do as researchers is come up with ideas that people can use. I want to be able to help somehow.” His idea of helping extends beyond the university. He has volunteered at Harrisburg Hospital. He coached a soccer team at Harrisburg High School. He was involved in HU student government and founded an HU soccer club and the HU Athletic Club.
“You cannot leave your home country and not find a way to give back to this great country of opportunity,” he believes. “You have to find a way to help people.”
Njatcha hopes to retire as a teacher, sharing some of the passion he soaked up from his HU professors. He wishes he could name them all, citing teachers such as Scott Foulkrod, a corporate faculty member who helped him master English as he struggled through a difficult literature analysis course, and Dr. Mrunalini Pattarkine, associate professor of biotechnology, who taught lab techniques that will prove invaluable during his University of Minnesota graduate studies.
“I came in here and found teachers who could have been doing something else with their lives,” he says. “I don’t think teaching is something you do because you want to get a lot of money. You do it because you love it.” After his May 2013 graduation, he hopes to stay involved as an HU supporter because “there is no way I can forget about HU and the opportunity they gave me.”
In the end, it’s the inspiration from his mother he holds dearest, and he hopes to kindle her love for learning in others. “Knowing that we were able to get here because of her work ethic, because of the schooling she had, I know where education will take me. “Whatever you do in life,” he says, “make sure you do it right.”