WATCH: Dr Marcia Roye- From ‘teaching’ the bush to college professor inspiring love for science
Science and Technology Minister Daryl Vaz presents a plaque to S&T XXtrordineer honouree Dr Marcia Roye at the launch of the Scientific Research Council’s recognition programme on Thursday, July 14. (Photo: Llewellyn Wynter)

If you are not a maths whiz but dream of pursuing a career in the sciences, it is still possible to realise your goal.

If you’re still doubtful, then meet lecturer and researcher, Professor Marcia Roye, the Associate Dean and Director for Graduate Studies and Research at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus.

Roye admits that mathematics was not her strongest subject in high school yet today she is a leading research scientist based at the most prestigious university in the Caribbean.

She gets a thrill out of teaching and loves to pass on knowledge. That thrill started when she was a little girl growing up in the central Jamaica parish of St Elizabeth and would “teach the bushes” her first ‘students’.

Roye divulged that she hails from a little district in St Elizabeth called Dunder Hill, which is adjacent to the more popular town of Junction. She attended Bull Savannah Infant and Bull Savannah Primary schools. Her mother and grandmother 'Me Me', before her, attended Bull Savannah Primary as well.

Roye later attended Ballards Valley Primary where she sat the Common Entrance examination and was placed at Hampton High, the prominent all-girls school in Malvern, St Elizabeth. She did five years at Hampton up to fifth form before leaving for Knox Community College for sixth form studies.

“From Knox Community College I went to the University of the West Indies so I’ve been here on the Mona Campus since I’ve been 19; I’ve spent a lot of years here,” she shared.

Roye said her grandma saw that teaching was in her destiny.

“My grandmother Me Me said she knew that I was going to become a teacher because when I was a little girl I used to walk along the driveway and teach the bush, so the bush was my class and when the bush didn’t answer I used to beat the bush”.

“So Me Me said she knew I was going to become a teacher from I was a little girl,” Roye added.

She explained that it was the same bush, her first ‘students’, that piqued her interest in the field of science.

“We (children) used to go in the bush and we used to pick the berries and we used to crush them on paper and watch them separate into colours and that was fascinating,” Roye stated.

Her interest was piqued further by what her stepfather said to her.

“I remember my stepfather telling me that anything you see the birds eat you can eat. So as children we go in the bush searching, we eat the berries from the lantana; that was our exploring so that was my first exposure to science”.

Roye noted that whereas the view of any child doing well in high school was that you would end up becoming a doctor, she would not have ventured into that field anyway because she did not like medicine.

“But I was good at science and I loved reading and loved learning and I loved biology, I loved chemistry. I wasn’t so good at physics; I wasn’t so good at maths either,” she admitted.

Roye said that after high school she enrolled at the UWI where she decided to pursue a degree in biochemistry. She credits a Professor McLaughlin with confirming for her that she wanted to be a scientist.

It so happened that during the final year of her degree the professor asked her to consider doing some research in the lab.

“He had a little project that he wanted me to work on and I agreed and I remembered I came into the bio technology centre where I work now and I put on my little lab coat and I went into the lab and I knew from that moment, once I started my experiment, that I wanted to be a scientist. That was the ‘ah ah' moment for me,” Roye remarked.

It’s been 30 years since and she has dedicated her life to teaching and studying plant viruses. The same project she started with professor McLaughlin as an undergrad saw her pursuing an Mphil then Phd.

For Roye, it is particularly gratifying that while studying viruses she was able to assist her very neighbours who were farmers in St Elizabeth.

“Even my neighbors in St Elizabeth where I grew up, when you went into their tomato field, the plants just never looked healthy at all. So we took those tomato plants and we tested them and we identified a virus called the tomato yellow leaf virus but the people in St Elizabeth called it the ‘gerry curl’ virus because it made the leaf of the tomato plant curl up,” Roye explained.

Since 1992, her research has identified about 25 different viruses infecting crops and weeds in Jamaica. Some of the affected plants are cabbage, red peas, tomatoes, scotch bonnet pepper, sweet potato, and sweet pepper.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work trying to help the farmers. We identify the viruses then we suggest to the farmers some of the strategies that they can use to protect their plants from these viruses”.

Roye said the most satisfying part of her work is the genetic engineering workshops that are done for high school students and when she takes the time to respond to students doing CAPE projects who want to hear about the research that she has done.

“And so I get to talk to them about science and how you do science and the opportunities in science,” she said.

As the associate dean, Roye also gets to interact with many of the young researchers in the faculty and on the campus.

“You share your story with them and that also helps to influence them.

Reiterating that when she was in high school she was not good at maths, Roye said: “I love to tell my first year biology and molecular biology students that just because you’re not good at maths, it does not mean you cannot become a professor and I always get applause for that because many of the students sitting in front of me are challenged by numbers; you put some numbers in your lecture and they become very anxious. So you basically share your story, you share your life with them and you be honest about it and you hope that somewhere along the line it might inspire a few other young ladies to become scientists”.

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