Julio Ramirez ’77 grew up in the Evergreen Garden Apartments in Bridgeport, Conn., the son of Cuban immigrants. Despite its leafy name, the public housing project was surrounded by concrete walls and sidewalks and the family would travel to the city’s Seaside Park from time to time “just for a sense of trees and grass,” he said.
No one in his immediate family had ever graduated from college, but Ramirez was a bright student at Kolbe High School and received a full scholarship to attend Fairfield University. Though he lived just a few miles away, his first look at the campus came on his first day of classes.
“I knew nothing about colleges. I had never seen one,” Ramirez said, looking back 35 years. “I set foot on campus — this stunning campus — and I thought ‘I’ve got to figure out a way to get a job at a place like this!’”
More than three decades later, he’s done that and much more. Graduating magna cum laude in psychology from Fairfield, Dr. Ramirez is now a respected psychology professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, where he has been studying the plasticity of the brain, work that he hopes will lead to breakthroughs for Alzheimer’s disease patients and others. Over the years, he’s welcomed more than 125 students into his lab, offering them a rare chance to work side by side with a veteran researcher on cutting-edge projects.
His exacting work and encouraging ways have won accolades from students, colleagues — even President Barack Obama: Just last year he was invited to the White House to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, an honor that came with a $10,000 prize.
Dr. Ramirez has become a national champion for undergraduate student research — one of Fairfield University’s strengths — an area he felt was woefully neglected in his field of neuroscience. In 1991, he co-founded Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (or FUN), an international organization committed to promoting and enhancing neuroscience education at the undergraduate level. There were 67 participants at the group’s inaugural meeting. More than 700 attended the annual meeting in Washington, D.C., last November.
The conference provided a forum for undergraduate poster sessions that included 150 projects this year. “We’re trying to place undergraduate education squarely on the national stage,” he said.
In 2002, Dr. Ramirez started another venture with colleagues, FUN’s flagship publication, the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education (JUNE). The organization and the journal serve another purpose for researchers, especially those like Dr. Ramirez who choose to work at small colleges. “One of the things about working at small colleges and universities is that sometimes you’re the only neuroscientist on campus,” he said. “So this is a way to provide people who teach neuroscience a home where they can communicate and share their aspirations.”
Last year, FUN awarded Dr. Ramirez its Mentor Award, 10 years after it presented him with a Career Achievement Award. In 2011, he also received the Award for Education in Neuroscience from the Society for Neuroscience, which has welcomed his organization and journal with open arms.
Scientists across the country also welcome Dr. Ramirez’s research, which deals primarily with the recovery of function after central nervous system damage, learning and memory and the development and aging of the central nervous system.
Dr. Ramirez said he can place the roots of his research squarely in the labs and classrooms of the Fairfield Psychology Department, where he was influenced and inspired by Drs. Ronald Salafia, Jack Boitano, Betsy Gardner, Dorothea Braginsky and others.
“My love of teaching comes from my wonderful role models at Fairfield,” he said. “Every one touched me in important ways in modeling what an education could do.”
The feeling was mutual. “Julio was an excellent student!” said Dr. Gardner, professor of psychology, emerita. “He had an appreciation of the power of the scientific method and the joy of doing research. Even more importantly, he was and is a wonderful person — mature, an always-cheerful sense of humor, excellent perspective.”
That last trait is what helps Dr. Ramirez keep his life in balance. Though he juggles a busy teaching and lab schedule, he always makes time for his wife, Annie Porges, and his “two beautiful, smart, funny children,” Elia, 14, and Julian, 13.