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From special ed to Harvard med

When Ryan Dosumu-Johnson was a student at Torrey Pines High School he didn’t see the point in homework. His lack of motivation landed him in special education classes and in the end he barely made it through to graduate on time.

But with the help of some mentors at the community college level, Johnson excelled, eventually going to UCLA where he achieved a biology degree.

Now he is starting his fall semester at Harvard Medical School on a full-ride fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“I’m completely amazed that I’m here,” Ryan, 24, said. “No matter where you are, if you focus at any point in your academic career, you can do whatever you want.”

Overwhelmingly proud mom Nancy Johnson said she never doubted Ryan’s potential.

“It’s cool to see the progression of a community college kid to my child that has the world in front of him,” she said after attending a recent attended at Harvard to see her son get his first white lab coat. “To see him in that environment of incredible higher learning like Harvard brings tears to your eyes.”

In elementary school Johnson said his teachers worried about Ryan because he did things a little differently- he didn’t hold his pencil right and for a St. Patrick’s Day project drew his leprechaun in outer space. His absent-mindedness in leaving behind homework was read by some teachers as devious or deliberate.

Johnson knew Ryan was smart and she was pulling her hair out trying to get others to believe in him.

“I don’t think anyone saw in Ryan what I did and it’s not the fault of any teacher,” she said.

At Torrey Pines, Ryan stood out as only a 6-foot-7 “computer nerd” would. He was a kind, problem-solver of a friend and helped tutor some students but was also rebellious, not wanting to do his homework.

“I didn’t see the utility in it and it ended up causing trouble with my grades,” Ryan said.

He said he was confused and disappointed because he was placed in special education classes.

After graduation, mom pushed him to get a job if he wasn’t going to college. He worked at RadioShack, and did so well his manager even suggested he put his name in to manage a new store in Brazil.

But at that point Ryan was starting to come around. He started to question what he wanted in life and knew he wanted to achieve more.

“I had to give up my arrogant mindset,” Ryan said.

He started by enrolling at Orange County Community College, discovering how much he enjoyed scientific research. After three years he moved on to UCLA, studying biology and neuroscience.

“I figured out what it was to be a good student. It was amazing,” Ryan said. “I figured out what I needed to do to succeed and I was happy I was given a second chance.”

After participating in a research project at New York City’s Rockefeller University, he was selected to receive the Howard Hughes Fellowship and was accepted into Harvard’s M.D./Ph.D. program, which only accepts 11 students a year.

“I wish I could’ve talked to myself back then,” Ryan said of his high school self.


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