Weathering the storm
Graduate student Roderick Pomfrey puts up a fight
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As a teaching assistant, Pomfrey rapped about how DNA is used by the body. With such techniques, he aims to engage his students, stimulate their thinking and develop their interest in science. A transcript is available.
Roderick Pomfrey didn’t know a hurricane was coming. Two weeks before Katrina hit his neighborhood in the ninth ward of New Orleans in 2005, Pomfrey had left the Crescent City to pursue a PhD in chemistry at the University of Missouri. But had he been home, he would have been ready to exchange blows.
Once a self-described problem child, Pomfrey knew how to navigate his way through environmental volatility.
“From elementary age I can remember fighting, up until high school,” Pomfrey says. “I literally fought every day in the fourth and the fifth grade.”
Looking back, Pomfrey describes the violence as an outlet for stress and tension. He remembers fighting friends and then playing basketball with them later the same day.
“We’d fight and turn around and tell each other we loved one another,” he says. “A young male had to prove that he was one of the fellas. Wimpiness was not tolerated.” Pomfrey says young men don’t have the same kind of tough love today. “Now those types of altercations result in pistol play. When I was growing up, fighting was just the in thing to do.”
These days, Pomfrey spends more time opening minds than clenching his fists. He has educated young people as a Mizzou general-chemistry teaching assistant and as a volunteer in Columbia schools and MU’s Magic of Chemistry program.
He believes his fate was sealed before he was born.
“My mom,” a former preschool teacher, “was standing at the chalkboard when she went into labor with me,” he says. “I consider that destiny.”
Since age 12, Pomfrey has been heavily into science. He chose to forego the basketball goal his dad had set in front of his house in favor of a ditch, where he looked for crawfish, lizards and snakes. (Knowing four or five murders took place each day in New Orleans, he says, he took his chances with snakebites.)
He remembers running home after school to watch Jacques Cousteau. Before Steve Irwin and the Discovery Channel, he watched nature programs on PBS. A budding environmentalist, he stopped littering and started recycling. “I told my mom that if I died to not embalm me but to let my body decompose and go back to the environment as one final contribution,” he recalls.
Pomfrey is one of seven children and the only one of his siblings to earn a university degree; his dad never earned a high school diploma, and his mom went to college but didn’t graduate. Discipline in the Pomfrey household included sending kids to their rooms to read the encyclopedia. “Even though it was called punishment, it really wasn’t,” Pomfrey says. “Encyclopedias cost money, and I guess we weren’t reading enough of them.”
After an altercation in which Pomfrey broke a student’s jaw in the 11th grade, his high school suspended him for the rest of the year. His parents weren’t surprised.
“My mom used to say, ‘I went to school about Rod every week except the weeks he was suspended, and they told me to come back next week,’” Pomfrey says. His mom even had an ID for entry into his high school so that she could watch him.
Allowed to return to school and repeat his junior year, Pomfrey graduated a year later than planned. Then he started to think about college.
“One morning, instead of going to look for girls, one of my buddies said something about getting in college,” Pomfrey says. “We were all broke, and we figured that we could get money on the financial-aid refund.” After they filled out some paperwork, he and his friends enrolled in Southern University at New Orleans.
To support himself, Pomfrey commuted to a refinery, where he worked the graveyard shift – 12 hours a day, 84 hours a week. There, he held a hose in one hand and a book in the other.
“Those old white men at the refineries who were making $2,500 a week told me to stick with the books,” Pomfrey says. “They realized that to gain freedom you needed an education.”
Professors at SUNO posted letters of graduate-school acceptance to a bulletin board, where students could see the possible academic futures of their peers. Pomfrey wanted to monopolize that board.
“My professor told me that the brain goes to the highest bidder,” he says.
Initially an education major who wanted to teach biology, Pomfrey applied for a Louis Stokes Louisiana Alliance for Minority Participation scholarship in biology, which would require him to change disciplines but also would provide more financial security and, therefore, more study time. The SUNO Department of Biology placed him in the National Science Foundation-funded Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Computer Technology, which helped fund his education.
As an undergraduate, Pomfrey attended national conferences, where he presented his own published research.
“He was in the top 3-5 percent of highly motivated, disciplined, hardworking and dependable students in our department,” says SUNO Professor of Biology Murty Kambhampati, Pomfrey’s former academic adviser.
That doesn’t mean earning a degree was easy. It took eight years of studying and working, including dropping out of college during his second semester, for Pomfrey to earn a bachelor’s degree.
When it came time to select a graduate program, Pomfrey returned to decision-making skills he had learned as a youngster. “I put all the offers on the table and played ‘eeny-meeny-miny-mo-money,’” he says. “Mizzou won.”
As an MU teaching assistant, Pomfrey receives glowing reviews.
“He was absolutely the best T.A. I have ever had,” wrote Raquel Wagner, to whom Pomfrey taught general chemistry. “He would go over the necessary information needed for our lab, but we would also have conversations where Rod would tell us about real-world situations that involved what we were learning about, and we could in turn ask questions. I walked away from that class learning more than I could have hoped, all thanks to Rod.”
Pomfrey makes an impression on the other end of the teacher-student relationship, too – both within and beyond his own department.
“He brought a wisdom to [my] class that made it one of the best classes I’ve ever had,” says Professor David Brunsma, who taught an introductory black-studies course Pomfrey audited. “I felt like I had a co-teacher in some sense.”
Brunsma speculates that Pomfrey showed up so that he could retain a touchstone with his roots while working on a chemistry degree.
“Regardless of whether we were talking about interpersonal racism, standards of beauty or masculinity, Roderick always had very poignant and very experientially based things to say to the younger students,” Brunsma says.
Pomfrey pays attention to his surroundings because he knows: 1) the wind is going to blow and 2) all one can do is seek suitable shelter. Academics led him away from a pending storm in which his parents lost their home and some of his friends lost their lives.
Pomfrey encourages others to put themselves “in the right environment.” A bit of a gardener, Pomfrey is learning that too.
“My plants, fruits and vegetables are teaching me so much about my past and how to approach the future in a more humble way,” he says. “When you put an individual in a certain environment, there’s a time factor on placement in that environment. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”
Pomfrey’s maturation includes embracing both the good and bad in his past — and the tattered edges he’s developed along the way. When he recently found three seemingly new but slightly bruised books in a garbage can, he sent two of them to his niece and gave one to a fellow graduate student.
“It was a long journey getting here,” he says. “Even a good book can have a scratch on its cover.”