Success is her destination; chemistry is her vessel

Published: November 12, 2020

A first-generation college student puts her fear away and flourishes

headshot of Devani Mahabir

Immigrant Devani Mahabir’s favorite spot in New York City is atop the soaring spiral staircase known as the Vessel, the 150-foot-tall tower teetering in Hudson Yards, where she takes in different perspectives of her adopted city and encounters visitors from everywhere, drawn to the sweet views afforded by the super structure’s angles and risings.

Some people see a honeycomb when they gaze upon the intricate, out-sized outdoor art, but to a chemist like Mahabir, the Vessel looks like a representation of a cross-linked polymer.

“Its shape is so intriguing. The top is so relaxing. I’ve spent entire days there,” says the 22-year old Queensborough sophomore and fall 2020 CUNY Research Scholars Program Scholar.

It’s arduous – those 2500 steps, and illustrative of the 2500 miles she has traveled from her home on the fringe of sugar cane fields in Guyana, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.

“In the Caribbean, you know how it is. Most kids don’t have the opportunity or the means to study, and they are not taught to aspire. My parents were uneducated and I was a slow learner. I was afraid of school because my motor skills were delayed and I could not pronounce words correctly,” Mahabir shared.

“Some of my teachers were not patient with me. There was corporal punishment in Guyana at the time, so I would sometimes get the whip. I always knew the right answer, but could not write it or say it right,” she explained, sitting in the apartment she shares with her sister, Nirmala, in Ozone Park.

“Nirmala, however, was patient with me. She is 12 years older. She raised me, like a mother, and practiced words with me every day. And to this day she watches over me and makes sure I am on the right path.”

A banker with one of the largest banks in the U.S., Nirmala introduced Devani to CUNY, taking her younger sister straight to Hunter College right after Devani’s arrival in New York in 2018, years after Nirmala herself had immigrated. 

“Nirmala’s biggest aim was to get me into college. Hunter said I needed more credits in addition to my Guyanese qualifications, so an adviser suggested that I go to Queensborough because it was one of the best and had a wonderful STEM program. On the same day, we went to Bayside, saw an adviser and I enrolled for the fall 2019 semester. It was so smooth,” explained the first-generation college student, boasting that she had become the first in her family to attend college in New York City

“I then told Nirmala she had to go too, so she is studying accounting at LaGuardia because the Long Island City campus is closer to her job.”

Nirmala also holds an Associate’s Degree in Public Management from Guyana.

Completely lost and anxious about college, Devani joined Queensborough’s STEM club, meeting every Wednesday to make friends, network, and in her words, put the fear away.

“I have struggled with fear since I was a child, but I am finally getting the hang of it,” the mathematics and science major confided. 

With her 3.96 GPA, Mahabir has earned a scholarship from The National Science Foundation S-STEM Smart Energy Scholars Program, guaranteeing her (and two other Queensborough students) a spot at SUNY Binghamton next year, where she will study chemistry and aspire to conduct research in smart energy fields.

“I always wanted to be a chemist, but in high school, we did not have many resources. The students could not experiment, but my teacher showed us something amazing. We watched her make salt. She mixed acid with a base and added heat and it was like, wow,” Mahabir recalled, explaining a standard neutralization reaction.

Her high school science teacher, math tutor, and Queensborough Chemistry Professor, Dr. David Sarno, have each inspired Mahabir to minor in education at Binghamton.

“We did not have a lot in Guyana, but my teacher made science class magical. My math tutor stuck with me even though I struggled. He told me that if I could do mathematics, I could do anything, and he encouraged me to put more effort into all of my subjects. Dr. Sarno, my mentor, is like my guru. He is so calm and caring. We need more people to be like these teachers and my sister. I am trying to be someone like them myself.”

Under CRSP and Professor Sarno's mentoring this semester, Mahabir will learn about metal-polymer hybrid nanomaterials and their application to the catalytic degradation of certain pollutants.

“Because our labs and classes are conducted remotely, we will focus on studying the literature, learning about research methods, and analyzing data," she said.

At home in Queens, bingeing on Netflix (Criminal Minds) and enjoying homemade chicken curries, Mahabir reflected on her journey from the deep, fertile coastal farmlands where her father, a cutter, slashed ten-foot-high stalks of cane and her mother, a baker, made sweet goods for the local market.

“If you’re on unfamiliar ground and not doing well, it’s okay. Rather than hiding from everyone, push yourself and take all the help there is. It’s okay to be afraid and to fall sometimes, but what defines you is how you get up. Learning by distance this semester, for example, is challenging. I prefer to learn in the classroom. I need that interaction and environment, but I have to keep going, keep climbing. Determination and discipline, after all, are my keys to success and reaching the top.”






Contact:  Michael Donahue or Alice Doyle

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