A lot of students come to college, with strong ideals, but unsure how to integrate them with their post-college working life, as Omar Barnaby ‘05 did. For Barnaby, an environmental chemistry course that combined classroom work with a hands-on trip to the Everglades to perform field work — the typical Warren Wilson marriage of pure science and its practical implementation — led directly to post-doctoral work at Harvard Medical School and his current position as a pre-clinical development scientist at Amgen, one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies.
The trip to Florida allowed Barnaby to put his chemistry lessons into action — collecting samples, analyzing them for pollutants, “and seeing how that impacts the food we eat,” he said. “It drove home the message that science is very practical, very impactful. It’s where all of my interest started.”
Barnaby came to campus from Kingston, Jamaica, where he grew up hearing stories about his mom, Paulette Jumpp-Barnaby’s ‘76 experience as a Warren Wilson student in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until a visit from her friend, Rodney Lytle, who was the supervisor of the Heavy Duty Crew at the time, that he started thinking the school might be the right place for him.
The idea was cemented when he first saw the campus with his own eyes “and fell in love with it.” A big part of the appeal was the applied learning model integrating academics, work and community engagement.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and in that sense I think the school was an ideal fit for me, because the programs were diverse enough for me to be able to try many things and figure out what my interests were,” said Barnaby. “The experience I had at Warren Wilson was richer and more varied than I would’ve had in a more traditional setting.”
On top of academic success that included an award from the North Carolina Academy of Sciences, Barnaby fondly recalls everything from performing hard physical labor on Lytle’s Heavy Duty Crew to assisting fellow students with their homework on the Chemistry Crew. His community engagement efforts took him to rural Kentucky to help build a school.
It all gave him “a big leg up” when it came to applying to graduate schools, not to mention the enduring lessons he learned about time management.
“I learned skills that I still use every day,” he said.
Now living in Los Angeles, Barnaby’s work as a pre-clinical development scientist involves testing new medications to see if they’re safe and effective. He likes the fast pace that he first became accustomed to at Warren Wilson, and the feeling of being at the forefront of finding better treatments for ailments such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Because his father died from cancer, Omar knows the need all too well.
“I remember feeling so helpless, and I want to help empower people so they don’t have to go through things like that,” he said. “It’s a very exciting time to work in biotechnology. I think we’re close to developing cures for so many terrible conditions. In 10 years, I think we could have a cure for cancer, and I’d love to know that I played a role in it.”