War Refugee Returns Favor

Ben Pramanik fled civil war in Bangladesh and found a mentor at Stevens, his inspiration for starting a graduate fellowship.

A half-century later, Ben Pramanik remembers the night he learned the fate of his family in a war zone 7,500 miles away. He also remembers the college that welcomed him as a refugee, especially the professor who became his mentor, friend and inspiration for starting a scholarship at Stevens.

Ben grew up in a Hindu family in East Pakistan, an exclave with a tenuous connection to the rest of the Muslim country partitioned from India in 1947, three years after Ben was born. Though his parents struggled as farmers, they were committed to educating Ben and his three brothers and two sisters.

Ben was the top student in his high school class. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees in chemistry from Rajshahi University, and he took a job teaching at Carmichael College in Rangpur. He and his wife, Nandita, had a daughter and a son.

On a scholarship from USAID International, Ben visited the United States in 1968. He attended a summer program at Mercer University in Georgia, and after touring colleges in Chicago and Washington, he went to New Jersey, where he met Ajay Bose, an Indian professor who had come to America two decades before. Bose was a leader in the field of organic chemistry and began teaching at Stevens in 1959.

“I did not have an appointment, but Professor Bose welcomed me,” Ben remembers. “I was overwhelmed with the breadth of his knowledge, as well as the way he was conducting the research work of his large group of students.”

Bose responded to Ben’s interest in Stevens by writing him a letter of introduction. Though Ben received admission as a graduate student, he also wanted to be with his family, and he was obligated to resume his job at Carmichael. But in 1970, two decades of tension erupted into war between Pakistan’s military ruler and the ethnic Bengalis of East Pakistan. Ben recognized he needed to leave. He returned to the United States in August and enrolled at Stevens, not knowing when he would see his family again.

“My wife and children were still in East Pakistan. I had heard they were trying to cross the border into India. Because they were Hindus, I was worried the Pakistani army would detain them.”

Months passed. Ben learned that his Hindu colleagues at Carmichael were massacred. The Bhola cyclone further devastated the region, killing half a million. Ben, who Americanized his first name from his native Birendra, kept busy by studying and working at the Pak-India Curry House on West 45th Street in New York. Stevens gave him tuition support that expanded into a full research fellowship.

“It was hard for me to study at that time. But the faculty, especially Professor Bose, was very accommodating, providing motivation and inspiration, and I did well in my exams.”

Late one night in May 1971, as Ben was closing the restaurant, a Stevens police officer knocked on the door. Ben’s brother had sent a telegram to campus reporting that Nandita and the children had reached a refugee camp in India, having fled a massacre in their village and trekking at nightfall across 60 miles. Stevens President Ken Rogers, who had taken an interest in Ben, learned of the message and sent the officer to find him.

“My last contact with my family was towards the end of September in 1970. Eight months had passed, and I could not eat or sleep. Virtually I could not function. When I heard they were safe, I was overwhelmed with joy and happiness. It was God’s grace that saved my family.”

With help from the International Rescue Committee and Stevens staff who lobbied their government partners, Ben was able to contact his family. Two years after East Pakistan secured its independence and became Bangladesh in 1971, Ben’s family arrived in the United States, just as he was completing his master’s degree in chemical engineering.

By 1977, Ben was doing post-doc research on mass spectrometry alongside Bose. “Professor Bose’s family and my family became part of one. He lived five miles away, and I visited him regularly. Often, he would call me and say, ‘Ben, I am coming to your home. We will discuss science at length and other topics.’”

Ben worked in the pharmaceutical industry, retiring as a senior fellow with Merck. As the supervisor of nearly 30 research labs, he led the development of many medications, including the popular allergy drug Claritan, and drugs like Keytruda and Interferon that treat cancer. He wrote or co-wrote 165 research articles and gave more than 200 presentations at national and international conferences.

He and Bose wrote 14 papers together. In 2002, their research on mass spectrometry combined with microwave technology shortened the digestion time of proteins, paring hours required by conventional methods to minutes. Scientists worldwide have cited their discovery in at least 600 papers.

Ben is now retired, though he continues reading about the latest research on cancer and immunology. He gardens at his home in New Jersey, and he and Nandita enjoy spending time with their four grandchildren. Their son is a doctor and their daughter is a biochemist.

Ben has also been involved with philanthropy. He set up scholarships at high schools in nearby Parsippany and Plainfield in honor of his parents. In 2015, Ben established another scholarship at his alma mater in honor of his mentor, who died in 2010.

“Professor Bose enlightened the lives of many students, post-doctoral students, visiting scientists and others. It is my honor to set up the Professor Ajay K. Bose Memorial Endowed Fund at Stevens so that a scholarship will be given each year to a deserving student in chemistry.”