To world-renowned scientist Ray Stevens, USM Professor Emeritus John Ricci is the man who wouldn’t let him fail.
Twice, the future organic chemist, professor and cutting-edge researcher failed to earn his needed organic chemistry grade.
“Things he liked doing, he excelled in,” Ricci told the Portland Press Herald. “And others, I guess he just blew off.” Ricci had introduced the younger Stevens to research science and watched him become inspired. And when Stevens neared failure, Ricci pressed him to work harder.
“Was I the typical student at USM?” asked the 1986 alumnus from Auburn, Maine. “Oh gosh. I hope not!”
Ricci’s mentorship worked, and Stevens has become a world leader in understanding human cells.
After USM, he earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Southern California and did postdoctoral work at Harvard. He researched alongside Nobel laureates. He became the founding director of the iHuman Institute in Shanghai and serves as the director of the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience Bridge Institute.
In 2014, Thomson Reuters named Stevens as having one of “The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.”
“It’s the wildest Cinderella story I’ve ever come across,” Ricci told WCSH-TV.
Yet, 32 years after graduating from USM, Stevens thinks of Ricci at least once a week, he said. In 2006, he created the Ricci Fellows, underwriting the cost of bringing a USM student to his Los Angeles lab every summer.
And on March 30, 2018, with Ricci at his side, Stevens announced plans to renovate the lecture hall inside the Portland Campus science building.
It will be renamed, “The John S. Ricci Lecture Hall.”
Stevens hopes to do for new students what Ricci did for him: helping them find something to love and excel at.
“I fell in love with doing research,” he said. “I tell my students, ‘Pick something you love. if you love it you’ll do your best work.’”
To USM President Glenn Cummings, the Ricci-Stevens mentorship is “an epic USM story.”
“Ray Stevens did not come with privilege,” Cummings said. “He did not come with money. He did not come with connections. He came with a desire to learn.”
“A professor here saw the gold in him and made his life different than it would have been otherwise,” Cummings said. “That is the story of USM, students that sometimes don’t even know that they’re college material until they get here and succeed.”