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Outside the ghetto (6.2.08, 12:17)

- They chose me as a role model, and I hope this prize can inspire others to work hard and get into academia. We need people that are motivated to do research, so I hope and think that this prize can mean something.

These words are spoken by Heri Ramampiaro, associate professor at the Department of Computer and Information Science (IDI) at NTNU.

Last month he was awarded the prize as one of the ten most successful foreigners in Norway in 2007. The prize is meant to put focus on foreigners that have made outstanding efforts in Norwegian work and cultural life, and as such can act as role models for young foreigners in Norway.

ROLE MODEL: The prize was an inspiration to Heri, now he hopes he can inspire others.
Warm welcome
We find him in his office, gazing at one of his two Apple screens. As he notices someone at the door, he leans back and puts his arms up behind his neck. He’s smiling, but relaxed.

- Just to know I was one of the sixty who were nominated was a big surprise. There are so many others, more profiled people with an international background in Norway. I didn’t know that I did so much. Then they told me I was one of the ten. That was a great message.

Hooked on research
He has done a lot in the 16 years he has been here. One of his achievements, and also one of the reasons why he was awarded the prize, is developing the search engine Biotracer.

The invention will be a great resource for people working scientifically with biomedicine. As early as in May, wrote about it.

Is the biotracer finished yet?

- Actually it is, and it was finished at that time.

He leans back. For a second he looks at the screen, then he changes his mind:

- Or no, you never finish anything you do in research. I am still working on it, because there are still some bugs that I have to fix. And then I need to get a server for it so that it can be tested by the users. Do you want to see it?

He gets eager as the start page of the program fills the screen.

- It is as easy to use as Google, and it works with the same principles. But you get fewer and more relevant hits. You don’t have to go through all the home pages and all the nonsense to find what’s relevant. You can go straight to the articles.

The version he has today includes databases with articles about biomedicine. But he is working on including other databases as well to make it more flexible.

MIDDLE NAME: Laid back seems to be the right characteristic of Heri Ramampiaro.
He pops up another page.

- This is a Research Council-supported project called CAIM, context-aware image management. The idea here is to use the context within pictures to find information about what you see.

Again he starts explaining, eager about how much easier life can be made for people.

- If you are on vacation and you have a mobile phone with a camera, then you can just take a picture of a building, send it to a server, and get a response with an explanation of the building.

The project is the result of cooperation between NTNU, the University of Tromsø, the University of Bergen and Telenor, and they hope to have it ready by 2010.

The Norwegian situation
At this point Ramampiaro feels entitled to make some criticism about the Norwegian situation, as he calls it.

- It is difficult to find PhD students that want to work on these projects. People want to work in private companies rather than in the universities. As long as we are not able to pay them more than the base tariff from the Research Council of Norway, this will remain a big problem.

He sighs. And as he continues it sounds like he is trying to comfort the researchers in need of PhD students:

- Actually, if I went to these companies I would have been getting more, maybe twice as much as I earn today. But money is not everything. Without research, everything will stop one day.

INTEGRATED: It came with the effort, and he does really well as a bicultural person.
Norway or Madagascar
Ramampiaro came to Norway to study when he was 19, mostly because his father studied here before him.

As a good son, he wanted to somehow follow in his father’s footsteps, but while his father studied to become a priest before he returned to his homeland, the son ended up in engineering. After 16 years, he hasn’t moved back.

- I was planning to move back after I finished my master’s, but then I got an offer to take a PhD, and then I met my wife. She is Norwegian, so I am still here.

Now he has a family of five, and moving back permanently is something he does not consider anymore.

- Actually my wife wouldn’t mind living in Madagascar, and I want my kids to know about my background because I am proud of it. But there has to be some kind of possibility.

Heri has already tried to establish a project in cooperation with a university in his home country, but it didn’t go through.

- It would be interesting for us to learn, at least within the technological aspect, how they manage to use technology with such limited technical resources. How do they teach people to use computers without computers?

OUT SOON: Heri's search engine, Biotracer, is proof of his entitlement to the Top Ten award.
Determined student
At the time he left Madagascar, he was told it would be a lot easier to get accepted at universities in France compared to Norway.

But the somehow modest man doesn’t like people telling him what he cannot do. Ramampiaro found Norway more exotic. But it was not the easy way out and up.

- When I started my studies here, I didn’t know the language, and they told me I was not qualified to study in Norway. After the third round of admission they accepted me. Probably they were tired of me complaining, he laughs.

He worked hard to prove that it was not a mistake to accept him. The same way he convinced his teacher in Norwegian he could pass the Norwegian test when she told the Madagascan he could not.

His Norwegian is fluent now, including the local dialect.

Scared, but dared
The stubborn man likes to think he got the prize, not only for what he has achieved, but also for how he did it. He doesn’t recommend any simple solution to other foreigners who want to succeed in Norway.

- I think learning the language from the beginning is the key to get to know Norwegians. But you also have to take the initiative yourself to talk to people. Norwegians are a bit shy, you know.

He puts the word shy in air quotes with his fingers, maybe not to offend anyone. Stubborn does not mean he’s not diplomatic.

- I was very determined not to get into a ghetto when I came to Norway. I wanted to get to know Norwegian students and their culture. This is the only way to get into and function in Norwegian society.

But it might not work for everyone.

- You cannot be scared. I didn’t always dare to talk to people. Then again I realized I didn’t have a choice. There are many people who could have been resources in Norwegian society, but they give up.

He continues:

- You have to take people for what they are. I am against demanding that Norwegians change, it is you as a foreigner who has to try harder. But you have to be proud of your background, because Norwegians appreciate diversity.

His best trick, though, is to participate in voluntary organizations.

- I joined a choir. And I still sing in one. That is an easy way to get to know people.

Singing is one of his many hobbies listed on his homepage. Being also an eager photographer, he proudly points to a picture of his youngest daughter lying on her mother’s shoulder. With a smile he declares this is probably the best picture he has ever taken.

Work, and some play
In spite of the obstacles Ramampiaro had to overcome, he does not have anything negative to say, either about his road to success or about his situation in general.

It seems there are no other places he would want to be than right here at NTNU.

- I’ve had several offers from different companies, but I wanted to stay here. I like the environment, especially here at IDI, it is so inclusive. But the best part is having the freedom to do what I am most interested in.

He stops for a minute, like he is considering something, then continues with a content smile on his lips:

- Yeah, if I had to apply for a new job now, I would definitely apply for another one here at IDI.

He has been working a lot to get where he is now, and he still does. He says his wife complains sometimes.

- I have a normal workday, then I have some time with my kids, and when they’re in bed at eight, I work more. In November I will be chairman for the International Conference on Collaborative Computing in Florida, then I will have to work more. And now, I will have to work more on this one, he points to the screen.

Not longing for the sun
There seems to be nothing wrong with this man. Hearing about what he does and looking at his list of professional engagements and his hobbies, it is hard to understand how he can be so laid back.

Maybe it’s the light therapy lamp standing on his desk that does it? Or has 16 years in Norway still not made him capable of handling the darkest time of the year?

- No, no. That’s no problem, he laughs.

- Actually it was the light in the summer that was hard to handle when I first came here.

He just started trying the lamp to see if it will give him more energy, and help him sleep better at night.

- But things are a bit strange. I don’t normally freeze. But my wife feels cold and sleeps with this thick duvet both summer and winter. I settle for a thin one.

Maybe the Madagascan is not so foreign anymore anyway.

By Elin Grotnes

Read more about Biotracer
Heri Ramampiaro's homepage