Kennedy: From rattan hut to Johns Hopkins Ph.D.

Kennedy: From rattan hut to Johns Hopkins Ph.D.

December 6th, 2018 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns
Desta Bume, his wife, Selamawit, and son, Daniel, visit friends on Signal Mountain over Thanksgiving weekend.

Desta Bume, his wife, Selamawit, and son, Daniel,...

Photo by Mark Kennedy /Times Free Press.

Hey, Signal Mountain 20-somethings.

Remember that "Desta" kid from high school? You know, that exchange student from Africa who ran track and helped you with your pre- calculus homework.

Well, don't look now, but Desta Bume has met his destiny. Well, as much as you can meet your destiny at age 27.

Today, the former Signal Mountain High School exchange student has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Johns Hopkins University and a job as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, where he's on a team looking for a cure for cancer.

Let that sink in.

When Bume (pronounced Boo-MAY), came to the United States almost 10 years ago as a 17-year-old exchange student, he arrived with a heart full of hope, a tiny bag of clothes and a big brain.

"I was wide-eyed," he remembers.

Bume has come a long way from the dirt-floor hut with no running water where he grew up in Ethiopia, says Rose Mary Dunbar, his former host "grandmother." Bume's Signal Mountain host parents back in 2009 were Jock and Megan Dunbar, Rose Mary Dunbar's son and daughter-in-law, now of Louisiana.

Bume, who says he didn't own a pair of shoes until seventh grade, is the son of a subsistence farmer in Ethiopia who once destroyed his son's third-grade textbooks with an ax in hopes of preventing him from going to school. In his father's view, helping with the farm was essential, school was not.

"But I never stopped going to school because my mom always encouraged me to complete my education," Bume has said.

Along with his parents and three siblings, Desta lived in a round house made of rattan and juniper plants in a village called Wotera. At night, the family members would bring their cows and sheep into the tiny house to protect the livestock from predators.

Bume and his siblings brushed their teeth with sticks. Each day, he walked miles to school barefooted. When he was in sixth grade he began to sell sugar cane in a local market to buy clothes and school supplies.

As a high school student in Ethiopia, Bume excelled at academics and was chosen to participate in an international exchange program sponsored by Cherokee Gives Back, which is funded by Cherokee Investment Partners, a private equity investment firm in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Bume landed here in the Chattanooga area 2009 and attended Signal Mountain High School during its first year of operation. While here, he made friends easily and participated in track and field. After 11th grade, he returned to Ethiopia to finish high school there.

Later, with the help of his new Signal Mountain "family," Bume moved back to the U.S. and became one of the first recipients of the full-ride Haslam Scholars at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

"I wouldn't have gotten to this point without the love and support of my Signal Mountain family," he says.

Originally, he planned to major in math at UT, but he took a class in organic chemistry and fell in love with its intricacies. (To be clear, organic chemistry is the class students normally love to hate.)

"It's like learning a new language," Bume explained on a visit to Signal Mountain during the Thanksgiving holidays. "In another way, it's like solving puzzles."

After earning his bachelor's degree in Knoxville, Bume enrolled in Johns Hopkins University where he earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry last May. Now, he's doing post-doctoral work at the National Institutes of Health, looking for the key to unlocking a cure for cancer.

His area of expertise is so deep, but narrow, that sometimes he feels like he "knows a whole lot about nothing," he says, laughing.

Oddly, he says that not growing up with the pressure of high expectations helped him view education as a fun adventure instead of a burden.

Bume continues to live in the United States under a student visa. He resides in Maryland with his wife, Selamawit, and 6-month-old son, Daniel.

If you think the United States of America is no longer a land of opportunity, the story of Desta Bume — from rattan hut to Johns Hopkins Ph.D. — is a good one to remember.

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.

Desta Bume, his wife, Selamawit, and son, Daniel, visit friends on Signal Mountain over Thanksgiving weekend.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.
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