LSU alumnus teaches the next generation of chemists at Georgia Gwinnett College
by Elaine Tagge | March 24, 2022
LSU Chemistry alumnus Simon Mwongela working on his father's farm in Kenya before attending gradauate school at LSU.
BATON ROUGE – For LSU alumnus Simon Mwongela, cultivating a love of science was a home-grown affair. He took an interest in the local plants around his village of Wenyeani in Makueni County, Kenya. According to Mwongela, he became curious about what made certain berries delicious snacks or useful medicines while others were deadly poisons.
After finishing his undergraduate studies in Kenya, Mwongela spent some time working on his father’s farm while he considered what he wanted to do next. He knew he wanted to pursue higher education, and consulted one of his former professors for advice.
“I was hoping to get a job and stay in Kenya,” said Mwongela. “I soon realized this was not going to be easy, especially because you needed to know somebody in a higher position in a company to secure a job.”
One of Mwongela's former undergraduate faculty mentors had recently completed a tour of U.S. universities, and recommended that Mwongela apply to LSU for graduate studies. He originally intended to work with Professor Emeritus Nikolaus Fischer, who was retiring at the time, so he instead joined Professor Isiah Warner’s research group to study chromatographic and capillary electrophoresis separation techniques. During his time with the Warner group, Mwongela developed separation methods for chiral and achiral molecules as his dissertation project.
“Dr. Warner was a good mentor, and the Warner research group members were very collegial,” said Mwongela. “We helped each other develop our research as well as, our written and oral communication skills.”
After earning his PhD in 2005 from LSU, Mwongela was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Irvine. He later started his teaching and research career at Kent State University Ohio, after which he joined Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) where he is currently an associate professor of chemistry. He is a co-investigator in the acquisition of an atomic force microscope through the NSF Major Research Implementation Program, and much of his recent research has been NSF funded. His research work has returned to the roots of his passion, and he currently studies the properties of cyclotides extracted from medical plants cultivated on a GGC campus garden.
Though he originally intended to work in the chemical/pharmaceutical industry, the hardships Mwongela faced throughout his career revealed a passion for academia and teaching. He believes in the importance of passing research skills on to the aspiring younger generation, since they are the future of innovation.
“I was drawn to learning and sharing knowledge from when I was young. My parents were teachers… so I knew I had it in me to teach,” said Mwongela. “Once I entered academia, I realized my passion for teaching and never looked back.”