Dr. Samuel Mugo is a professor of analytical chemistry, an advocate of student-engaged scholarship and one of MacEwan University’s most eminent researchers and teachers.

Over the years he has been recognized numerous times, including a stint as one of the university’s inaugural Board of Governors Research Chairs, with a Distinguished Teaching Award in 2020, and most recently, with the Dr. Sherrill Brown Distinguished Research Award, which he received as part of Spring Convocation in July of 2021.

We caught up with Dr. Mugo to discuss his scholarship, engaging students in scholarly activity and what inspired his career path.

What ignited your interest in research?

During a first-year chemistry course in my Bachelor of Science, I was charmed by my organic chemistry professor’s impeccable mastery and oration, as he revealed to the class the molecular complexity of our physical world. I connected with the relevance and the centrality of chemistry in deeply understanding the behaviour of our natural world, which stirred my curiosity and enthusiasm for learning chemistry as my major.

However, my interest in research was ignited by an independent research course that I took in my undergraduate program as a requirement for all chemistry major students. There is something about experiential practical learning that seals the deal, and builds a learner’s confidence as a bona fide practitioner. My independent research project was on detecting pesticide residues in tomatoes using an analytical instrument called gas chromatograph. With that project, I could see the value that a chemist adds to a community in solving societal problems that the public cares about. I could see my place in society and how my chemistry expertise could add value. To this day, I am a strong advocate of discovery-based experiential learning as a cornerstone for inspiration and training.

What is your primary research focus right now?

My research program is focused on developing inexpensive, small, portable devices that monitor – in real-time – chemicals that are diagnostic indicators for human health and wellness and agri-food quality.

At the heart of these sensor devices are responsive polymer nanomaterials (smart degradable plastics) that capture the chemical species – for example, a stress hormone such as cortisol in sweat. The smart plastic nanomaterials change their shape and size following the capture of chemical species, which induces changes to the plastic's electrical behaviour which can be measured. We consider ourselves “science artists” as we stitch these designer smart plastics together at a molecular level to respond to many different chemical species of interest to society. The beauty with these sensor devices is that they are very small and equivalent to a smart watch, and therefore users can wear them and monitor, for example, their stress levels in real time, which empowers individuals to make prompt and appropriate remedial decisions. My lab has made progress in making sensor devices to measure cortisol in sweat, E.coli bacteria, nutrients and contaminants to track food nutritional quality.

What do you love about this subject matter?

The conventional approach for chemical analysis is where, for example, a client provides a sample to a centralized lab equipped with expensive analytical instrumentation only used by experts, who analyze the sample and inform the client on the outcomes at a later date. Limited access to expensive analytical instrumentation contributes to inequalities between people in resource-rich settings compared to those in resource-limited settings.

Our research program aims to democratize chemistry and develop inexpensive devices that the global public can afford and use to monitor their health, environment and food in real time at their homes. The use of the sensor devices empowers users to make prompt decisions about their health and wellbeing, reduce losses in crops/foods, and ultimately grow a sustainable, global digital economy. An overarching objective of the research on the sensor devices we develop is that they play a key part in addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly on addressing the variations of inequalities, especially in health, agri-food and environment.

Why is it important for students to engage in research?

If it were not for an independent research program as an undergrad, my path would have likely been different. The experiential learning opportunity clarified to me the relevance of chemistry to society by interlinking theory to practice. This is how I developed initial confidence as I saw myself as a competent practitioner with translatable knowledge.

I have engaged over 100 students in research projects in my 13 years at MacEwan, and 100 per cent of them have found it easier to launch into meaningful careers. Engaging students in research projects improves their hands-on skills and makes them aware of what problems in society they can solve with their expertise. This personalized learning engagement grounds students to zero in on what they care most about. As a close mentor to their personalized projects, I am also able to be their career mentor who gives them access to my own professional network, which empowers them to launch their careers.

What’s the best part of engaging students in research?

Seeing students grow proficiencies in critical thinking and confidence in communication of science to both technical experts and the general public. Witnessing these students transform in clarity and intent of what they can be, and thereafter seeing them complete their degrees and excel in the world of work as MacEwan alumni is the crown of honour that my research program mentorship prides in.

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