Chemist, mentor, award winner

July 21, 2020 | Science
Dr. Samuel Mugo, associate professor in chemistry, says that seeing the numerous MacEwan alumni he has taught and trained now using the skills they learned in his classrooms out in the world makes him incredibly proud.

“I now have a network of former students who are what we in research call 'highly qualified personnel,'” he says. “Physicians, quality control chemists, PhD students, technology entrepreneurs and many others who are not only my former students, but are now my colleagues, my training partners and industry guests who visit my classes and help my current students secure internships.”

Inspired by his support for students and passion for education, Dr. Mugo's colleagues and students nominated him for a 2020 Distinguished Teaching Award.

We talked to Dr. Mugo about his own inspiring teachers and what he loves most about the discipline he chose.

MacEwan University’s Distinguished Teaching Awards recognize outstanding faculty members who have shown extraordinary commitment to teaching and have inspired their students and colleagues. Watch for the 2020 award winners' profiles throughout July and August: Tanya Heuver (assistant professor, nursing practice), Dr. Samuel Mugo (associate professor, physical sciences), Neeraj Prakash (sessional faculty member, English) and Dr. Andrea Wagner (assistant professor, political science).

Q.Why chemistry?

Chemistry is often referred to as the central science. It seeks to understand matter at a molecular level and the complex chemical equilibrium in nature’s matter and life forms – the human beings, animals, plants and even inanimate objects that call the biosphere home.

Whether you’re a scientist or not, I believe it’s everyone’s civic duty to care about and engage in the constantly evolving, data-driven scientific ideas that help us understand our society and the ecosystems we are a part of.

Q.What inspired you?

I grew up in Kenya where access to university involved a high-stakes qualifying exam. University was considered a pathway to a socio-economically privileged status, and I was fortunate to be among the lucky few who made the grade and filled the very few university placements available.

I enrolled in the Bachelor of Science (BSc) program in the physical science stream, and I – like many of my own students – wasn’t sure what I would do with a physical science degree. After my first year of introductory courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics and computer science, I chose chemistry. I could relate to the course content, see a clear career direction and enjoyed the learning process. My teachers also played a pivotal role.

Q.Is there a particular teacher who stands out in your mind?

My first-year organic chemistry professor had a way of strongly connecting the chemistry of molecules to many aspects of life – pharmaceutical, recreational drugs and even a pint of vodka. He exposed the connection between chemistry and relevance to society and often tied his own research to what he was teaching, demystifying chemistry and humanizing research – it wasn’t only about the unknown “genius” authors in textbooks.

But it was my third- and fourth-year analytical chemistry professor who sealed my fate as a chemist. His extensive work with the community using analytical chemistry to solve real societal issues – tracing pesticides used to poison wildlife by poachers and detecting carcinogens in regions with higher cancer rates – crystallized my quest to study chemistry in a way that would positively impact society. Twenty years later, I still remember the content of my honours project, and I still collaborate with that same professor on multiple projects.

Q.What do you love most about teaching in this discipline?

I love that students can explore a field of study that affects all aspects of our lives. They can design approaches to improve analytical tools that can probe the societal problems of our time – climate change, aging, disease pathogenesis, environment, sustainable agriculture, personalized medicine, pathogen detections (including viruses such as COVID-19), and even the evolving field of data analytics and artificial intelligence. They can help address societal issues that everyone can relate to.

In this way, analytical chemistry can be very inclusive and, I suppose, even democratic.  

Q.What is your favourite course to teach and why?

The courses I teach in analytical and industrial chemistry are highly interconnected and are a journey for most students. They all share a common feature – integrated, personalized, discovery-based projects. I introduce the approach in my second-year analytical chemistry course and expand on it in my third-year Advanced Chemical Analysis course (CHEM 311) where students use their analytical chemistry skills to solve a societal problem of their interest.

I get to watch students’ self-discovery and see them clarify their career paths. They present their work in class, often at Student Research Day and, in some cases, are published in peer-reviewed publications. Many times, they go on to take an independent research course and the chemistry internship practicum course – both engage and support students’ entry into the job market. 

To me, there is a transcendent, delightful sense of purpose in mentoring our students to find their quest for life and careers, through engaging them in chemistry, its connection to other disciplines and society.


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