If one were to list Sophia Kwende’s accomplishments during her three short years at the University of Wyoming, it would read like the description of a much older scholar.
At 20 years old, Kwende graduates today with dual degrees in chemistry and molecular biology, having completed three high-impact undergraduate research studies, received certification as an EMT and firefighter and left a lasting impression on the mentors who guided her.
“I have worked with now upwards of 6,000 undergraduate students,” said UW Lecturer Rachel Watson, Kwende’s adviser. “I’ve been an instructor for almost 20 years and Sophia is quite possibly the most phenomenal woman I’ve ever known. She literally glows with passion and intelligence and she genuinely will change the world.”
Kwende recently received the Rosemarie Martha Spitaleri Award, recognizing her leadership, academic integrity and civic engagement while conferring her with the title of 2018 Outstanding Woman.
Hailing from Cameroon, Kwende graduated high school at age 16 and took a gap year to volunteer with the United Nations Development Programme on clean water and sanitation.
At 17, she followed her older brother to the United States.
“My brother was here and he was doing a master’s in economics,” Kwende said. “I was underage and my parents were kind of worried about sending me to a foreign country and sending me to a place where I know nobody.”
So, her parents suggested she join her brother at UW.
“I feel like it was more about them feeling better about sending me so far away,” Kwende said.
Looking to one day become a medical doctor, she chose to pursue a degree she felt might help.
“I was torn between physics and chemistry, but I settled on chemistry,” she said. “I’ve always done well with chemistry. It’s something I understand. It’s the basis of a lot of other sciences, so it’s something you can do a lot with — biological, forensics, analytical — it’s so broad.”
One degree led to another.
“I originally thought biology is so boring — you just have to memorize things,” Kwende said. “There’s no initiative, there’s no critical thinking, it’s just cram, produce, cram, produce — and I don’t like things like that.”
But Watson’s microbiology course changed her opinion of the field.
“It wasn’t as simple,” Kwende said. “You realize we don’t know everything in biology. There’s so much more to be discovered. I feel like the amount of critical thought that the class provoked in me made me reconsider.”
Just as Watson’s class left an impression on Kwende, the star student started making impressions on her mentors.
“I think probably the most amazing thing about her is her ability to be one of the most profoundly intellectual scholars … but she’s the most holistic, most broadly multicultural, worldly social justice advocate,” Watson said. “She takes all of the most beautiful parts of being a scientist and interlaces them with all of the most socially responsible ways of using that science.”
Kwende has done undergraduate research relating to water contamination, ways of making medical advances more accessible for underprivileged people and microorganism metabolism.
“A lot of her research is very much attuned to inequities in how science usually impacts those who are most privileged,” Watson said. “She’s an undergraduate and she’s already done three really meaningful, high-impact research studies.”
During all of that, Kwende found time to become a certified EMT and firefighter — and said she is hoping to join wildland firefighting crews this summer.
“It was a prime opportunity to get the experience I needed for my medical application and, at the same time, I could contribute and give back to the community,” she said.
As Kwende prepares to spend the next academic year focusing on research, doing social justice-related work and applying to medical and graduate schools — she intends to pursue both a medical doctorate and PhD — her future is unwritten but undoubtedly bright, Watson said.
“It’s hard to gaze into that crystal ball,” she said. “While I see research in (Kwende’s) future and while I see science in her future, I think that I also see a great deal of leadership in her future.”
Watson added that despite Kwende’s accomplishments and intellect, UW’s Outstanding Woman of 2018 is “genuinely humble.”
“It’s not like she’s humble because she knows she should be,” Watson said. “She’s just humble because she feels like everyone around her is so incredible, has accomplished so many incredible things and that she has so much to learn from them.”