By: Ashley Bergeron
Dr. Grace Muna is an associate professor of chemistry here at IU South Bend. Her research focus is in analytical chemistry.
The idea behind analytical chemistry is to identify (qualitative) and determine the amount (quantitative) of a species. Dr. Muna focuses her research on developing sensitive electrochemical methods to detect pollutants in environmental samples. The developed methods have to be extremely sensitive, as some of the pollutants – like lead – are present in parts per billion in water, which is a very low amount.
Dr. Muna does research with undergraduate students here at IU South Bend, including through the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP). Dr. Muna is the coordinator for this program at IU South Bend, which allows underrepresented minority students to conduct research under a faculty mentor. They also participate in professional development activities such as creating a LinkedIn profile, preparing a resume, and advice on how to present their research.
This program has been successful. This year, two students, Emily Barrera and Precious-Gold Akpidija, will attend the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to present their research.
Dr. Muna grew up in a small village 400 miles from Nairobi, Kenya. She was always interested in the sciences when she was young. When she was 11, she said she was already asking questions like, would the water boil or the glass break first if you were to heat water in a glass container?
In high school, Dr. Muna had a passionate chemistry teacher, which affected her love for the subject. After graduating high school, Dr. Muna studied chemistry at the University of Nairobi, where she got her B.S. and M.S. in chemistry in 2000.
While at the University of Nairobi, Dr. Muna interacted with a visiting graduate student from Princeton University who informed her about the opportunity to go to graduate school in the United States. She was very excited to learn she could attend graduate school for free by being a teaching assistant in undergraduate chemistry lab courses.
Michigan State University is where Dr. Muna went to graduate school. There, she got a dual degree in analytical chemistry and environmental toxicology.
After graduating with a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and environmental toxicology, Dr. Muna became a postdoctoral research associate. During this time, she thought about what she wanted to do with her career: she was open to teaching or building a career in industry.
Dr. Muna was a postdoctoral research associate with a professor who transferred to multiple universities, including Iowa State University, Arizona State University and the University of Utah. During this time, she realized that she loved teaching, and that’s what she wanted to pursue. She applied to several universities and received offers from two of them and she decided on the university she would teach at: IU South Bend.
Dr. Muna chose to come to IU South Bend because of the welcoming community and the university support for undergraduate research by providing a startup funding for research for new faculty. Dr. Muna believes that research is a key component of education and that it is incredible to see undergraduates transform on their journey through college.
When Dr. Muna first arrived in the United States, she experienced many culture shocks.
The first one is the weather, as Kenya is hotter than Michigan. The second one is that people smile more and ask, “how are you doing?” to strangers. Dr. Muna said never experienced anything like this when she lived in Kenya.
The last one is that she can eat anything she wants. When traveling to the United States from Kenya, Dr. Muna was fully prepared not to eat the foods she grew up eating. She was happy to learn that there are places where she can find food that she ate in Kenya. Some of these are purple sweet potatoes and yams that she loves.
Dr. Muna said she initially felt different from her peers when she came to the United States. But when she realized that everyone around shared the same goal as her, learning, she felt more like a part of the community.
“Whether black or white, we all have one goal to succeed in what we are pursuing,” Dr. Muna said.
Dr. Muna is currently on sabbatical, her research is proteins at the University of Notre Dame and wants to bring the knowledge she learn to expand her research in electrochemical biosensors here at IU South Bend.
Dr. Muna said she wants everyone to know that the faculty here at IU South Bend are willing to help and are committed to student success.