05 2018 (May)

Molecular biology, chemistry student receives Spitaleri Award

Headshot of Sophia Kwende
Sophia Kwende

Sophia Kwende of Cameroon received the Rosemarie Martha Spitaleri Award as the University of Wyoming’s outstanding graduating woman.

The award, established in 1964, recognizes Kwende for exhibiting the finest leadership, academic integrity and citizenship qualities. She graduated last December with dual degrees in molecular biology and chemistry.

As a 17-year-old, Kwende began her UW career in 2015 and quickly settled in the sciences, especially molecular biology.

“As my career goal has always been medical research, I found undergraduate research an essential avenue to explore, to further inform and affirm my conviction to this career path,” Kwende says.

She says receiving a Wyoming INBRE (IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence) fellowship reaffirmed her conviction that she not only emulate theoretical scholarship, but also have a vision worth pursuing.

“Throughout my research projects, it became increasingly evident that rational thought informed social processes, and ‘ironclad’ scientific research could combine science and humanities to holistically unify the physical, ethical, intellectual and social interfaces of each project,” she says.

Kwende says she has been fortunate to experience an environment at UW that cultivates creative scholarship.

“I was elated at the thought of having all students presented with the opportunity to not only be aware of their potential, but to maximize it,” she adds.

Not only has she excelled in the classroom, but Kwende also has learned valuable lessons at UW, taking on issues outside the classroom.

Hailing from a developing nation, Kwende is familiar with the need for global volunteers whose services make a difference in the communities where they live in and the world around them. That is partly why she is a nationally registered EMT and certified wildland firefighter.

“I found the most beneficial way to give back to the community was to be part of a volunteer fire department,” she says. “In the same light, I applied for and was honored to be granted the position of Peace Corps ambassador for UW.”

Rachel Watson, a molecular biology senior lecturer, and Kwende’s adviser, lab supervisor and mentor, has high praise for her student.

“In my nearly 17 years as an educator at the University of Wyoming, I do not think that I have ever encountered a more inspirational, more holistically well-rounded, high-achieving student than Sophia,” Watson says. “Her intelligence is surpassed only by her willingness to assist others and her ability to critically apply theoretical knowledge.”

Kwende took two chemistry classes from Senior Lecturer Michael Sommer, but her curiosity outside of her normal courses caught his attention.

“Many of the questions were asking me about questions she got right on homework problems and exams. The level of questions reaffirmed what I had already known about her: She was more interested in understanding why things were a certain way than knowing how to get the right answer,” he says. “This is the kind of thing that teachers hope for but rarely ever experience. Sophia is just that exceptional.”

Watson adds that she knows Kwende will be a successful doctor someday.

“Sometimes, late at night, I try to envision a world in which our physicians and surgeons all embodied the type of holistic understanding of human health that Sophia has,” Watson says. “Such a utopia is impossible to see. However, I will settle for just knowing that there is one phenomenal woman like Sophia who will be going to medical school next year.”

“I will be moving on to the next phase of my life after graduation, in pursuit of a rewarding and impactful life through scientific research clothed in social awareness and the understanding that we all have a role to play in the development of our community and holding together the social fabric of the world we live in,” Kwende says. “I hope to make a difference, remembering that we all have the potential for infinite human progress.”