Dr. Lawino Kagumba at GAINS

The Girls Advancing in STEM club meets with the polymer materials scientists and co-founder of ZanaAfrica.

Engaging around 30 girls across various grades, the Girls Advancing in STEM (GAINS) club, led by Dr. Gatti, Sofia Chen ’22, and Sanya Goenka ’22, invited Dr. Lawino Kagumba to speak about her background, profession, and humanitarian efforts over Zoom. 

Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, Dr. Kagumba attended school in both Kiswahili and English until she attended college. Although her high school offered four years of traditional math, science, and history classes, she also took agriculture and Christian theology classes. Following high school, she spent two years in an A-level education system, then moved to the United States to attend Smith College and pursue chemistry and physics. Although Dr. Kagumba was intrigued by the applied sciences, she still was unsure about her future career and education path. However, through the National Science Foundation, she was able to attend a research internship program at Virginia Tech with a NASA polymer scientist during the summer before her junior year of college. Following the completion of her Bachelor’s degree, she attended graduate school for her masters degree and Ph.D. at UMass Amherst’s Polymer Science and Engineering School. 

Dr. Kagumba pursued her career in polymer science after graduating. Polymers are, essentially, many monomers bonded together. However, the complexity of polymers extends into their structure, purpose, and properties. Not only do we use synthetic polymers such as rubber and polyethylene in our daily lives, but the molecules exist in nature as well. Everyday materials including cotton, wood, and silk are all polymers found in nature. 

According to Dr. Kagumba, polymer material scientists have two main roles: the chemistry component, working on polymer synthesis, and the engineering component, using those polymers to design and build products. Her interest in the chemistry aspect has led her to work on projects like creating polymers for inflammable synthetic hair; they use Nofia flame retardant, which effectively resists burning from flames. 

Comparison of synthetic hair with Nofia flame retardant vs. no flame retardant over a flame.

Currently, Dr. Kagumba works at Blueshift, a polymer manufacturing company in Massachusetts that specializes in developing aerogels, low density solid gels that attain their structure through processes such as freeze drying. AeroZero, Blueshift’s patented aerogel, is composed of a synthetic polyimide polymer and 80% air. An excellent insulator against extreme temperatures, AeroZero is used in pipe insulation, electronics, and aerospace engineering. 

Dr. Kagumba has also used her skills as a polymer material scientist outside of traditional roles. Alongside Megan Mukuria, she co-founded the non-profit organization ZanaAfrica Group in 2008 to help young girls and women gain access to sanitary pads and a reproductive health education. Their mission is to provide support to reduce the stigma of menstrual health, distribute feminine hygiene products, and teach girls and young women about keeping themselves healthy and informed through their magazine, NiaTeen. Its success has empowered girls in understanding themselves. One reader of NiaTeen remarked, “I learned the truth about periods: that [even] if a girl is menstruating, she can go on with her activities. I also learned about self-respect: that if I respect myself others will also respect me too.” Since its founding, ZanaAfrica has reached over 50,000 girls and women, and they continue to expand their impact. 

Three girls in Kenya holding their kits with sanitary pads and information pamphlets.

For students interested in STEM, Dr. Kagumba’s core advice is to develop interests through creating projects, participating in programs, and finding mentors. If you have a genuine curiosity, she urges pursuing at every possible opportunity. For example, she says, on grocery store trips, she checks what materials the items and packaging are made due to her interest in polymers. By implementing Dr. Kagumba’s message, we can learn how to make scientific research the basis of humanitarian efforts.

– Connie Yang

Image sources

  1. http://www.zanaafrica.org/
  2. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150217006240/en/What-is-Good-%E2%80%98Synthetic%E2%80%99-Hair