By: Ananya Sen
Kathure Mugambi is a senior undergraduate student in Molecular and Cellular Biology. She is also the undergraduate assistant for the IGB Lunchbox series.
Growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Kathure Mugambi wanted to be a marine biologist. Even when she was in kindergarten, she would tell everyone about her interest. “I’m not sure if I knew exactly what it was, but I thought it sounded cool,” Mugambi said. Her interest in science stayed with her throughout her life, which led her to join the MCB program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“The MCB professors are so knowledgeable,” Mugambi said. “One of my professors, Erik Nelson, just had a drug approved by the FDA. It is really cool to see and you can tell that all the professors love the material, especially when they deviate from the class content to tell you cool facts about the science.”
Her interest in MCB also drew her to the IGB Lunchbox series, which highlights the intersection of food, science and culture. Each lecture features food tailored by campus chefs and is paired with lectures delivered by campus faculty.
“As an MCB student, I was looking for something that I could apply my knowledge to, and share with others. Sometimes science and research can seem to be devoid of human experience. It’s like the data is just floating around,” Mugambi said. “The goal of the Lunchbox is to humanize science and connect it with people's personal experiences with food. Each talk is unique: each researcher brings in a new perspective and we learn about their interests.”
The series started in 2021 and, so far, Mugambi’s favorite speaker was Bobby J. Smith II, an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies whose talk focused on the relationship between race, food security, and civil rights in the history of Black people.
“Before the talk, what I knew about the civil rights movement was not related to food at all. Hearing his perspective was very interesting to me,” Mugambi said. Going forward she is interested in expanding the Lunchbox to include a wider audience. “It’s about having more people and more knowledge that you can share,” she explained.
Mugambi is also a part of other groups on campus, including the National Society of Black Engineers and the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, which both focus on outreach, among other things. “Although the university, the student body, and the campus are all huge, there are ways to make campus feel smaller such as joining different organizations and putting yourself in certain spaces. I have been able to do that throughout my four years here and it's something that I really cherish.”
One of the outreach events that Mugambi is involved in is “A Walk for Education” that is organized by NSBE. “I like to advocate for Black students in STEM. We gather materials regarding various opportunities that Illinois provides to its prospective students and we go door to door in the surrounding community in Champaign to pass out these materials,” Mugambi said. “It is predominantly a Black community and we’re usually met with shock. It sticks with me because this should be information that everybody has access to.”
Over the past summer, Mugambi also gained experience in leading a team at Quest Diagnostics, where she worked in a lab and carried out diagnostic tests. Mugambi is proud that she is going to graduate soon and is interested in working for a year in the pharmaceutical industry before she gets a Master’s in epidemiology.
In her spare time, Mugambi loves reading books, especially psychological thrillers. She also loves cooking, a hobby she learned from her mother. “I used to watch her in the kitchen when I was young and as I grew older, I would help her cook Kenyan food,” Mugambi said. “My favorite dish is pilau—the whole house smells like spices for two days.”
Mugambi also has fond memories of food in Kenya. “My favorite memory is seeing my maternal grandmother because she lives at the base of Mount Kenya. The weather is crisp and the scenery is beautiful,” Mugambi said. “My grandmother has these huge rosemary plants, which we put in our chai in the morning.” It’s no surprise that Mugambi brings the same passion to the IGB and helps spread the feeling of community using food as a vehicle.
By: Ananya Sen
Photos By: Isaac Mitchell