Profiles in Diversity: Dora Mwangola

Ph.D. student in the Department of Entomology

Dora Mwangola
Dora was born in Taita-Taveta county of the Coast Province, Kenya, to young parents who later entered professional careers and moved the family to Nairobi. The oldest of two, she attended a female boarding school through high school in Nairobi before moving with her parents to Botswana  to complete her A-levels. She said that she really likes the culture and vibe of Nairobi – it is fast-paced and chaotic and incredibly stimulating. She enrolled at Rhodes University at Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa (www.ru.ac.za) near Port Elizabeth, where she majored in microbiology and biochemistry and followed that with an honours degree in microbiology where she worked on the generation of polyclonal antibodies against the VP1 protein of Theiler’s Murine Encephalomyelitis virus (TMEV) GDVII. After completing her undergraduate degree, she interned with the prestigious KEMRI-Wellcome Trust programme, where she worked on a project to assess malaria prevalence in Ganze and Junja in the Coast Province of Kenya. She joined the University of Pretoria (www.up.ac.za) to complete a Master’s Degree in genetics in the Forest and Agricultural biotechnology institute (www.fabinet.up.ac.za) on the population genetics of the tree-killing fungus, Chrysoporthe austroafricana in Southern Africa. Her work was to evaluate if this fungal disease was endemic to the southern countries of Africa or if it invaded with the establishment of the exotic eucalyptus trees that had been planted throughout the region. Using microsatellite markers, she found the greatest genetic diversity on native trees, indicating that the fungus was probably a native as well. After her Master’s, she joined the University of Minnesota in the forest entomology lab of Brian Aukema, where she is completing her PhD on the associational protection and potential non-target effects of systemic insecticide treatments against emerald ash borer. 

Dora never thought she would work with insects, ever. She stumbled into our field. During her Freshman year, she took a Zoology course that made her kind of interested in insects, but she was committed to microbiology and biochemistry. However, during her internship at KEMRI-Wellcome Trust, she worked in a lab that reared mosquito colonies and developed an interest in working on arthropod vectored disease. Despite whetting her interest, her Master’s research was not at all entomological. The real eye-opener came because her Master’s program required her to participate in a field project, which was under the direction of a graduate student. Dora accompanied this student to the field to study some tree-feeding weevils and she found this to be very interesting and asked questions about insects incessantly. From that point on, Dora was committed to learning more about insects. 

Dora joked that she didn’t know she was black until she moved to South Africa. Until that time, she did not know that race was such a major thing, imbued in the culture and affecting all social interactions. She feels that it is even more pronounced in the United States even though her experiences are tempered by being mostly in academic social circles. Nothing is overt, but when some people don’t understand her, they respond by shouting or speaking more slowly, She also confided that, like many of us, she sometimes lapses into imposter syndrome, where she starts to feel that she is not deserving and does not belong. However, she uses behavioral strategies to mitigate these feelings by focusing her efforts to learn from the amazing people she gets to interact with. Clearly, we all can learn something from Dora.

February 17, 2021


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