Students who light up the world

Mustangs are acting on their dreams and influencing change, taking their purposeful ventures beyond the Hilltop. From cancer research in Dallas to sustainable energy in Gambia and medical access in Rwanda, here are three stories that illuminate how these notable SMU alumni and soon-to-be alum achieved impressive accomplishments before graduation.

Although their stories are all very different, they share a desire to make world-changing impact and resources fueled by one special day for Mustangs: SMU Giving Day.

Mohammed and Wilkie

Bringing light to Gambian school children

Mohammed Njie ’21 (pictured right and to the left) is solving social challenges with technology in the African country of Gambia.

Growing up in Gambia, a country in West Africa, Mohammed Njie ’21 was among the lucky 48% of people with access to electricity. Power outages were common. He accounted for them when planning his day. Would he have to study by candlelight or would there be running water when it was time to shower? Even with these challenges, he was still far more fortunate than the 52% of people without any access to power.

Mohammed’s experience inspired him to seek out the Hilltop with a bold idea: bring reliable access to energy in Gambia. Therefore, while earning a B.S. in electrical engineering at SMU, Mohammed also developed a solar power pilot program to electrify the Tintinto Primary and Secondary School in Gambia, launched Janta Energy – a social enterprise that seeks to bring clean, reliable energy to Africa – and built a partnership with the Gambian government.

“Not only am I doing this to solve a problem,” says Mohammed, “but I also want to be an inspiration to the young Gambians to show them that they can bring solutions to some of the problems that we face.”

SMU’s Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity and SMU’s Big iDeas competition provided the resources to bring Mohammed’s vision to life. Through collaborations with fellow SMU students in the program, he continued to develop and fund an innovative STEM education platform for the school he electrified almost two years ago.

For the 936 students at Tintino, Mohammed’s efforts signified more than access to electricity. They gained hope, the ability to study after dark and increased test scores.

Mohammed will return to Tintino with his SMU collaborator, Wilkie Stevenson (pictured above right), to implement the STEM Up Phase II platform, providing world-class, open-source materials, media and interactive games that teachers can share with their students.

“Now instead of just using outdated books, they’ll have access to educational content that kids who are going to school in the U.S. have,” he says.

SMU Giving Day funded programs in Mohammed’s story include SMU’s Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity and the Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Big iDeas competition.

Maddie Jensen '20

Exploring new frontiers in science

Maddie Jensen ’20 investigates RNA proteins to make inroads to better understand neurological disorders and how to alleviate them.

Maddie Jensen ’20 wanted to delve into research after high school. SMU’s Center for Drug Discovery, Design and Delivery (CD4) lab caught her attention on her initial campus tour. By sophomore year, she was part of the team, investigating potential therapies for multi-drug-resistant cancer. Undergraduate Research Assistantships and an Engaged Learning Fellowship supported her efforts.

Since gaining experience at a variety of institutions is an important part of building a research career, Maddie identified the work of a scientist at another institution whose cutting-edge techniques drew her interest. Today Maddie is a second-year Ph.D. student in his lab at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York.

She is conducting pioneering RNA research, investigating a protein implicated in neurological developmental disorders called the integrator complex. So far, she has published two chapters that appear in Methods in Enzymology.

“If it hadn’t been for undergraduate research and Engaged Learning, I would not have been able to spend as much time in the lab as I did,” says Maddie. “I had some really incredible professors that saw some things in me that I didn’t see and encouraged me to keep pushing.”

Pia Vogel, founding director of the CD4 lab, recognized Jensen’s grit and skill and invited her to mentor younger undergraduate research assistants in the CD4 lab.

“She got into the research very seriously, very early on,” Vogel says.

Through the leadership experience, Maddie gained a greater sense of ownership over the research and, according to Vogel, could “light the light in others.”

Maddie’s SMU experience also included a Departmental Distinction Project that focused on the breast cancer resistance protein, presenting research posters at conferences and participating in undergraduate research competitions that allowed her work to go up against the research of others at worldwide state-of-the-art institutes.

“That helped me understand that I really enjoy science as a whole. I got to see how the field works and what it would actually be like to have a career in science,” she says.

“Over the course of my time at SMU, my professors really encouraged me and showed me how much they loved what they did and ended up encouraging me to pursue a PhD. I’m thankful for that.”

While Maddie still has time to decide what life after completing her Ph.D. will look like, she says that being a university research professor, like the ones who inspired her at SMU, is something she could see herself doing.

SMU Giving Day funded causes in Maddie’s story include the Dedman College Cancer Research Fund and Undergraduate Research at SMU: Undergraduate Research Assistantships and Engaged Learning Fellowship.

Sienna Rwanda refugee camp in background

Helping and healing across the globe

Sienna Dugan ’20 helps patients in impoverished areas around the world gain access to world-class health care.

Since 2012, Sienna Dugan ’20 has volunteered on multiple medical mission trips to China, El Salvador, Guatemala and Ethiopia as well as her hometown, Los Angeles, California, working alongside medical professionals to help save the lives of children with no other options. 

Today Sienna is living in Honduras on the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos ranch, home to more than 500 abandoned and disadvantaged children and working on the property for One World Surgery, a global organization that funds and operates a world-class surgery center there.

“I help run a free clinic where local medical professionals provide orthopedic surgery, primary care, ophthalmology and dentistry care year-round,” says Sienna, who is a patient coordinator at One World Surgery.

Other duties include helping to plan surgical care missions with teams of doctors, nurses and volunteers from the U.S. and providing care and support to children who are at risk for sexual, drug or gang-related violence at Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos.

I came to SMU knowing that I wanted to go into a career and make impact in global health, but without the formidable experiences provided to me through these programs I would not be where I am today,” she says.

While a student at SMU, she developed an international poverty alleviation program in order to help promote a resilient humanity and was influential in piloting the program through a research project that promoted health in Rwandan refugee camps and co-authoring an impact report on a low-cost, portable point-of-care device for humanitarian and health applications. She was an Engaged Learning Fellow, Grand Challenges Scholar and Hunt Institute alumna.

“My previous experience as a Grand Challenge Scholar, undergraduate researcher in the Hunt Institute and as an Engaged Learning Fellow helped me tremendously in preparing me for my current role,” she says. 

After her 13-month commitment in Honduras, she plans to obtain a master’s in global health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and aims to one day hold a leadership role in development and public health for an organization such as the World Health Organization. 

SMU Giving Day funded causes in Sienna’s story include National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges Scholars Program, Hunt Institute for Engineering & Humanity and Undergraduate Research at SMU: Engaged Learning Fellowship.

Unite for SMU Giving Day

To find out how you can support these programs and others that are empowering students to make real-world impact, learn more about SMU Giving Day. One day. A world of good.