magazine-category: Faculty

The Mentor

Dr. Joseph Oyugi

Dr. Joseph Oyugi Helps Students Pursue Their Passions

After Dr. Joseph Oyugi earned his Master of Science in ecology from Moi University in Kenya, he immersed himself in research. For seven years, the Gardner-Webb University professor of biology didn’t interact much with people as he focused on his work in the field and the lab, then wrote and published his findings.
He was employed by the National Museums of Kenya, and his supervisor helped him develop his research skills. In 2000, Oyugi decided to pursue his doctorate at the University of Illinois in Chicago. One condition of his scholarship was working as a graduate assistant, which shaped the rest of
his career.

“I had no idea I would become a teacher,” Oyugi shared. “Because I was guiding students in the lab and teaching them what to do, I realized when you show somebody something, they get excited about it and actually they get to succeed more. I realized that interaction with the student is more important than just coming to a lab or going to teach them a lecture. You need to be hands-on—more interactive.”
Oyugi taught eight years at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago before joining the Gardner-Webb faculty in 2013. “I wanted to move to a less-busy area,”
he related. “My kids were becoming teenagers, and I wanted a quiet, calm environment. I came here for an interview and I really enjoyed the people in the department. I got offered three positions, but Gardner-Webb was my top place.”

Through lectures, multi-media, videos and other tools, Oyugi engages his students in the classroom and inspires them to complete their own research studies. “I identify a student who is interested in a particular subject, and I try to mentor them to do something they have never done before,” Oyugi explained.

With Oyugi’s guidance, students have participated in the Gardner-Webb Undergraduate Research Scholars Program, obtained international internships and received acceptance into prestigious graduate schools. A study by one of his students, 2017 alumnus Christopher Lile, was published in a national academic journal for undergraduate research.

“My goal is to give students knowledge and ideas so when they leave, they can do whatever they want,” Oyugi affirmed. “Mentoring is not holding your hand and showing you how to do everything, but it is teaching you to do it yourself. I’m guiding you, not doing it for you.”

Dr. Joseph Oyugi
Dr. Joseph Oyugi (right) and student researcher Christopher Lile (left) working on undergraduate project

Oyugi’s enthusiasm for ecology prompted Michael Byron, a 2014 GWU alumnus and basketball player, to pursue a master’s degree and career in wildlife conservation. In graduate school, Byron researched cheetahs at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

“The classes and the faculty at Gardner-Webb helped to inspire and lead me down the path I’m on today,” Byron stated. “I loved seeing the similarities and differences between different species, and seeing how these differences allowed each species to be the most suited for its environment. Dr. Oyugi was very passionate about the content, and I was intrigued by the interactions between organisms and their environment.”

Oyugi encourages students to choose research topics that interest them. Some have studied mushrooms, insects, small mammals, salamanders and lizards. For areas outside of his expertise, he asks his colleagues to provide assistance.

“I appreciate this institution, where you can interact with colleagues and collaboratively mentor and bring up a student,” Oyugi asserted. “Mentorship is group work, everybody helping the student succeed.”

Oyugi, was on sabbatical in the fall of 2019 where he spent time at Moi University in Kenya helping conduct research on birds and their environment. While there, he looked into opportunities for his students. “I’m hoping to identify a project for Gardner-Webb students to do in Kenya in the future,” he said.

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