Kwasi Connor

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What do you do when you have a B.A. in accounting from Morehouse College and are fortunate enough to land a lucrative position as an up and coming accounting professional and realize that your passion is not found in balance sheets and corporate earnings reports, but in exploring the world of marine animals?

If you are Kwasi Connor, you take matters into your own hands and decide that following your dream is the only choice. Trading in his pens and calculator for scientific instruments and a laboratory, Kwasi decided to pursue his love of teaching and received a teaching credential in biology from California State University, Los Angeles. It was during his time in the laboratory that he experienced an,”aha” moment and knew that he wanted to do more than obtain a teaching credential. He turned his passion for all things marine into an M.S. in Biology from California State University, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography, from the University of Southern California.

“After receiving my teaching credential in biology, I still remained passionate about teaching young people, however I had a strong desire to design scientific studies and perform experiments,” he notes. “I felt that a Ph.D. would allow me to not only positively influence students but also be involved in research activities as well.”  He began a love affair of sorts with mollusks, more commonly referred to as mussels.

Kwasi found that mussels – which spend their entire lives in dark shells in areas between land and sea, submerged or exposed - depending on the cycle of the tide - are in part dependent upon the 24-hour day, which is also known as the circadian cycle.  It is recognized that in all organisms, a certain degree of gene expression (the process by which products are created from the blueprint contained in genes) is rhythmic.  While it is well known that land animals follow a circadian cycle, he and his colleagues found it surprising that gene expression in an intertidal marine organ also followed a circadian pattern. 

Combining Ecology and Marine Biology

Today, Kwasi is a 2012 UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, in the laboratory of Donovan P. German, a Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology here at the UC Irvine, where he is studying the physiology of mussels. When asked what it is about mussels that fascinates him, Kwasi has a ready answer.

“What is remarkable about mussels is that they cannot move once they first settle on the shore.  During low-tide, mussels are exposed to the air and warm temperatures, and in turn, close their valves, undergo anaerobic metabolism, and suppress energy demands,” he says.  For Kwasi, understanding how mussel physiology changes with environmental conditions and how such organisms fit into their environment is a perfect model system for this kind of work.

The results of experiments he conducted with colleagues at USC have appeared in both The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Journal of Physiology, two top-tier journals for physiological ecology.

“I can now honestly say that I am truly passionate about starting each day knowing that I am a research scientist of marine and molecular biology,” he says with a smile. In his research, Kwasi has examined the effect of the environment on the expression of genes using microarray technology which allows for the monitoring of the expression of genes on a glass slide and a laser scanner. 

The Difference Between a Great Teacher and a Good Teacher

“When I changed careers to science it was through the teaching pathway,” Kwasi states.   “I earned a teaching credential in Biology because I felt that my life story could be used to motivate others unsure of taking daring steps toward their goals.”  Kwasi is always searching for the right set of elements that constitute great teaching.  He believes that high school and college students have similarities and differences.  He acknowledges that both groups have a passion to learn, “however there is a greater diversity of learning styles and interests amongst students in a high school classroom versus a college biology-focused classroom.” 

Kwasi recognizes that the high school teacher must use a greater variety of methods to convey information to students including visual, audio, art; computer programs etc. “I found teaching both groups of students to be rewarding because I consistently saw positive reactions to my teaching efforts.”  And what make for a great teacher?

“A good teacher is one that understands the students’ needs,” Kwasi says. ”A great teacher uses effort to find creative ways to address these needs.  The great teacher understands that students have different learning styles and lesson plans must be designed to reflect student variation.”  As a future college professor, Kwasi looks forward to developing K-12 science outreach programs and assisting in efforts to increase participation of women and underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) research. 

UC Irvine – a Good Fit

Kwasi points out that the University of California is a first rate institution because of its distinguished faculty and dedicated staff. “I was fortunate to find Dr. Donovan German because we have mutual interests in marine and molecular biology research,” he says. “I feel that my contribution of gene expression techniques to his laboratory will allow him to pursue answers to questions that were not easily accessible in the past.”

Simultaneously, he is eager to learn new aspects of digestive physiology as well as associated laboratory techniques and applying the theoretical underpinnings of nutritional physiology to his own work.  “I am excited about UCI’s relationship with the Crystal Cove State Park which is a marine reserve that has research facilities on the beachfront,” Kwasi says. “This will allow me to perform well planned experiments on mussel beds within the reserve with a great deal of precision and detail.”   

He looks forward to becoming an academic professor and running his own laboratory that investigates various aspects of marine biology.  “My extensive training in ecology, physiology, biochemical, and molecular biology allows me to study complex biological systems from different perspectives,” Kwasi observes.   In fact, his dreams enabled him to visit Morehouse College several years ago as a doctoral student.  As an invited speaker, he shared with the students not only his passion for biology and research but also his story and how he pursued his dream.

“One of my proudest moments as a graduate student was going back to Morehouse College as an invited speaker to talk about my research."

Taking Time to Relax

Kwasi points out that his father is a world-class musician, and that music was a major part of his childhood.  As a young adult, he learned how to play keyboards and began composing on a computer.  He still finds time to play music and record with friends and family.  He is also a soccer dad to a 4-year-old son (Julian) and a 9-year-old daughter (Camilla). He points out that as a native New Yorker, thin crust pizza is still his favorite food.

Kwasi sums up his approach to life and learning with a quote from Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, “Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done.”