Kamwana Mwara: An influence on aerospace engineers

Author: Alan Cesar
Kamwana, who now works at NASA Johnson, earned success in his career partly thanks to Purdue's co-op program. In 2022, he was inducted into the Purdue OPP Hall of Fame.
Kamwana Mwara portrait with American flag
Kamwana Mwara

Kamwana Mwara didn’t know the influence he had on younger aerospace engineers. As a grad student, he supervised the tutorial center for the Minority Engineering Program (MEP), and would share tips on the classes he had taken when he was in their shoes.

“I gave them advice on how to approach a class, or search for a job, or the job fair process,” he says.

It wasn’t until several years after graduation, when Kamwana (BSAAE 2010, MSAAE 2013) was invited onto a virtual panel about being black at Purdue, that he realized what a difference he had made.

“Some of the students there said seeing someone who looked like them helped shape how they saw their classes. They were grateful not just for the things I did in helping them navigate Purdue, but for being that visual symbol of someone with a similar background and experiences, as well,” Kamwana says.

Kamwana Mwara sparring at a karate kickboxing dojo
Kamwana has a black belt in karate and enjoys practicing many types of martial arts, including kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and Krav Maga — a style developed for the Israeli military. He joined a dojo in Houston after graduating from Purdue.

That experience was eye-opening for him, especially since he doesn’t remember seeing more than a handful of black AAE majors, as an undergrad. Having come from North Carolina, MEP and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) helped Kamwana himself become established in his Purdue home.

“Living out of state for the first time, especially a state that’s different in demographics, being involved in NSBE and MEP gave me a sense of family and belonging,” he said. “Folks in different engineering majors gave me advice as I was coming along. I didn’t know many students at the time who looked like me in aero, especially older students, when I was in undergrad.”

It wasn’t until his graduate education that Kamwana began noticing more black students studying Aeronautics and Astronautics – people new to the program. The sense of community in MEP, and the mentorship he received there, had motivated him to become an MEP mentor himself.

Kamwana later participated in the NSBE Professionals group, which led to a research project in collaboration with grad students and some NASA employees. “We evaluated fuel cell and nuclear power options for space missions. It was one of my first experiences leading a team to accomplish a technical goal, and helped with building my project management and leadership skills,” Kamwana says.

What’s more, it earned him NSBE’s Aerospace Technologist of the Year award in 2016.

Kamwana Mwara at JSC with Houston's mayor
In his leadership role with the African American Employee Resource Group at NASA Johnson Space Center, Kamwana helped bring Houston mayor Sylvester Turner to speak at NASA Johnson Space Center.  

He’s now a Fuel Cell Systems Team Lead and Project Manager at NASA Johnson Space Center, developing proton exchange membranes and other fuel cell technologies for generating electricity. His work, between full-time employment and co-ops as a student, has involved technology development and spaceflight hardware – including work on ISS equipment, and components that will be used in future Mars and lunar missions.

Co-ops were a substantial part of his proverbial foot-in-the-door to securing a NASA career, he says, and there was a definite perk to doing a springtime stint: “In summer, there are a lot more interns round, and you won’t get as much one-on-one time with people there,” he says. “Not many people apply for spring internships.”

That first internship he converted to a co-op by speaking to the NASA co-op office, and continued taking NASA co-ops thereafter. In fall 2022, Kamwana was inducted into the Hall of Fame for the Office of Professional Practice (OPP), Purdue’s co-op program.

MLK Day parade in Houston
Kamwana also helped coordinate participation in Houston's Martin Luther King, Jr. Day parade.

Kamwana has also carried his involvement in minority-centric organizations into his working life. Has held leadership positions in the African American Employee Resource Group (AAERG) at Johnson Space Center and continues to be an active member of NSBE Professionals at the national level.

In his various leadership roles, he has continued seeing value in bringing a variety of voices to work on a problem. “Not just diverse backgrounds, but diverse outlooks generate optimal results,” he says. “You need folks who can look at solving a problem from different perspectives so you can get to the best solution.”

Publish date: February 20, 2023
Author: Alan Cesar