Faculty News

A Conversation with New Chemistry Faculty Member Fortune Ononiwu

Meet organic chemist and new Bennington faculty member Fortune Ononiwu.

Image of Fortune Onoiwu

Many have a sense that the best things come from nature. Scientists know that to be true, especially when it comes to the organic compounds needed to develop and make therapeutic drugs. But what happens when these compounds are not available in quantities necessary to be useful? That’s where Organic Chemist Fortune Ononiwu comes in. In his research, Ononiwu focuses on synthesizing natural compounds, a crucial step in much medical and pharmaceutical research. 

Ononiwu’s work has centered on the synthesis of the platelet aggregating factor inhibitor, phomactin A. A second synthetic target is the adenylyl cyclase activator, forskolin. Both natural products are of interest to synthetic organic chemists, because of their structural complexities and potential for use in the treatment of respiratory ailments and other conditions. 

Ononiwu came to Bennington as a new faculty member starting this fall to continue his research, to explore Bennington’s unusual model of higher education, and for more of the New England clam chowder served in the Dining Hall on the day he interviewed, he joked. 

“A shout out to whoever was in the kitchen that day. That got me. It was my first time trying it,” said Ononiwu. 

Ononiwu first became interested in synthetic chemistry as an undergraduate at Covenant University in Ota, Nigeria. The private university is one of Nigeria’s most prestigious. 

“I learned that nature holds the answer to many human problems, especially around the area of drug development,” Ononiwu explained. “So I sought to further explore nature’s complexity by trying to synthesize compounds that have been isolated from natural sources.” 

Just like we make a cup of coffee, he explained, he extracts samples from natural substances to discern the biological or pharmacological activity. He’s most interested in compounds that could be of practical or medical use and those that can be replicated with readily available synthetic materials. 

There are many different directions his research could take. There are research questions around biofuel and the study of fungi. His wife is a mycologist.

“Recently, I have started to develop a lot of interest in the biological activity of fungi. They are still so understudied,” he said. “There’s big potential in terms of their therapeutic uses. I want to know what new interesting compounds we can get out of fungi.” 

He’s also interested in pedagogical approaches that deemphasize the characteristics of a traditional chemistry classroom and in creating an environment where even those who might not consider themselves scientists can thrive. He’s got a good track record. While at Syracuse University as a PhD student, Ononiwu was recognized with the William D. Johnson Award for Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant. Bennington is a particularly great place to try unconventional approaches, he said. 

“I think as a teacher, what I want is to really know what is getting students excited. When I interviewed, I talked to a student who was very interested in the accessibility of science. If we're talking about a specific reaction, I'm going to display it differently because of this,” Ononiwu said. “All the different students have different interests. I am eager to get to know them and to teach in different ways, to navigate toward certain topics based on what students want to learn.” 

And he is excited by what he has learned of Bennington students so far. 

“A student I met when interviewing talked about chemistry as a subject that they were interested in exploring. I thought about how beautiful it was, because no student I have ever met describes chemistry classes as ones ‘they're interested in exploring,’” he said. “Bennington students are not coming in just to get a good grade but to explore. That’s very cool.” 

Ononiwu said that the Bennington students he has met so far have a lot in common with his best students at Syracuse. 

“They are people who are curious and excited about it,” he said. “They have some idea of what they want to do with the knowledge and are ready to get the help they need to bring them to a solution.”

His third goal, beyond his own research and teaching in an inspired and adaptable way, is to increase diversity in the field, particularly by raising awareness of and appreciation for the sophisticated science work happening in Africa. 

“Just in taking this role, I think people can see me and just how proud I am of where I’m coming from,” Ononiwu said. “It’s a chance to share that the work Africans are doing in science is high caliber.” 

He’s also interested in what his being on the faculty means to aspiring scientists in Africa and to students who may question whether they belong in the sciences. Initially pleasantly surprised by the diversity of students, he said, “by me coming in and taking this role, then it takes us to that next step, and then maybe more people will be able to see themselves in that space.” 

This interest goes beyond the traditional college classroom. Ononiwu enjoyed working as an academic advisor for the Bard Prison Initiative in the spring. He’s now designing an organic chemistry class for the initiative. He was happy to hear that Bennington also has a Prison Education Initiative. 

“I want to find ways to empower people with chemistry. Just helping people understand the beauties and complexities that can arise with electrons moving between molecules…That is just very fascinating for me.” 

Ononiwu hopes to obtain the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance equipment necessary to resume advanced synthetic chemistry research, either at Bennington or in cooperation with another institution. He’s also looking forward to having more New England Clam Chowder and maybe some Jollof rice in the Dining Hall. 

Fortune Ononiwu is an organic chemist. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Covenant University (Nigeria) and a doctorate at Syracuse University, where he conducted research on the synthesis of the platelet aggregating factor inhibitor, phomactin A, and a second synthetic target, the adenylyl cyclase activator, forskolin