Belinda Akpa is a chemical engineer with a talent for tackling big challenges and fostering inclusivity and diversity in the next generation of scientists.
She applies a problem-oriented approach that blends math, physics, chemistry, biology and computational modeling to accelerate solutions in areas including drug development and plant systems.
Her work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is part of the Accelerating Therapeutics for Opportunities in Medicine, or ATOM, consortium and focuses on modeling the complex interactions between candidate molecules and the human body to improve outcomes when potential drugs go to clinical trials. The results from Akpa’s systems models will integrate into ATOM’s larger computational framework, which aims to shorten the drug discovery timeline from five years to less than one year. A collaboration of national laboratories, academia and industry, ATOM is working to speed treatments for cancer and COVID-19.
“We’re trying to design and optimize candidate molecules without actually making the chemical compound in a lab,” Akpa said. “With computational models, we can explore whether a particular molecule will shrink a tumor or restore healthy cardiac function.”
This is far from simple. To model drug delivery, Akpa must understand the chemistry of the molecule and the path it will follow. Can it make it past the liver, for instance, where contaminants are efficiently filtered from the bloodstream? After all, the drug’s target is not an isolated protein. It might be a receptor in a cell membrane within a cell that is in a tissue, which is part of an organ in the bigger system of the body.
“I think about my modeling as peeling back those layers and then reassembling them from the bottom up,” Akpa said. “I’m looking at what happens from the moment you take a pill or an injection to see if that drug will be delivered to the target in a high enough amount to have activity and at a low enough level to avoid toxic consequences in other tissues.”
Akpa’s systems pharmacology models help set ATOM apart from other AI-driven drug discovery methods. She will leverage ORNL’s high-performance computing capabilities, such as the Summit supercomputer, in her quest to get drugs to patients faster with a greater probability of success.
Diverse and inclusive science
Similar methods and models can be applied to a range of scientific questions in an approach that Akpa calls problem-oriented discovery. For her, the appeal of a national laboratory is the focus on interdisciplinary science.
“I love knowing that I can be thinking about cardiac function one day, and the next I’m thinking about the movements of plant cells for very different objectives,” Akpa said. “That is all unified once you start looking at the mathematical tools and the types of questions to be answered.”
Akpa also enjoys the academic environment and is a committed teacher. She holds a joint faculty appointment with the University of Tennessee’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, where she leads several research projects on plant physiology and stem cell signaling.
She previously taught and conducted research at North Carolina State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she accrued multiple honors for teaching and mentoring. Sharing her joy in science and her driving curiosity has always been a motivator for Akpa, who wants to combat the illusion that science is an elite endeavor.
“Part of what keeps me going is knowing that everything I learn can be passed on to someone else to either build on scientifically, or as an opportunity to share with students and younger people or the general public,” Akpa said. “I like making science accessible and helping people understand, ‘Hey, you can do it, too, if you want to; it's nothing special about me.’”
Akpa is also passionate about ensuring that everyone has access to careers in science. As a senior member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, she is an active participant and leader of various diversity, equity, inclusion, and professional development activities that encourage current and future engineers to dream big and reach their career goals.
Answering the challenge
Akpa’s parents nurtured her early interest in science, seeing it as a path toward job security. Born in the West African country of Ghana, Akpa moved with her family to Northern Virginia when she was very young and grew up with an appreciation for cross-cultural communication as she helped bridge her parents’ worldview with American culture.
She brings this interest and experience to her science when working with interdisciplinary teams that “speak different science languages” and may have different approaches to knowledge discovery. She also expresses her love of cultural exploration through her hobbies, reading stories about cultural perspectives around the world and cooking diverse cuisines.
Her path could have taken many routes as she enjoyed math, physics, chemistry and biology in high school and considered medicine as a career. She chose to pursue chemical engineering during her undergraduate studies at the University of Cambridge, because she could combine all these disciplines, learn some programming and apply her skills to real-world problems.
She secured a doctorate at the same university, focusing her thesis on nuclear magnetic resonance, a non-invasive imaging technique with applications for medicine and many other fields. Akpa applied the technology to non-biological systems such as chemical reactors that turn raw materials into products with added value.
It was during her first faculty appointment at the University of Illinois at Chicago that she began applying her engineering expertise to biology. She worked with an anesthesiologist who was trying to understand the mechanisms at play for a therapeutic he had identified that had the ability to reverse otherwise fatal drug overdoses.
“Those experiences translate to what I do now as these were very multidisciplinary problem-oriented environments,” Akpa said. “I have always loved solving puzzles. I like the logic and the ability to go down multiple dead ends and iteratively learn from the failures to find a solution.”
In her current research, Akpa draws on her extensive skillset and computational tools to speed solutions by using virtual models to identify the most promising candidates for physical experiments. It is difficult work that requires continual learning and innovation, but Akpa thrives on it.
“I'm a sucker for a challenge,” Akpa said. “You say something can't be done, and I'll say, ‘Oh, really? Are you sure about that?’”
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science.