By David Goddard. Photography by Shawn Poynter.
As a child, Belinda Akpa didn’t know what computational biology and chemical engineering were, but she showed relevant proficiencies from an early age.
“Math was something I gravitated toward in school, and logic was a fascination that came up for me in puzzle solving, working through ciphers, and even engaging with philosophy,” said Akpa, a joint associate faculty member in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “I didn’t know the words for it at the time, but I think systems thinking and algorithmic approaches have always been part of how I make sense of the world.”
Having had exposure to physics, chemistry, and biology in high school, she decided to pursue a degree where she wouldn’t have to choose between those disciplines. She ultimately earned her undergraduate and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
There her time in the classroom began with an exposure to engineering failures, with the message that being an engineer was more than just about designing and building things, that using the lessons and skills she acquired had the potential to broadly impact everything from safety and economics to society and the environment.
While advancing her studies, Akpa’s time at Cambridge also prepared her for the world outside academia and for working with others toward goals.
“Cambridge was certainly an experience,” she said. “I went there to get my undergraduate degree in ChemE and was fortunate to experience an education that was, of course, technically rigorous but also really emphasized the roles that effective communication—both oral and written—and teamwork play in the life of a professional engineer. This is something I’d like to spend more time on with my own students, and it’s certainly a priority within my research group.”
Akpa said her choice of chemical engineering was all about the versatility and wide breath of options that the field presents—options she has used to navigate her career.
At Cambridge, she was a member of the research group of Lynn Gladden, whose contributions to chemical engineering have included her induction as a fellow of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the US National Academy of Engineering.
Being part of that research group fostered Akpa’s merging of chemical engineering with other disciplines, a process that has led her to where she is today.
“I could not have worked with a better group of people, both with respect to their science and the environment they created for the trainees,” she said. “The interaction of physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computation made for a great space to develop as a problem-oriented scientist capable of working in transdisciplinary teams.”
Bringing that cross-disciplinary background to her role at UT and as a senior staff scientist in ORNL’s Biosciences Division, Akpa is currently using mathematical modeling to help discover and improve medicines and medical treatments.
Specifically, her team aims to predict how potential new drugs will interact with their intended target within the human body. In this way, new compounds can be tested without having to actually put them in anything living, with the best outcomes from the mathematical models then developed further as potential new treatments.
This use of mathematical models as substitutes for living systems is a technique that has implications for humanity beyond medicine.
“In our plant physiology models, we’re currently trying to map out the set of protein interactions that a plant uses to open the pores in its leaves that control how the plant exchanges gases with the environment,” said Akpa. “These cells have an important job to do in optimizing carbon intake while minimizing water loss. Understanding how pore opening is regulated could help us design plants that are more robust and thus could result in crops that we can rely on to provide food in increasingly challenging environments.”
It all goes back to one of the first lessons she recalls from Cambridge: that engineering is about working together for the betterment of all.
Outside of mathematics and biology, Akpa is a champion of learning in general and the flexibility to update your understanding as you go, even if it means occasionally admitting you were wrong.
“Never stop challenging your own notions, asking what your assumptions are and where they came from,” she said.
Life will always throw new data your way. Examine it in the context of your lived experience, but know that your lived experience is a part of that model you are using to interpret what you’re seeing.”
Be open to being wrong; it happens when you’re going after hard problems.”
And she’s got the data to prove it.