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.