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With tenacity and courage, Mona Minkara turns what others may consider ‘impossible’ into the possible

By Eileen Harvala, Department of Chemistry Communications Coordinator

Even when she was a small child, she always wanted to be a scientist. She was curious about how the world worked. Her inspiration came from Bill Nye the Science Guy, the Magic School Bus, and Sherlock Holmes. She was intrigued that the detective could see footprints and determine who made them.

For Mona Minkara, a post-doctoral associate working with Chemistry Professor J. Ilja Siepmann, nothing was impossible for these scientists, and nothing was impossible for her.  With tenacity, courage, and stubborn resistance to “you can’t do that,” from an early age, Mona has turned the impossible into the possible. It isn’t always easy. Mona is legally blind, diagnosed at the age of 7 with a genetic, degenerative eye disease. Her current vision is limited to a small amount on the periphery of her left eye, and the ability to tell light from dark. Her younger sister is also blind.

At the University of Minnesota, in addition to her support from Professor Siepmann, she is aided by six accessibility assistants who are her eyes, and read information and documents to her. She has computer and phone equipment that talks to her, and special magnifying instruments. She has also memorized her computer keyboard.

Forging her own way

With strong encouragement from her parents, Mona has learned to forge her own way in the scientific community, figuring many things out for herself and for others along the way. She was in special education throughout her K-12th grade education in her hometown of Hingham, MA. But she loved math and science and, in her sophomore year, insisted that she be allowed to take Advanced Placement biology despite the teacher’s objections. She earned one of the highest grades in the class, and received an apology from the teacher who became an invaluable mentor and guide.

Mona majored in chemistry and Middle Eastern studies at Wellesley College. “I originally thought that I might be a doctor,” she said. “I took a lot of classes based on interest and changed my major many times. But then I took a quantum mechanics class taught by a great teacher, and that helped me focus on computational chemistry.”

Conducting research

She conducted research throughout her undergraduate program, including four summers conducting computational research as part of the National Science Foundation’s Research for Undergraduates program. While at Wellesley, she received a one-year research grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This grant enabled her to work with Professor Mala Radhakrishnan after graduation. She spent that year researching properties of affinity and specificity using canonical enzyme/inhibitor complex of trypsin and bovine pancreatic trypsin inhibitor.

Teaching others

As she did in high school, Mona advocated for herself, teaching others, including the university, about what she needed. For example, she needed readers, called accessibility assistants, who help her read text, and specialized equipment.

“I had to fight a lot because people did not understand what I needed,” Minkara said, “but overall the experience was amazing.”

Professor Radhakrishnan, her adviser, invested time and effort into working with Mona, including the publishing of her first two papers as an undergraduate. A network of students helped her through, and one reader in particular, Pam Davis, became a deeply cherished personal friend.

When applying to graduate school, Mona sought a place that wanted her with a disabilities office committed to offering her help and support. She found that at the University of Florida, Gainesville, receiving assistance from the state of Florida and her coordinator Mary Anne Hastings. Mona worked with Professor Kenneth M. Merz Jr., and her graduate-school mentor for five years was post-doctorate Mike Weaver, Ph.D. Mona studied Helicobacter pylori urease using molecular dynamics, with a goal of identifying novel inhibitors for the enzyme.

Making choices

After graduate school, Mona was faced with a choice—a hard one—accept a post-doctoral position at Northeastern University in Boston, which is near her hometown of Hingham, MA, and go home to her beloved family, or accept Professor Siepmann’s invitation to join his research team at the University of Minnesota.

Siepmann leads a statistical mechanics research group specializing in particle-based computer simulation. In particular, he is interested in the development of efficient Monte Carlo algorithms and accurate force fields, and their application to the understanding of existing and the discovery of novel materials and separations process. Siepmann is also director of the Department of Energy-funded Nanoporous Materials Genome Center (NMGC), focusing on discovering and exploring microporous and mesoporous materials, which are important to energy technologies.

The goals of Mona’s research projects, which are supported through National Science Foundation grants, are to understand and predict phase behavior and spatial distribution of complex molecules in microheterogeneous environments.

“Ilja convinced me to come,” said Mona. “He saw my research, and believed that I could do great things at the University of Minnesota. I saw this as an opportunity to learn new things, do some different research, and study polymers.”

“During her Ph.D. research, Mona excelled in extracting mechanistic information for complex biochemical systems from molecular simulations,” said Siepmann. “This knowledge and her special viewpoint toward quantifying structural information will prove very useful for our research projects,” he said.

A learning experience

Having Mona come to the University of Minnesota has been a learning experience for everyone involved, particularly, Annie Bartels, managing director for the NMGC.

“Mona already had a good sense of the human and material resources she would require because she already developed and honed these methods during graduate school,” said Annie. “My efforts were largely figuring out how to make what she needed a reality within the University of Minnesota infrastructure in coordination with the appropriate individuals and offices such as the Disability Resource Center (DRC). “

While this all sounds relatively simple, said Bartels, the DRC has never worked with a chemist who is blind, and there was little precedent. There were many meetings and conversations and there were a lot of decisions and levels of approval to navigate. “Overall, it was a lot of organization, coordination, advocating on Mona’s behalf, and ensuring follow-through,” she said. Mona said that she is deeply appreciative and thankful for all of the help and support from Bartels and the DRC.

Mona said that she loves Minnesota, loves the research that she will be involved in, and appreciates Professor Siepmann and Annie for their invaluable support. “I am a challenge,” she said. “Not everyone wants to take that on. It takes a visionary like Ilja to work with someone like me.”

Blindness doesn’t define her

Blindness has shaped her personality, Mona said. But it does not define her as a person, as a scientist. Her parents, particularly, her “amazing” mother, taught her from an early age that she could do whatever she wanted. If there were challenges, she needed to figure out a way to overcome them.

Mona plans to conduct research at the University of Minnesota for two to three years, working toward the goal of a faculty position in academia. Her hobbies include a variety of physical activities such as horseback riding, zip lining, whitewater rafting, tandem biking, rock climbing and martial arts. Her other hobbies include knitting, hand drumming, listening to music and audio books. She also composes short stories and posts them on her blog at www.banana-days.tumblr.com. You can learn about Mona on her website at https://monaminkara.wordpress.com.

Reprinted with permission from Chemistry.