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Belinda Apka

Akpa’s NSF Grant Blends Investigation, Innovation, and Inspiration

Thirty percent of the global population suffers from iron deficiency anemia (IDA), a nutritional deficiency that results in extreme fatigue, headaches, and chest pain. If untreated, IDA can lead to heartbeat disorders, complications during pregnancy, and delayed growth and development in young children. 

“While animal protein is a good source of iron, many people in the world subsist on a plant-based diet—whether due to personal choice, cultural practice, socioeconomic status, or any other factor,” said UT-ORNL Joint Associate Professor Belinda Akpa. “Developing crops that assimilate more iron could go a long way toward reducing the prevalence of IDA.” 

Even with modern fertilizers and gene editing technology, making plants more iron-rich is no easy task. Iron is essential to plants, enabling the creation of DNA and the proteins necessary for photosynthesis, but is toxic to plants in high amounts. 

One of Akpa’s friends and colleagues, Professor Terri Long at North Carolina State University (NCSU), has been researching plant iron metabolism for years. While Long has identified and named two iron-regulating plant proteins, experimentally uncovering all the other genes and molecules involved could take a lifetime and an army of scientists. 

Unfortunately, in addition to a shortage of dietary iron, the world is facing a shortage of young people interested in the STEM careers involved in new crop development and implementation—from biologists and chemists to ecologists and supply chain analysts. 

“So many children believe that they are not good at math, and that math has limited relevance to the real world or their daily lives,” said UT Institute of Agriculture Associate Professor and Extension Specialist Jennifer Richards. “Part of the problem is that outreach efforts are often included in research projects as an afterthought, resulting in educational efforts that feel very disconnected from the actual science.” 

When discussing the experimental infeasibility of Long’s research, Long and Akpa saw an opportunity to fight all these problems at once. 

In January 2022, the two researchers secured a $1.4 million joint grant from the Synthetic and Systems Biology program of the National Science Foundation. Under the grant, Akpa and Long have been testing an innovative method of refining plant metabolic experiments and models. In parallel with their research, Richards and other extension agents at UT and NCSU are developing an extensive outreach curriculum, which will be deployed in partnership with 4-H Youth Development programs in both states. 

“One of the primary goals of high-quality STEM education is to create situations where kids are ‘doing science’, not just learning about science,” Richards said. “By working with the research team from the initial design phase, we can identify the core concepts and engineering practices inherent in the research. This allows us to craft learning experiences that truly bring science to life.” 

The extension team’s feedback has been exciting to the researchers as well. 

“I have learned so much about what it takes to translate our lofty scientific concepts into experiential learning that a middle or high schooler might actually enjoy, retain, and want to know more about,” Akpa said. 

In this case, Akpa’s lofty scientific concepts involve collating observations from previous experimental studies on plant iron metabolism. Akpa then feeds these observations into computer simulations that look for patterns of omission, identifying where an additional experiment would have the most impact. After Long’s team performs that experiment, they feed the new information into the simulation to determine the next round of experiments. 

“Our world is made of many complex, interacting systems,” said Akpa. “Data alone will not get us where we need to go. Knowing how to map out what you’re thinking and make it testable will aid in decision making, and it aids in effective communication between multiple stakeholders.” 

This loop combines molecular biology, imaging, biochemistry, and systems biology into an efficient system that gets results—and results in interested youth. 

“This process shows students real-life applications of math that don’t ‘feel’ like math,” Richards said. “It presents career paths in math that students may have never considered.” 

In January of this year, the extension team brought classroom teachers, extension educators and research scientists together to brainstorm how to make the project’s research concepts relatable to students of different ages. 

“It was fascinating to hear the different perspectives and find the natural areas of overlap,” Richards recalled. “These areas of overlap became our starting point in developing the learning activities.” 

Akpa and Long’s grant embodies the mission of land-grant institutions like UT. Even as they advance the development of iron-rich crops and pioneer a new method of experimental design, the interdisciplinary team is inspiring young Americans to see the world through a scientific lens. 

“I think this grant’s outreach component will make STEM accessible to kids who typically shy away from math,” Richards said. “We are bringing the research of this project to life in a way that engages students and helps them see themselves as scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.”