Representation Matters: McNair Chemistry Research Intern Aulane Mpouli

Aulane and Yao 10_26_20

Aulane Mpouli understands from experience why representation matters in STEM fields. As an EWU McNair Scholar and Chemistry and Biochemistry major, Aulane is currently applying to chemistry PhD programs with the goal of conducting bench to bedside translational cancer research. Interested in mechanisms to evaluate protein-ligand interactions, as well as chemical biology, and enzyme dynamics in disease prevention, she also seeks to deepen her understanding of proteomics and drug designs. Her ultimate goal is to contribute to a team that furthers knowledge about the detection and prevention of cancers. She wants to use her education to make the world a better place as well as to be a role model for others. And to think we almost missed her.


STEM disciplines have not always been the most welcoming and inclusive, and there was a time in high school when Aulane could not imagine herself belonging to the world of science. Chemistry or biochemistry was not within her realm of possible futures. That is, until a chemistry teacher who looked like her expanded her perceived possibilities by demonstrating first hand that minority excellence in STEM was possible. This commitment to STEM excellence and inclusion gave her a sense of belonging and a dream. It made all the difference.


After that shift in mindset, Aulane began to seek out opportunities to develop her scientific skills and experiences through research, collaboration and dedicated scholarly engagement. She came to Eastern Washington University from the western side of the state on a track scholarship to compete as a Heptathlete, and determined to major in chemistry.

Reflecting on what is lost when we neglect broad inclusion, Aulane states: I believe not only do STEM fields, but many other high-impact fields of study miss out on the potential that people of color could and would bring to the progression of said field due to a lack of representation. In the year of 2020 it blows my mind that there are people of color who are still achieving titles such as  "The first black man to…" and "The first Latina woman to..."

The federal TRIO Programs provide services to support students who come from backgrounds where they might have lacked opportunities to pursue higher education. As part of TRIO, Eastern's McNair program promotes a broadly welcoming future through education as we provide research and other scholarly activities to prepare our scholars for doctoral programs. Participating in a faculty-mentored research internship is key to the EWU McNair experience. So when EWU and the McNair summer research internships had to move on-line due to the pandemic, we worked hard to find creative ways to continue our McNair summer program workshops, seminars, and research projects virtually. Many students moved home for the summer, including Aulane, who conducted her McNair summer 2020 research internship totally in the virtual world.


While attending McNair Zoom workshops and seminars throughout the summer with the other fourteen McNair rearch interns, McNair staff and guest presenters, she also worked on-line with her McNair faculty research mentor Dr. Yao Houndonougbo, who recently was promoted to full professor in EWU's Chemistry & Biochemistry Department. She completed her 2020 McNair summer research internship with a project titled: Molecular Docking Study of ITPA Protein Substrate Complex. The project is an extension of work that Dr. Houndonougbo has been doing to apply computational chemistry methods to study protein–ligand interactions and the property structure relationships in materials. These research projects have been funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As part of the NIH funded research and in collaboration with Dr. Nicholas Burgis, chair of EWU's Chemistry, Biochemistry & Physics Department, they have recently reported the study of the effect of mutation on the structure and dynamic properties of the inosine triphosphate pyrophosphatase (ITPA) protein.


You can read more about this research in an article that was recently published in the Journal of Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics: Structural dynamics of inosine triphosphate pyrophosphatase (ITPA) protein and two clinically relevant mutants: molecular dynamics simulations


Aulane Mpouli’s McNair summer research continues this study by using computational docking to explore bound conformation and energy in the binding of ITP to ITPA protein, seeking to better understand the mechanism of ITPA binding. The importance of this research pertains to visualizing operative configurations of a protein-ligand complex that will cleanse nucleotide pools and repair damaged DNA. She recently presented her project along with nine other EWU McNair scholars at the Baylor University Virtual Research Conference and Graduate School Fair, which virtually brought together over 350 students, staff, and faculty from McNair programs across the country to present their research.


You can view a poster that covers the information in that oral presentation at this link to the EWU Digital Commons McNair Collection website:

Aulane Mpouli: Molecular Docking Study of ITPA Protein Substrate Complex


Aulane's research required learning to use the Autodock program to create models of molecules to test potential reactions. The pictures below illustrate a comparison between an ideal configuration, and one that would yield lower success

Lowest RMSD

Macromolecule-Lowest RMSD: the ideal configuration using Autodock to predict


Macromolecule-Run 1 is a configuration that would work in galvanizing the desired reaction, but would yield lower success compared to Macromolecule-Lowest RMSD)


Aulane's mother has told her to follow her dreams, because they know the way. She knows it's not always easy to be the positive change you want to see in the world, but is determined to do so in spite of the difficulties: I share the pain of young scholars of color who have a passion but are deterred from pursuing it with a perception that they will have no chance due to lack of representation. With the help and support of the McNair Scholars’ Program, I know I will become a figure of representation for those young scholars.


Please check back on our McNair website as we will keep you updated on Aulane Mpouli as she applies to PhD programs and continues on her journey, which she makes to follow her dreams, for our shared future, and for those who will continue after her as she shows them what might be possible.

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