Leadership that lifts
When Chemistry professor Dr. Mary Konkle first stepped onto Ball State’s campus as an undergraduate student, she wasn’t a chemistry student but a music education major. Through the influence of encouraging faculty mentors and enjoyable chemistry courses, Dr. Konkle was a chemistry major by the end of her sophomore year.
“Music and chemistry are very similar to me. They each were so fascinating and compelling to humans that we came up with notation and nomenclature to communicate and study things in the realm of the unseen. They both take years to master and have space to create new products and understanding,” said Dr. Konkle.
Today, as a she leads a chemistry research lab in the Department of Chemistry, Dr. Konkle not only leads groundbreaking research, but numerous dedicated students on their paths to impactful careers, many of whom name her as a catalyst in their pursuits. As a notable proponent for LSAMP, she takes pride and finds passion in leading minority students to embrace their skills, drive, and influence upon the world through scientific discovery.
Dr. Konkle’s leadership style is unique: she sees herself as a true part of the team, rather than only the director or manager.
“In both music and chemistry, I have always been an ensemble player. I enjoy working as part of a team towards a cohesive goal. Being a member of a team does not diminish one’s own worth, but rather allows a broader purpose to be achieved. I try to perpetuate that mentality in our research group,” said Dr. Konkle.
Leaders in the lab
Dr. Konkle is an advocate and leader in Ball State’s LSAMP program, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, which promotes an increase in minority students completing STEM bachelor’s degrees and advancing interest in graduate studies. During her 11 years as a Ball State faculty member, she has directly mentored 44 students and counting.
Currently, she is leading a team of student researchers in her Foundational Sciences Building lab. “We are protein biochemists! We study a family of proteins (CISD proteins) that are in humans, but were not known until 2004. This family is a target for drug design against type-2 diabetes, Parkinson’s and breast cancer,” she said. They are still working to determine this protein family’s job in a healthy cell.
Dr. Konkle and her team of student chemists are part collaborative team that considers this question at a molecular level. They are working with Dr. Michael Menze, a mitochondrial physiologist at the University of Louisville, who evaluates the cellular level, and Dr. Werner Geldenhuys, a pharmacologist at West Virginia University, who is studying the organismal level. Dr. Konkle believes that when research is done in an interdisciplinary space, collaboration is key.
According to Dr. Konkle, chemistry has a strong tradition of faculty-mentored student research. “Nothing facilitates a person transforming from student to professional faster than experience in research,” she said. “Students learn a variety of skills, some technical and scientific and others categorized as ‘soft skills’ like communicating their work through both the written and spoken word and working in a team.”
Through LSAMP, she believes that there has been a significant increase in accessibility to high-impact practice for all students. The funding provided by the LSAMP grant has supported several students under her mentorship, many of whom are first-generation college students or the first in their family to pursue a career in STEM. “[It’s] led me to a stronger appreciation for both a diversified STEM workforce and the roadblocks to achieving that aim,” she said.
Current senior and LSAMP student Mary Asante has been grateful for the opportunity to work in the lab and the impact it has made on her future. “One of the things I have loved is the opportunity for minority students to participate in research. It’s great that we’re able to do research, and, in the summer, do it as paid work,” said Asante.
Dr. Konkle is passionate about lifting and empowering students to become leaders in STEM. Her goal is that each student will take away an experience tailored to them from her lab.
“I hope students get and take away what they need. Each person has their own vision from what they want from their career and life. The undergraduate research experience is a fantastic vehicle to both gain both desired skills and experience and learn what they want from a professional career. Sometimes that means learning that bench science isn’t their dream job!”
“On my best days and in my best moments, I hope that I am a catalyst for their transformation. I love the variety they bring to my life, both from their background and where they want to go after graduating from Ball State University. Their perspectives are ever-remodeling my world view,” said Dr. Konkle.
Chimere Nnatubeugo, a 2020 chemistry graduate, worked in Dr. Konkle’s lab from Spring 2018 to Summer 2020. Now, she works as a researcher for the Eli Lilly Diabetes and Complications Research Division.
“Hands-on lab experience at the University level has aided me in discovering my passions and building an understanding on how the scientific world works,” said Nnatubeugo. “I’ve gained a better appreciation of the specific skills and experiences expected in the field and I’ve learned how to ask questions and broaden my network when I feel stuck or overwhelmed.”
She believes that working with Dr. Konkle has been one of the most influential factors in her on-going success in chemistry research, as she learned how to balance research with daily stressors, such as classes, work and extracurricular activities.
“Lab work can be tedious and frustrating at times, but my research experience in Dr. Konkle’s lab helped me understand how to tackle problems, understand other scientific processes and branch out through collaboration with other STEM researchers,” she added.
“My time in LSAMP has really helped me feel more welcome and comfortable in the STEM field. I gained adequate presentation skills, networking opportunities, mentorship and conference experience all while learning about different career opportunities and PhD programs aimed towards bringing more diversity into STEM spaces,” said Nnatubeugo.
For many former, current, and incoming students Dr. Konkle’s work and leadership shapes minds and futures. Her dedication to students, both academically and personally, radiates through the stories of those impacted by her work. The College of Sciences and Humanities celebrates her incredible commitment to research, equity for minority students in STEM, and investing in the lives and successes of each student who passes through her lab.