Rita Anoh’s first exposure to college-level research wasn’t something she recognized as a path to follow. While in high school, the daughter of Anoh’s advanced biology teacher presented a poster to her class about what she was working on in graduate school. “At the time, in fact, what she was offering didn’t click for me,” Anouh laughs. “Because I didn’t know you could do research like that, I didn’t put it together.”

Instead, Anwa traces the beginning of her journey to science from her childhood in Ghana, where she enjoyed spending the summer helping out at a health clinic run by her grandmother, who is a nurse. Anoh especially liked the problem solving and teamwork involved. “Every time, people leave like, ‘Problem solved! ‘ or ‘Oh, my problem hasn’t been resolved, but I know where to go next.’

Anoh’s enthusiasm for finding solutions to complex problems shifted from medicine to research when she arrived as an undergraduate at Mount Saint Mary (The Mount) University in Maryland, and later as a participant in the 2022 Bernard S. and Sophie G. Gould MIT Summer Research Program in Biology (BSG- MSRP-Bio).

As a first-year biology major at The Mount, Anoh applied to a summer research program with encouragement from Patrick Lombardi, Associate Professor of Chemistry. I got an internship to work in his lab exploring how to detect and repair DNA damage in cells. Then, the summer following her sophomore year, she participated in the Caltech WAVE Fellows program in the lab of Douglas Reese, Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson Professor of Chemistry, focusing on the structures and mechanisms of complex metalloproteins and integral transmembrane proteins. Anoh is also the recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship for students wishing to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering. “I was the first sophomore to receive in my school, so that was very exciting,” Anouh adds.

‘It was a blast’

Eager to continue building her science skills and trying out a new city, Anoh quickly accepted an offer to join the BSG-MSRP-Bio program at MIT last summer.

Anoh spent 10 weeks in the lab of Associate Professor of Biology Joey Davis, whose lab is working to discover how cells build and degrade complex molecular machines quickly and efficiently. Anuh also worked with Robert Sauer, a Salvador E. Luria professor of biology at MIT, who studies the relationship between protein structure, function, sequence, and folding.

“It was a blast,” Anouh says.

Specifically, her project focused on a compound in the cell that helps oversee the breakdown of proteins, or the breakdown of proteins into peptides, or chains of amino acids, and then into amino acids for recycling by the cell. This molecular machine is called ClpXP, and it consists of two basic structures: ClpX and ClpP. First, ClpX identifies and unlocks the peptide sequences in the protein substrate to be broken down; Then ClpP splits the unfolded peptides into smaller pieces.

In her research, Anoh looked at degradation of the RseA protein by ClpXP that is linked to another piece of molecular machinery called SspB. This ‘adapter protein’ delivers the target protein to ClpXP to initiate its fragmentation. By degrading RseA, ClpXP plays an essential role in the signaling pathway in bacteria allowing the bacterial cell to respond to stress. She and her mentor examined the samples under cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM) at MIT.nano and collected data to map their 3D map, highlighting how SspB-assisted ClpXP breaks down proteins inside the cell.

In addition to her gaining technical and research skills, one of the points Anoh took away from her summer at MIT was “the extent of collaboration and dynamism in science in general,” she says, especially with mentors such as Alireza Ganbarpour, a joint postdoc at Davis and Laboratories Sawyer.

“During her time in our lab, she became friends with everyone,” says Ganbarbour, who was supervising Anuh and another college student she was friends with. “Rita has developed a wonderful relationship with her and has helped her on many occasions with her project.”

Anoh attended group meetings, lab retreats, and conferences. At MSRP seminars, she heard from MIT researchers about their own experiences of solving problems using advice from fellow scientists.

“I talk to my colleagues about what we all do, how different people in the same lab work together, or how different labs work together,” Anoh says. “I learned different ways to achieve the same goal.”

Gunbarpur Anuh also helped deepen her understanding of materials beyond the bench. Passionate about structural biology and biochemistry, he provides interpretations and links Anwa with materials to expand her knowledge of researchers and related concepts. “Not only was I learning things in the lab, I was actually learning the meaning of what I was doing, so that was really cool,” she says.

Now in her final year at The Mount, Anoh intends to keep an open mind. After all, an open mind is the reason she acted on her professor’s suggestion when she was a freshman to apply to the program that set her on her current path to a research career. Without a doubt, Anouh says she plans to pursue a PhD in biochemistry and mentor young researchers like her along the way.

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