Mink Inc.

A picture of Mona Minkara and her current access assistants.

By the support of access assistants offered through disabilities service offices, blind students thrive in post secondary academic institutions.  According to the University of Minnesota Disability Resource Center page, access assistants are "Trained student workers [who] help to remove barriers for students with disabilities. They may assist you with laboratory access, notetaking, library assistance, individual reading, textbook taping, and other activities."

As a blind student, I've found access assistants indispensable. They act as your eyes when you are in lecture, studying outside of class, or, for me as a postdoctoral researcher, working in my lab on computational chemistry research. Access Assistants are not experts in the topic that the blind student or researcher is studying--they are simply expected to read and describe exactly what they see at the promptings of the student and to carry out simple, sight-dependent tasks such as writing down notes.

Without the help of Mink Inc., my team, I would not be able to perform my research. Their assistance bolsters my work, and their positive and collaborative attitudes lead to many lasting connections with past and present members. Mink Inc. has allowed me to grow in a managerial and advisory position. Furthermore, as my team assists me, I learn a lot from them. I can't wait to see what great things they go on to accomplish!

Several assistants reflected on what it is like to work through readers. Read their thoughts here.

Mink Inc. Alumni

Connor Venteicher

Head Shot of Connor VenteicherI joined Mona’s phenomenal team of readers in May of 2016, right before graduating from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and a minor in Management. Since then, I have been working full time as Mona’s “jack of all trades” access assistant. By that I mean I am her eyes for anything and everything pertaining to her computational chemistry research on a daily basis. Through working with Mona, I have gained invaluable skills that will help guide me to my future in chemistry. To name just a few, these skills include general programming (such as bash scripting and Python), scientific computer programs (such as VMD and XMGRACE), and technical writing/editing. The scientific knowledge aside, my time as a part of Mink Inc. has proven to be extremely rewarding thanks to being around great minds like Mona and the rest of the Mink Inc. crew on a daily basis. There is truly never a dull moment.

Tanner Lambson

Head shot of Tanner LambsonI am truly proud to be a member of Dr. Minkara’s reading team. As a student researching in Materials Science & Engineering, I find the opportunity to work with Mona to be truly once-in-a-lifetime. Presently, I maintain the role of Technical Writer/Editor for Dr. Minkara. I help to revise, plan, and coordinate Dr. Minkara’s publications as I ensure that they are organized and structurally consistent with her broader oeuvre. My main focus is to help Mona’s writing process run smoothly so that she can research without hindrance. I have learned so much from Dr. Minkara, from being a better communicator to improving my organizational and writing abilities. I hope to learn even more as I continue to work with her and the friends who I have found in Mink. Inc.

Natalie Guse

Natalie's HeadshotMona’s work and compelling personal story calls to be heard. As a Technical Writing Assistant, I help articulate her ideas and showcase her unique voice. I edit academic journal articles, personal statements, and research proposals to ensure content clarity and consistency. My work supplements my ongoing education as a Technical Writing and Communication student and provides hands-on insight into the world of academic and professional writing. In addition to gaining writing experience, working with Mona has been personally rewarding. Her generous heart, creative spirit, and unwavering strength inspire me to believe in my purpose and fulfill my potential. I am truly honored to support her as a part of the Mink Inc. team.

Katelyn Feuling

Head shot of Katelyn Feuling

Every day, Dr. Minkara serves to inspire and brazenly pave the way for aspiring scientists through her truly remarkable story and journey. Curiosity and innovation is at home with Dr. Minkara and within the hearts of all of Mink Inc. That is why it is imperative to have an Executive Access Assistant -- someone behind the scenes managing schedules, communications, and sometimes just a good office de-clutter. Oft and affectionately called the "swiss army knife" of Mink Inc, my job entails a multitude of tasks; the goal is ensuring that Dr. Minkara is able to continue pursuing professional and personal goals and breaching the bounds of what anyone thought was possible. It is truly an honor to work alongside Mona, and being her assistant has given me an invaluable experience and perspective that anyone in this world would be lucky to have! As an aspiring quantum chemist myself, this job provided a unique insight into academia and has furthered my passion for my own craft immensely.

Alex McKeever

Head shot of Alex McKeever
I perform any software related tasks that come up during Mona's research. Mainly I maintain and update the "Mink Ink ToolSet", which is an increasing collection of python scripts started by the previous technical access assistant, Tyler Westland. These scripts aid in the collection and processing of data which would be impossible to do by hand. As Mona pursues new areas of research it is my job to make sure she has a complementary software suite at her disposal. Whether that means modifying old scripts to have more advanced functionality or creating entirely new scripts.

Tyler Westland

Head shot of Tyler WestlandMy work for Mona is unconventional compared to the other Mink Inc members. In short I am Mona’s “code monkey”. Despite Mona’s almost complete blindness she is a visual learner and thus prefers looking at plots of her data. The process of making these plots by hand is always tedious and long, even for simple plots. My job has been to automate and enhance this process. To accomplish this I have created what I call the “Mink Ink ToolSet”. This is written in Python and contains code to parse out data files, average data, average averaged data, perform complex analysis such as liquid surface detection, and create complex outputs such as videos.

Grace Steward

Grace's FaceMy name is Grace Steward, and I am a senior at the University of Minnesota studying Journalism with an emphasis in strategic communications. My goal is to work as a public relations professional in crisis management; an interesting goal to have in a work environment dedicated to scientific research. Working with Dr. Minkara is as capricious as it is edifying, a reflection of the woman herself. I have been working as Mona’s access assistant since December 2017. I am in charge of coordinating her schedule and making sure what she needs is accessible to her. I also work on her digital strategy, shaping it into something that encourages connection while reflecting the brilliant scientist she is. My position with Mona has taught me to be more empathetic; in a culture that moves faster by the day, she has helped me to take the time to slow down and focus on the details. This experience has added to my ability to multitask, write copy, and work under time constraints; all skills that will serve me well in my career.

John Hamill

John's MugMy name is John, and I am a senior at the University of Minnesota majoring in Classics with an emphasis in the Latin language and Roman literature. I began working for Mona as her technical writer access assistant in December of 2016. I work alongside other Mink Inc. readers and writers to produce writings that properly reflects the story of Dr. Minkara’s research. I enjoy working alongside Mona as she is not only an exceptional computational chemist, but an absolute delight to be around. Mona’s journey is an inspiration, and it is an honor to be able to incorporate her storytelling into works related to her scientific progress. While I am a member of Mink Inc, I hope to improve my abilities to condense my writing and better my communication skills in technical communication. My professional goal is to go on to medical school and become a general practice physician. I believe all of my experiences at Mink Inc will add to the journey, and I can only hope for every moment to be memorable.

Madeline Reid

Head shot of Madeline ReidOn one of the first days that I started working with Mona, she said to me, “Don’t worry, it’s ok if you don’t understand everything. I’m the brain, you’re the eyes.” That’s exactly what my employment has been. I serve as Mona’s eyes by being her go-to researcher. I find articles and journal publications related to her work and organize them into her existing library of resources. I also help her edit her writing projects, and I attend meetings and presentations with her to take notes. I am really grateful for this unique job that I have working for Mona. As but a humble sophomore, I’ve found myself closely involved in a post doc’s work—something I could never have imagined for myself at this time. I have learned so much, not only about chemistry, but also about what it means to be a scientist. Working with Mona has given me a new concept of what I am capable of aspiring towards and achieving. She has broadened my perspective of my education, and she has given me a model of what it looks like to be undaunted by obstacles. Plus, she’s just too much fun to be around. Mona is definitely my boss, but I also consider her my friend.

Kaitlyn Koerner

Headshot of Kaitlyn KoernerHello! I am Kaitlyn Koerner, a junior in Material Science and Engineering who started working with Mona in September 2015 in the capacity of a Reader. I read aloud and record academic papers that can be played back later for Mona’s listening. This allows Dr. Minkara to fully integrate herself in works about her field of study. I do not work with Mona often in person, requiring me to be thoughtful on how I dictate complex figures and equations. Because I do not get immediate feedback on their interpretation, I attempt to be consistent and clear, ensuring that my dictation evokes the proper image or symbol. This leads to considerations of word selection and their different interpretations. The continued evaluation of chosen words has helped grow and strengthen my communication skills and better my understanding of other people in my life by the way they speak. My personal goal in my current position is to hone my skills in communication; specifically become better at articulation and speech. My professional goal is currently building an audio library of Mona's work.

Sumyuktha Vijay

Head shot of Sumyuktha VijayI am a sophomore majoring in Neuroscience and planning to do research in the future. It is an honor to be working with Mona as I see her doing her research every day and it excites me even more about my future. I am currently working as Mona’s Access Assistant. I plan and coordinate her life which helps her do her research in peace. I also help make sure that her work environment is clutter free and everything is more accessible. Mona truly is so well connected with everyone in her field that she has a very complicated schedule and try my best to make it seem uncomplicated. I love working for Mona, she has taught me to be more observant and pay attention to tiny details. This is preparing me for my future in research. I want to continue to work for Mona and learn more from her while providing her the best work environment. I am really a proud member of Mink Inc.

Daniel Runningen

My name is Daniel Runningen and I am an Head shot of Daniel Runningenupperclassman in Computer Science with a focus in both artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction. I started working with Dr. Minkara mid-October 2015 as one of her readers. My primary role is to help Mona with technical tasks, including anything from double checking code for any syntax errors and creating reference documents to performing system upkeep and maintenance on her three work computers. Mona’s ability to work efficiently often relies on her readers to be able to record and recall any information she may need later, so having a smooth network to share documents is key. Because I work with her more often than some of her readers, she is able to give me immediate feedback on my tasks and is always pushing me to be my best. I am hoping that working with Mona will give me practice in explaining concepts both verbally and in writing so I may hopefully become a professor in my field.

Kate Lowisz

Head shot of Kate LowiszI just graduated from UMN with a B.S. of Chemistry and a minor in Sustainability Studies.  I started working with Dr. Minkara in September 2015 as one of her readers.  I review and edit all of Mona's scientific writing, research and dissect literature Mona refers to in her writing or is needed to expand upon scientific concepts, describe visual information to her, and also help analyze data from her simulations.  Working with a postdoctoral researcher during my undergraduate studies is giving me the opportunity to gain experience in academic research and chemistry knowledge that I will utilize in my future career.  Mona has become a close friend and great mentor throughout the past few months we've worked together.  I will have a wonderful networking opportunity when I accompany Mona to the National ACS meeting in March, and I will remain  working full time with Dr. Minkara until May 2016.  In June, I will depart to Liberia to serve in the Peace Corps as a Secondary Science Teacher for 27 months.

Brent Vizanko

Head shot of Brent VizankoMy name is Brent Vizanko and I am a junior in chemical engineering.  My job in Mink Inc. was to update Dr. Minkara's recording website so that she could listen to her papers from anywhere. This has allowed her to easily listen to the literature that her research relies on so that she is able to further the field of computational chemistry.  While the majority of my job was done individually, I received feedback from Mona on a daily basis.  This helped me format her website in the most intuitive way possible, which makes it easier for her to keep up-to-date with her current projects and allows archiving of past projects and resources.  Working with Mona in the capacity that I have has taught me new things about programming that I would have never known otherwise.  I  learned new things nearly everyday that I worked with Mona, which was extraordinarily fulfilling.

Jikky Thankachan

Head shot of Jikky ThankachanAs a technical reader, I served as the eyes for Mona Minkara, PhD. The duties of my work consisted of performing background research, recording voice transcripts of scientific papers and abstracts, implementation of basic commands in Terminal, familiarization with molecular dynamics (MD) simulations, conveying complicated visual imagery through dialogue, compilation and analysis of data, and accompanying Dr. Minkara to national American Chemical Society meetings. For one year I had the pleasure of working as a technical reader for Mona. This position furthered me both professionally and personally. The most valuable things I learned working with Mona were to have a keen eye for detail and an undying perseverance when faced with unforeseen challenges. Most importantly, I built a lifelong bond with Mona that I am forever grateful for and constantly inspired by.

Dan Urul

WHead shot of Dan Urulhen I first started working with Dr. Mona Minkara as her technical reader in July 2014, I acted as her “eyes,” reading text (such as e-mails or journal articles) and assisting her with visually-oriented basic tasks so that she could minimize the time she spent away from her work. As time passed, I became more involved in directly working with Mona, often assisting with the interpretation of visual data as well as proofreading and peer-editing Mona’s written work. From my time with Dr. Minkara, I have developed basic familiarity with computational biochemistry, leaving the position with competency in VMD and Gaussian, as well as with basic Unix scripting. I have also drastically improved my scientific communication abilities, and my attentiveness to detail and sense of awareness has sharply increased. I also gained valuable insight into both the graduate school experience and the post-graduate transition process, which became vital as I myself prepared to begin graduate education. Ultimately, the time I spent as a member of “Mink. Inc.” proved invaluable, and I would wager the same would be said by anyone else who worked with her.

Chrissa Harmon

Head shot of Chrissa Harmon

I had the phenomenal pleasure of working as a Reader for Dr. Minkara during her PhD studies at the University of Florida.  She interviewed me for the position sneakily; after being introduced to her as a friend, she handed me a paper and casually asked me to describe to her what I saw. After formally beginning work with her, I functioned as her personal assistant, and I flatter myself to think as her good friend as well.  I helped Mona maintain her schedule and run personal errands, and she helped me achieve a greater understanding of professionalism, empathy, and myself.  I am forever so grateful for the opportunity to work with Mona. Her brilliance of mind and heart shine brightly in all of her endeavors.  Mona is a powerhouse of human being.  Always carrying forward what she taught me, I am excited to see what Mona’s future holds for her. 

Sean Jones

Picture of Sean JonesI graduated with a B.S. in Physics in 2014 after having worked with Mona as a technical reader for a little over a year. If you read Dan Urul’s blurb, you’ll find an accurate description of my activities as a technical reader, though phrased with an eloquence I won’t try to surpass. While I, too, gained insight and technical knowledge working for Mona, the knowledge I treasure most is an appreciation for her indomitable spirit. The number of challenges I saw Mona face would have left me in the fetal position. From the mundane tasks such as crossing the street (with no audible way to tell when to cross) to the scholarly tasks of convincing her advisor and his peers of her insights into the H.P. Pylori active site, Mona faced it all with a giggle. My memories of Mona give me inspiration when I face challenges of any nature. Since leaving Minc Inc., I’ve been working for Intel in Oregon, and am currently applying to graduate schools for a Materials Science PhD.

Pranjul Sharma

Head shot of Pranjul SharmaShe has a Vision! This is what I have always felt about Dr. Mona Minkara. I worked with her as a reader during my Master’s in Computer Engineering. As a reader, my work majorly involved reading out loud papers, emails, research related protein analysis job results and mapping, marking the graphs and organizing her day to tasks. Later I worked on creating e-commercial website for her handmade knits and career focused website for her academic accolades and research work. I was the friend who would be ready to answer, read and be there for whatever she needed me to be there for. I never felt that I worked for Mona; rather we worked together each day. She shows what it is to live life and achieve your dreams where every obstacle is small when you have the determination. Her passion is an inspiration to so many including me.

Juan Contreras

Head shot of Juan ContrerasOfficially, I was a reader for Dr. Minkara while she was working on her PhD at the University of Florida. Unofficially, I was a student of Mona. Her creativity, optimism, resilient persistence, thrill-seeking, and authenticity have greatly impacted and continue to guide my life-decisions. Needless to say, my professional experience with Dr. Minkara has developed to a cherished friendship with Mona.  After working with Mink Inc., I pursued a Master's degree in Quantitative and Computational Finance from Georgia Institute of Technology and will be working in New York  City starting June, 2016.


A Toast From a Past Mink Inc. Member

Recently, we had a dinner celebrating my transition from Minnesota to Boston, and one of my former Mink Inc. team members wrote a poem that goes a little something like this:

Give me a minute to spin you a tale
A tale of a group of incredible skill.
A tale of a boss who was way cooler still
A tale of a crew of assistants.

First there came Tanner an interesting guy.
Always a jovial fella.
A writer was he; he spoke Japanese too.
But honestly not all that wella.

Connor was there with his hair orange red.
And never did Venteicher pout.
40 hours a week with a boss who was sweet.
You should note that he really liked stout.

Natalie, she with a pun and a wink.
Always had a good eye for design.
Her smile contagious her style INSANE
Whatever she does she will shine.

Katie the youngest and hippest is last
My glass to her I raise too.
A bestie of mine and a mechanic fine
I hope that I never lose you.

And Mona, oh Mona, the head of Mink Inc
The one around this all resolves.
Everyone here is going to miss her
I believe I speak for us all. 

Tanner and Katie and Connor
And Natalie and Ben and all our new friends
A toast to Northeastern
A toast to Professor Minkara
A toast to friendships and trials and mirth.

Long may we aquaint.
And long may we live.

And Ben, don’t think I forgot about you.
We’re all so glad you’re here.
And Anxhela too.