The DNALC's multi-disciplinary staff has experience in elementary, secondary, and collegiate instruction; biochemistry and molecular biological research; computer programming; design, photography, fine arts, and interior design; science journalism; public relations and development; and opinion research.

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Alexandra Manaia

Looking back to figure out how I became interested in biology, I found the first hints in my childhood. Living by the coast near Lisbon, Portugal, walking distance from the beach, nourished my curiosity for the marine environment. During holidays spent in the countryside either at the northeast mountains or at the endlessly flat south, I also got acquainted with all sorts of wild plants, fruit trees, and farm animals that I liked to observe and draw.

My parents, a lawyer and a Romance languages secondary school teacher, were avid readers and good storytellers. Being read to before sleep developed my interest in learning from stories and stimulated my imagination. I could have chosen a "storytelling" path, such as literary or journalistic studies to approach my curiosity for nature. However, especially as a teen, I was determined to choose a different profession than my family. Also, probably wrongly, I assumed that science was harder and more relevant than humanistic studies and that if I succeeded in science I would prove to be smarter and be likely to make higher impact contributions to the world... Inspiring secondary school teachers and great science TV documentaries further influenced me to become a biologist.

During practical classes at college, my interest in "wild nature" was surmounted by my enjoyment at performing laboratory-based work. Particularly, before graduating in Biology at Lisbon University, I took final year training at an Immunology Lab in Oporto University in northern Portugal, which was a great first immersion in doing science. I went on to complete a Ph.D. in Developmental Biology at Paris 7 University, investigating blood cell formation in early mouse embryos. This longer research experience made me realize I liked to communicate science more broadly than just to scientists. Later, in parallel to my post-doctoral training, I had the opportunity to teach undergraduate students. Discovering and enjoying the powerful interactions generated in the classroom I decided to turn my professional path towards science education.

I then joined the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, as Science Education Officer. There I ran a professional development program aimed at for European secondary school science teachers. I conceived, organized, and conducted workshops that trained teachers through direct interaction with scientists. I was especially impressed by the Eastern European teachers I met who, regardless of the difficulties they faced, showed particular resilience and creativity. I sensed there was something worth learning from educational professionals working in particularly adverse conditions, to learn more about the links between education and international development.

A Fulbright Scholarship allowed me to enroll for a Masters in International Education Development at Columbia University, New York, where I gained insight to the main challenges facing education worldwide, in terms of access and quality, and on the lessons learned from previously implemented policies and programs. After completing the Masters, I contacted Dave Micklos at the DNALC when looking for work opportunities. He then introduced me to the Urban Barcode Project (UBP).

The UBP aims at engaging science high school students in real scientific projects, especially those from minority groups who are underrepresented in science. Joining the UBP team turned out to be a very fruitful match; I am using my prior experience as a science educator and my knowledge of planning and managing education initiatives targeted at disadvantaged populations acquired at Columbia. Working with enthusiastic young UBP students has been particularly inspiring and I am eager to complete the full cycle of the project, through proposals, sample collection, laboratory and bioinformatics research and finally presenting results at a symposium. I enjoy providing a favorable environment for the students’ projects to grow and flourish, turning into well-rounded and meaningful stories.

Life sometimes takes surprising turns to help us realize who we are… Initially reluctant to embrace a “story telling career” or teaching, I pursued I scientific path to differentiate myself from my family, but ended up finding a professional niche that I am passionate about and that reunites it all.

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