Posted on July 01 2015
This week's Wednesday Woman is the incredible inspiring Joanne Manaster. A Biology lecturer and STEM advocate, she brings science to life and accessible to thousands across the world through multi-digital sites. Mashable says her twitter account will make you smarter! Read her story here:
Bardega: Joanne, tell us a little bit about your background ~ what were you like growing up?
Manaster: I was quite shy but very curious. I did the usual things kids do, playing with friends outside, playing equally with dolls or cars with my siblings, and participating as a Girl Scout for many years. I loved to read all sorts of books and I particularly enjoyed when NOVA or National Geographic Specials would come on TV. My dad was in the Air Force and we moved around a bit. The most interesting place we lived was on Guam during my middle school and high school years. It was great to live in tropical weather all year long and have the privilege to enjoy the ocean habitat every day.
Bardega: You have had quite a varied career – from model to scientist. What sparked your interest in science and ultimately led you to the career path you took?
Manaster: I'd always been interested in nature and the human body. My father was a hospital administrator and my mom had numerous health issues and I'm sure these things colored by desire to go to medical school to become a doctor. I also spent a lot of time exploring the "boonies" on Guam where my father was stationed with the Air Force, so I attribute that to my interest in nature and honing my observation skills that are necessary in science.
The modeling was, as stories like these often go, a chance encounter where I was "discovered" in my high school cafeteria. Being a practical person raised by practical parents, I saw it as a great opportunity to earn money for college. It had another side effect, though, and that was its role in helping me break through my shyness and become more confident and poised. This has helped improve my teaching, speaking and presenting tasks.
As for finding my specialty in science, I recall sitting in a cell biology class one day and realizing deep down that THIS was exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I shifted my focus from medicine to research and realized along the way that my talents were truly with education, so that is where I am as a university biology educator, having taught labs, lectures and now in online teaching.
Bardega: You are a STEM advocate but the field is renowned for being male dominated - how have you found it and how do you think we encourage more women into the STEM industry?
Manaster: I was fortunate to work primarily with male scientists who valued equally the contributions from both women and men. I think this mirrored what I learned from my father while growing up - if you have a functioning body and a brain, there is no reason you can't do anything; it doesn't matter your gender.
I am a strong advocate for following your passion. For me that passion was science, and ultimately, teaching science. I believe women can do science as well as men, and everyone, especially young people, need to remember that.
Bardega: Lots of girls and women view you as a role model but who have been your role models throughout your career and how have they inspired you?
Manaster: I can think of two people whom I consider role models.
First, in graduate school was a very bright and kind entomologist, Dr. Ellis Macleod. (Interesting side note here: He is mentioned in two books written by eminent biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner, E.O. Wilson as his childhood friend.) I taught lab sections of the class Dr. Macleod was in charge of. In fact, this class I helped to teach was the very same class where I was inspired to study cell biology in the first place. Dr. Macleod impressed upon me by example critical ideas about teaching and I am certain his commitment to teaching biology thoroughly and evaluating students fairly was one of my inspirations in becoming a biology educator.
Many years later, as I was well into my career, I met my next role model, a successful civil engineer (originally from the Dominican Republic), Minosca Alcantara. She was in charge of a girls engineering camp at the University of Illinois (GAMES) when I joined in to lead a bioengineering camp for middle school girls. Minosca was a strong advocate for inspiring girls to go into engineering and had a special talent for reaching out to under represented groups. I loved her enthusiasm, passion and indefatigable insistence that women can do anything men can do!
Bardega: You’re an extremely busy lady ~ how do you manage all the different hats you wear?
Manaster: I began outreach after my four children were all a bit older, 8 years old and up at the time (They are now 24, 21, 19 and 16). It was still a busy time as a mom, but my kids were becoming more independent and that freed up quite a bit of my time. I don't think I could have done what I do now at the time I had babies and toddlers! In fact, I'm pretty sure my time with so many young children truly increased my capacity to multitask, to block out distractions when necessary, and to keep ahold of the wonder of the natural world, especially because I wanted my children to remain curious!
I think when you enjoy what you do, it makes it easier to balance many different things. All the things I do: teaching, interacting on social media, reading books and interviewing science book authors, traveling, and spending time in my children's company, I enjoy immensely, so I make time for it all.
Bardega: Finally – what, if any, advice would you give a younger Joanne?
Manaster: Since I was extremely shy, I suppose my advice would be to be a bit braver and take a few more chances because you'll be surprised what can happen sometimes just by trying new things.