Profile: Joanne Manaster

Lab Instructor and science enthusiast Joanne Manaster is this month's BioData Blogs Featured Scientist. Follow Joanne at @sciencegoddess on twitter or on her website, Joanne Loves Science.


How did you first become interested in the science field?

I've just always known I would be doing science all my life. There was never a doubt and I can't imagine anything else. Early on I thought it would be astronomy but after I broke my foot in 5th grade, I turned my attention to wanting to become a doctor. I knew scientists (researchers) existed somewhere but never had any introduction to it or considered it an option until about my junior year of college when I sat next a professor on a train. I must have impressed him because within about half an hour of meeting, he offered me a position in his lab as general help. Also, my junior year, I took a course that was a combination of cell biology and histology. I remember exactly where I was sitting and even what I was wearing when I had the sudden realization that I truly loved this material and knew that I had to use this information and learn more and more about it. After meeting the professor of that course, he soon offered me the option to help do some organizing and prep work and then ultimately help him instruct some of the lab courses. That is when I learned that I was very comfortable teaching science to semi-technical audiences, and especially good at explaining HOW to do techniques.

What is your favorite part of research and lab work? What is the worst part?

I love sharing my enthusiasm with students. I especially enjoy helping them learn lab techniques because they can see and feel concretely that they have done something, versus what they experience in theory work courses. I know I can teach anyone to do any technique I can do. Because of this, I get plenty of "knocks on my door" from engineers wanting to learn biological techniques. The worst part about lab work is when you are feeling frazzled or are not prepared to work and then everything seems to go wrong. We all have days like that!

Can you tell me a little bit about your work?

Even though I find research fascinating, I decided not to pursue that as a career goal. I was much more excited by teaching, so chose to run laboratory courses and to occasionally lecture for non-lab courses. I've designed multiple lab courses over the years, mostly revolving around cell biological, histological and cell culture techniques. I love to take any opportunity to visit research labs and see new techniques and ask questions so I can pass new ideas to the students. After deciding what topics need to be covered, I test protocols and make them almost foolproof. That includes finding the most useful reagents at great prices, as well as refining and writing clear instructions. Day to day, I ensure supplies are ordered, reagents are prepared and aliquoted for students. I do simple maintenance of lab equipment and find the people who can help when the problems are beyond my expertise. I handle student and administrative issues and supervise several student employees. For the cell culture and tissue engineering course, I hire a freshman to do the cleaning, stocking and sterilizing. If they are new, I have a lot of training to do. I also employ a junior or senior who has taken my course to prepare the media and other reagents as well as tend to the cells before handing them over to the students. And then I have graduate students who come in as teaching assistants and other undergraduates who help the TA with the course (activities are run in an outer lab area as well as the culture facility). For each set of employees, I provide a weekly list of responsibilities that I discuss with them. This helps keep them organized and all parties clear on respective duties. This course has a lecture component, which I love because I can share my enthusiasm over the latest findings in the area of stem cells and tissue engineering. Naturally there is a grading component and a website to maintain. In a way, it is much like running a research lab combined with the duties of teaching a lecture course. I have another course that is run much like a medical school histology class, which requires very little wet reagent prep work, but a lot of question answering and explaining of what students hope they are seeing through the microscope.

In your opinion, what is the most important quality for a scientist to be successful?

To be curious! Accept and nurture that part of yourself. Having good fine motor skills is a plus!

Can you share any tips for lab management and organization?

I had to, over the years, make compilations of recipes, protocols and instructions for EVERY aspect of the lab, from cleaning to equipment handling and troubleshooting, to reagent prep, to data keeping, to phone numbers. I find if I have prewritten calculations of commonly used volumes of reagents, I save quite a bit of time over the course of a semester. These instructions are kept online and also in binders with the pages in sheet protectors and tab dividers. If a TA or other employee is ever lost about what to do, they have the "giant notebook" to consult! The cleaning person should never feel perplexed as to what needs to be done because they can consult another binder created especially for them.

What is your next step? Where do you plan to be in ten years?

I do a tremendous amount of outreach to the local community in the form of a girls engineering camp (GAMES) as well as now being an adviser for U of I's iGEM team. I've participated in the state science fair and the state and national level Science Olympiad. My international outreach includes my advisory position with the Young Scientist's Journal International, as well as my social networking involvement on twitter, through my website and my youtube videos where I have taken to trying to discuss science in unexpected, whimsical and meaningful ways! I hope to find ways to bring my enthusiasm for science to a larger audience, and hopefully have appeal to a wide audience, ranging from children through adults, especially to those who thought they didn't like science and surprise them that they actually can enjoy it and even understand it. I expect to have a larger presence within the new media in order to do this and possibly creating an online "channel" that contains great programming with real and accessible science, presented in interesting and entertaining ways, and especially emphasizing women's role, but would accept a more traditional TV opportunity if it were part of a smart science show.