Alia Qatarneh

This month, I would like to welcome Alia Qatarneh to the blog! After some WiFi connection issues on our first attempt, Alia and I were able to have a great chat about her exciting work in science education.

Alia Qatarneh holds a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology from Northeastern University, a Master of Liberal Arts in Biotechnology from the Harvard Extension School, and is currently working on her Ed.M. in Learning and Teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is currently the Director of the Massachusetts Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE MA) Program at Harvard University. In her spare time, Alia enjoys running, experiencing nature, and has created several science-based covers of popular pop and rap songs.

Creating Science-Literate World Citizens

Why did she choose science?

Alia has always been interested in science, but science came to her as a child through television. Although Alia went to the No.1 public high school in Massachusetts, science classes, especially biology, weren’t very hands-on. So, science happened on the TV and at home through her own experimentation. “I attribute my interest to two people: Bill Nye the Science Guy and Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus,” she said.

Alia remembers when she and her sister would raid the kitchen cabinets, mix up different ingredients in a bowl, make careful observations, and then flush everything down the toilet before their mother saw. She and her sister also made a pulley system in their bedroom to transport books, dolls, etc. from one side to the other.

“We were doing science without knowing we were doing science, which I think is really powerful,” said Alia.

Even though it seemed like Alia had always been doing science, she entered Northeastern University un-declared and it wasn’t until she had hands-on experience in Bio101 lab that she decided to major in Biology. Northeastern is a 5-year school that requires students to complete cooperative education experiences. Because Alia was interested in Biology and didn’t have exposure to careers in science outside of medicine, she decided her first co-op would be at Massachusetts General Hospital. Alia worked in the main hematology lab analyzing blood, urine, and bone marrow samples. She enjoyed the work but didn’t like the stress of handling important samples from actual people.

Realizing medical school wouldn’t be a good fit, Alia completed her second co-op at the bench doing research in a genomics lab at MIT. “That was the first time that I was really exposed to science as a career outside of medicine,” she said. Alia found that the academic setting was stressful, but at least she didn’t have to worry much if she accidentally killed the bacteria she was working with. She was also particularly excited about all the things you could do and study with molecular biology.

After this, Alia decided to continue doing undergraduate research in a lab working on bio-remediation of water in the local Massachusetts area. This experience showed her that science is very interdisciplinary as she used molecular biology, ecology, and biochemistry all together to solve problems. Alia said, “In order to do science, you need people who have expertise in all these different fields in order to come up with a solution.”

“Through each of these experiences, I definitely gained more insight as to what science is and what science is to me. And I’m still learning that as well,” Alia said.

How did she get into science education?

Alia wanted to continue the molecular biology research she had been doing at MIT after graduation from Northeastern, but the lab had lost funding and was unable to take her on. Alia was in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the largest biotech hubs in the world, and yet she had trouble finding another job where she could do research. Eventually, Alia found a part-time research lab assistant position with the Amgen Biotech Experience Program (ABE MA), hosted by the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University.

Because the research assistant position had an outreach focus, Alia wasn’t working on a typical research question, instead she was performing experiments in order to develop lab protocols to be used for education. For example, Alia and her colleagues developed a PTC bitter-tasting PCR lab as a resource for high school biology teachers.

Alia teaches a PTC bitter-tasting PCR lab developed for ABE MA.

Alia has always loved building community and creating educational programming. At Northeastern she was an orientation leader for one year and a Resident Assistant for another four years. She felt like the research assistant position at Harvard allowed her to meld her interest in science with her love for helping and educating others.

“Not only is science interdisciplinary, but there’s a way for you to bring your different passions together into your own career. So yeah, I just kind of fell into it,” Alia said.

Alia says she has also been inspired to further explore science education by watching others teach science. A colleague of Alia’s at Harvard had gotten a teaching certificate in college and went on to do a lot of teaching as a graduate student. Watching her teach, Alia felt that her training in teaching as well as in science really informed her ability to teach science to others. Alia cites this as one of the reasons she decided to pursue her Ed.M. in Learning and Teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

What does she do as Director of the ABE MA?

About six months after Alia had started with ABE MA, the position became full-time, and she climbed up the ladder from there. From research assistant level 1 to level 2 and then to program coordinator and eventually program director. As a program coordinator, Alia started teaching more, writing curriculum, and running professional development for teachers. She also started to expand the program so that the molecular biology and biotechnology curriculum could be introduced to more schools in New England.

“So, I’ll ask you, when was the first time you held a micropipette?”, Alia asked me.

For both Alia and I, we had never even heard of a micropipette until sophomore year in college. Now, students at Alia’s high school alma mater have access to micropipettes and can learn about molecular biology hands-on, because she brought it to them. Under her leadership, the ABE MA program now brings unique curriculum to around 7000 students and over 100 teachers in the New England area.

As director of the program, Alia oversees a small group of lab assistants and undergraduate students who work in the lab to develop and optimize protocols. Alia says that their goal with the program is to introduce not just the physical tools of science, such as the micropipette, but also to broaden students’ views of what science is and how they relate to science.

“Although I am not at the bench, supporting cutting-edge research, I feel that the work that I do empowers young scientists to see themselves in science,” Alia said.

Alia explains how gel electrophoresis works to students.

Alia says that even if the students she introduces to science do not go on to a PhD program or a career in scientific research, she hopes that they learn to trust science. “I’m hoping that I am either directly or indirectly helping or creating citizens of the world who are more science literate,” she said.

The only obstacle with the ABE Program is that it can only exist where there is either an Amgen site or if another group is willing to fund it. To address this problem, Amgen is funding another project that Alia has been working on called LabXchange. According to Alia, LabXchange is “a global, open, and free educational learning platform that is currently focused on the sciences.” The goal of the program is to support science education without the geographic barriers imposed by the ABE program.

LabXchange provides molecular biology simulations, scrollable interactives, text, graphics, and videos to teachers anywhere in world for free. Using these resources, teachers can now easily and virtually introduce their students to concepts such as gel electrophoresis, bacterial transformation, and chromatography.

Alia says that the goal of LabXchange was not to recreate resources that already existed, but to leverage her team’s unique position to create meaningful collaborations with institutions, organizations, and even groups of PhD students to get creative and useful educational content on a free and easily accessible platform.

Serendipitously, LabXchange was launched in January 2020, right before teachers were in dire need of free, online tools for running science classes virtually. “Now there’s an answer. There’s a simulation that is free and can expose students to these tools and experimental protocols,” Alia said.

Genes in Space?!?!

In addition to the amazing work Alia is doing with the ABE MA Program and LabXchange, she has also been highly involved in the extremely cool Genes in Space program since its inception.

Genes in Space is a competition born from the creation of a super small PCR machine (thermocycler). The co-founders of miniPCR originally created the tiny machine for educational use, but when Boeing saw the miniPCR machine they said it was small enough to be used for research aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The two parties settled on a project where middle and high school students could propose experiments to be done using the miniPCR machine by astronauts on the ISS – Genes in Space.

Alia has always loved space. “I made my own flight suit; I have a telescope. Everyone knows that I love space. If you come into my office, there’s tons of space related stuff,” she said. So, when the founders of miniPCR approached her about working on the project, she jumped at the chance to blend molecular biology, space, and education.

Alia dons a miniPCR DNA Revolution t-shirt & SpaceX hat.

In the beginning, Alia helped get the word out about the project and the competition, as well as created support for interested teachers and students. For example, Alia created resources to help high school students understand PCR and how to formulate an experiment. “Just giving them all the tools they need in order for them to come up with a very interesting and novel, experimental idea,”

In 2016, the miniPCR machine traveled to the ISS on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and PCR was performed, for the first time ever, in space.

Alia’s work with Genes in Space evolved into a graduate research internship and she completed her Masters thesis with miniPCR exploring freeze-dried cell-free protein synthesis. Her thesis work was so successful that it was used as the foundation for a new learning lab as well as a proof-of-concept experiment that will be sent up to the ISS this summer.

“It’s a very small scale, like 20 microliters. But imagine scaling that up and being able to make a protein-based therapeutic in a very remote area or in space. The possibilities are endless,” said Alia.

Alia still supports the program by reading student’s proposals and supporting the five semi-finalists before they present their ideas to a team of expert judges at the ISS R&D annual conference, where the winner is selected.

What is her biggest far?

The first thing Alia said when I asked this question was, “I feel like with each year or each couple of years, I try to up the ante and get another big achievement.” Although she is always looking forward to the next ‘big achievement’ on the horizon, she noted that her recent thesis completion and defense was a special achievement for her.

Alia believes that writing her thesis was a big achievement on its own, but the fact that she was able to formally acknowledge and thank her family in the publication and her defense made it even better.

“Being able to officially thank my family in writing was a really cool achievement. It’s in writing, no one can take that away from me; it’s going to be there until the end of time,” she said.

On top of all this, Alia’s Masters thesis was also awarded the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding Thesis in Biotechnology.

What are her other interests?

Aside from science and teaching, Alia loves running, biking, and spending time with her family. She runs half marathons and says that “I’m not a marathon runner just yet, but it will happen!” Alia grew up in the city of Boston but says she craves nature as an adult. She especially appreciates birds and just enjoys being outdoors.

Alia takes a selfie with ABE MA teachers after the Newbury half-marathon.