Julie Mangada, Ph.D., came to work at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging — the nation’s first nonprofit research facility to be focused on the connection between aging and chronic disease – to study stem cells.
“I now dedicate myself to public outreach and education by managing the institute’s new learning center and directing all of the K–12 programs,” she said.
And along with her microscope and projector, her talks often include “water bears,” or tardigrades — hardy, ubiquitous microscopic animals.
“Whether I’m lecturing to a kindergarten class or a group of Rotarians, the instant I flash the lumbering little bears on the wide screen from my video camera-equipped microscope, the audience collectively sighs and squeals,” she said.
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR COMPANY
PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND: postdoctoral research fellow, 2007–2012, director of Patxi Pizza Learning Center and community outreach program development, 2012–present, The Buck Institute for Research on Aging
EDUCATION: associate degree, Santa Rosa Junior College, 1992; B.S., microbiology, University of New Hampshire, 2000; Ph.D., molecular medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School, 2007.
STAFF: 14 *all volunteers, retired members of our community, half of which have been with me over seven years, since I began building outreach programs. My administrator, attorney Mary Elsbree, is also a volunteer. None of our programs would be possible without her.
The Buck Institute is the nation’s first nonprofit research facility focused solely on understanding the connection between aging and chronic disease. Our mission is to extend the healthy years of life through research and education. Having joined the Buck as a research scientist I spent six years studying stem cells.
Concomitantly, I created outreach programs to bring our science out of the lab and into the community. I now dedicate myself to public outreach and education by managing the institute’s new Learning Center and directing all of the K-12 programs. K-gray actually, because we are never too old to learn! With a staff of volunteers, I forged collaboration with UCSF and every October the Buck Institute hosts the North Bay Science Discovery Day at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds; an event that draws 20,000 people to an exciting hands-on experience designed to showcase the science going on in our own communities. Through our efforts at the Buck, it is estimated we bring science education and inspiration to over 100,000 people each year.
MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENT IN THE PAST YEAR
I spearheaded an initiative with both Sonoma and Marin Offices of Education to empower local schoolteachers to build stem cell science into their lesson plans for the coming year, and help students of all ages understand the connection between aging and disease at the cellular level. The program focused on the development of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)-compatible inquiry-based science lessons.
Called STEAM ENGINE (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics Engaging Imagination and Nurturing Excitement) it created opportunity for scientists here at the Buck to share their research and scientific creativity with local teachers.
This collaboration engaged BOTH communities to bring 21st century science skills to the classroom. With the inaugural year a big success we are currently working on expanding the breadth and scope of STEAM ENGINE for the coming years!
WHAT IS THE ACHIEVEMENT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?
My son! I’m glad I took the time to make him. Professionally? Being the founder of the North Bay Science Discovery Day (northbayscience.org), a grass roots effort staffed entirely by volunteers. Conceived in 2010 through my collaboration with UCSF and their Bay Area Science Festival, the North Bay Science Discovery Day is an ambitious collaborative public education initiative that brings together local schools as well as scientific, corporate, and non-profit institutions to showcase the science and innovation happening in our own north bay community.
Our inaugural event was held at Sonoma Raceway 5 years ago and drew 4,000 people. Now held at the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds, our last Discovery Day included 120 exhibitors and a robot petting zoo and drew crowds close to 20,000! Aimed at getting kids excited about pursuing careers in STEM-related fields we prioritize securing corporate sponsorship and foundational support to ensure that this event remains completely free to the public.
In addition, our strategy for community engagement has become a model for science festivals across the United States, and Denmark, to engage scientific exploration in underserved communities where the mean level of education in the household does not exceed a high school diploma.
WHAT IS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE TODAY?
Funding. Securing grants for our research and outreach efforts is challenging due to the National funding crisis and lack of publicly available research dollars. Sometimes it’s difficult to inspire children to pursue advanced degrees in science when the landscape of job opportunities and funding is so barren.
WORDS THAT BEST DESCRIBE YOU: Happy, enthusiastic, optimistic and nerd.
AS A SUCCESSFUL FEMALE PROFESSIONAL, WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES YOU FACED AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?
The biggest obstacle I face daily is the barrier that exists between science and the public’s perceived ability to understand it. Science does not exist in a vacuum and if we want to do research we need public support. But we cannot gain support if the public does not understand exactly what the research is. I learned many years ago that to be a successful researcher, science communicator, and advocate I must deploy two languages; one is spoken with my colleagues and the other conveys our research to the lay audience.
That’s not at all to say that speaking to the public requires a “dumbing down.” It’s more like a distillation of facts so that only the most important concepts remain. And those concepts have to be relatable to the audience. I spend a lot of time finding creative ways that allow my audience to make a connection between those concepts and our research. For example, I often travel to lectures with a microscope, HDMI projector, and petri dish of tardigrades, also known as “water bears.”
In biology, tardigrades are powerful model systems for researching oxidative stress and the free radical theory of aging, epigenetic modifications, and DNA repair pathways. And that’s certainly why I first became interested in them. But due to a recent rise in tardigrade literature and television programming my water bears have become social media celebrities. They also have paws, sensory input spots that resemble little eyes, and a snout. Which makes them quite cute.
The aggregate of these platitudes make water bears a power adjunct in connecting the public with our research. Whether I’m lecturing to a kindergarten class or a group of Rotarians the instant I flash the lumbering little bears on the wide screen from my video camera-equipped microscope the audience collectively sighs and squeals. Yes, Rotarians have been known to squeal!
And in front of this backdrop of wonder I slowly start introducing the concept of geroscience. Brain plasticity. ROS production and mitochondrial dysfunction. Embryonic stem cells and their directed differentiation into any tissue in the body. And magically the audience seems to connect. Which is everything to me. Because when they connect with the research they get inspired. And that imparts hope.
And the water bears lowered the barrier between our research and the public’s understanding. The water bears, not the white-coated researchers.
I think scientists in general don’t do a very good job of bringing their research out of the lab and into public discourse. Not only is that an important skill scientists need to develop, it’s a critical responsibility. Because the research belongs to all of us.
Just imagine going to a venture capitalist expecting them to invest billions in a company that is secretive about their successes and unable to explain their goals and future directions. Yet that’s exactly what the scientific community expects of taxpayers. It needs to get better.
So to summarize, the barrier between scientific research and the public understanding of it needs to be torn down from both sides. Scientists need to get better at sharing their successes in a way the public can connect with, and the general public needs to engage and ask questions.
HOW DO YOU THINK YOUR PROFESSION WILL CHANGE IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?
Because of the funding crisis in our country and increasing job dissatisfaction from researchers at the postdoctoral-level I believe Ph.D. scientists will increasingly explore more nontraditional jobs in the workforce. Jobs that inspire them to put away their pipette and step out of the lab permanently. I expect an increase in scientists populating such disciplines as education, patent technology and intellectual property transfer, patient advocacy, and jobs in the nonprofit sector.
The net effect of scientists exiting our lab silo will be an increased context in which the public can begin to recognize and understand the value of the scientific process!
WHO WAS YOUR MOST IMPORTANT MENTOR?
There are two professionals whose examples have illuminated and inspired me. The first is Mary McEachron, CAO and general counsel at the Buck Institute. Throughout the years I’ve come to recognize that Mary does not see problems, she only recognizes solutions and opportunity.
It’s Mary’s can-do attitude and unfailing work ethic that have driven me to succeed in the face of adversity, when there were no resources or clear paths to realize my visions. Mary has also been my biggest advocate and supporter of my educational outreach efforts here the Buck.
My other mentor is Julie Andersen, Ph.D. Julie is a primary investigator and runs her own Parkinson’s disease research lab here. I was lucky enough to collaborate with Julie on a stem cell project to develop an MRI-based platform technology for tracking the fate of transplanted neurons in a patient’s brain.
A brilliant scientist, she is also a genuinely kind and compassionate person who understands the importance of patient advocacy and bringing her lab’s research out of the culture room and into the community so the public can connect with, and ultimately support, the important research we do.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A YOUNG WOMAN ENTERING YOUR PROFESSION OR THE WORK WORLD TODAY?
I teach the young girls I mentor not to be intimidated by science. Science is not hard, it just has its own lexicon. I point out that most of them already speak more than one language and encourage them to simply add the language of science. Once they do, how they speak that language will be completely up to them. Some may grow up speaking the language of science to build the next span of the Bay Bridge, some may speak the language to save an endangered species of salmon in our own Lagunitas watershed, and some will enter into the conversation to cure cancer. Three completely different trajectories all speaking the same language of science; learning the language opens doors that are only limited by their imagination.
For my older students considering an advanced degree in science I remind them not to get so caught up in their data and the microscopic details that they lose sight of the big picture. Science does not exist in a vacuum, and inspiration can come from the grocery store as well as the cell culture room. Every observation, every encounter or conversation with the public can build their tool box, remind them of why their research matters, and provide insight to make their grants more competitive. Also, I really believe it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how educated, well thought out your hypothesis is, or how cleverly vetted your data or tight your error bars… if you cannot communicate your data to your scientific colleagues and collaborators, as well as the public you may as well not even do the research in the first place. Communication is vital.
MOST ADMIRED BUSINESSPERSON OUTSIDE YOUR ORGANIZATION: Jim Sartain, senior real estate advisor at Keegan & Coppin Company, Inc. Jim taught me the importance of building and maintaining professional relationships. When our North Bay Science Discovery Day was still just a vision, our team reached out to Jim to connect us to community leaders and professionals who could help us build both sponsorship and exhibitors.
We are now a festival that draws 20,000 people with 120 exhibitors and an annual budget of tens of thousands of dollars, and Jim was our nucleation point. I’ve also known Jim since birth. He is my Godfather.
TYPICAL DAY AT THE OFFICE: My work involves stem cells, the drama queens of the cellular world who require daily care and feeding. As such, a typical day would begin with maintenance of the cells. After that, it could involve writing grants, reading science papers, research in the lab with high school and college interns, teaching, and lecturing.
Some days I spend on the road and may travel to speak to an auditorium full of elementary school students or give the lunch talk for a Rotary Club. On days I don’t travel I open up our Learning Center to college interns, teaching, and lecturing.
My work involves stem cells, the drama queens of the cellular world who require daily care and feeding. As such, a typical day would begin with maintenance of the cells.
After that, it could involve writing grants, reading science papers, research in the lab. On days I don’t travel I open up our Learning Center to host the weekly Buck Institute public tour, or I may be teaching Kindergarten students how to hunt for germs or make glow-in-the-dark slime. I also run stem cell education workshops for the public and professional development workshops for Buck Institute Post Doctoral researchers to help them develop the skills necessary to effectively communicate their research to a lay audience and empower them with the knowledge that science communication matters. On weekends you may find me at a farmer’s market sitting in a Buck Institute Booth where I can lead kids through a hands-on science activity while I talk to their parents about the research we do here in Novato to extend the healthy years of life.
BEST PLACE TO WORK OUTSIDE OF YOUR OFFICE: I believe the best place to work other than my beloved Buck Institute would be The California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Created in 2004 when California voters approved Proposition 71, CIRM funds stem cell research in the state of California.
My passion for stem-cell research and dedication to bring research out of the lab and into the community to inspire hope and catalyze funding is congruent with their mission to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs. I share their core vision of driving stem cell research forward with the engine of advocacy for patients.
CURRENT READING: “Stem Cell Battles: Proposition 71 and Beyond” by Don C. Reed.
As I mentioned earlier, stem cells are the drama queens of the cellular world, and not just for the difficulties in their care and feeding. Stem cells are colonies of nucleated political partisanship.
Indeed, research using human embryonic stem cells has been subject to federal funding bans depending upon which administration is in office. Because of paradoxical funding issues and his hope for a cure for spinal cord injury the author Don Reed has been on the front line, battling to raise funds for scientists and protect their freedom to research. This book is a passionate and personal account of what it took to bring promising stem cell research into the light where it is now illuminating the path towards cures for many devastating illnesses.
I think the most important theme of this book, and the reason I believe it should be required reading for any citizen hoping to someday take advantage of any medical intervention for chronic disease or injury, is that it reminds the reader that it’s simply not enough for scientists to be passionate about their research. The public needs to join in the battle too. How we vote matters, and what society makes a priority can lead to significant breakthroughs.
MOST WANT TO MEET: Shinya Yamanaka, Ph.D. In the science world, Yamanaka is one of our rock stars! A stem cell researcher at UCSF’s Gladstone Institute, work in his lab lead to the discovery that differentiated somatic cells can be reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells. Essentially, they discovered that genetic gymnastics can convince a skin cell into believing it is an embryonic stem cell, which can then be turned into any tissue in the human body.
Considering the consequences of this research, it is easy to imagine that some day we will soon have a patient-specific unlimited supply of every tissue in the human body. These cells could then be used in cell replacement therapies, and with emerging CRISPR gene-editing technology may even make it possible to engineer permanent changes to the genome. Imagine, taking a skin cell from a patient with Huntington’s Disease, correcting the faulty copy of the gene responsible for the disease, differentiating that cell into a brain cell, and giving it back to the patient.
Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012 for his pioneering work in this field.
SOCIAL MEDIA YOU MOST USE: Facebook.
STRESS-RELIEVERS: Roller Derby and long-distance trail running.
FAVORITE HOBBIES: Sports photography. For years I’ve been the league photographer for both the Santa Rosa Stallions Football League and the Rincon Valley Little League.