Specializing in education was not part of Alia Qatarneh’s plan. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Northeastern, she planned to continue down the traditional academic path — work in a research lab before getting a graduate degree, a postdoc, and hopefully a position at a university.
Eleven years later, Qatarneh is the head of the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE), hosted within Harvard MCB, and is responsible for helping biology teachers bring cutting edge laboratory techniques into their high school classrooms.
“I am one of the people who try to think of novel lab opportunities that are attainable at the high school and middle school level,” says Qatarneh.
Many teachers use ABE labs to supplement traditional biology lab curriculum, and others use it to serve as the foundation for biotech tracks. “The ABE Program brings molecular biology and biotechnology techniques to the classroom at no cost to teachers,” says Qatarneh. “Students learn how to use micropipettes, gel electrophoresis, bacterial transformation, column chromatography, and PCR, all while learning molecular biology content that underscores plasmids, restriction enzymes, and molecular cloning.”
But now, her role with ABE and MCB is about to come to an end as she prepares to start her Ed.L.D. in education leadership in the Harvard School of Education in the fall.
“Alia has brought unrivaled enthusiasm, creativity and energy to the ABE MA program,” says Tara Bristow, education consultant in the ABE program office and longtime colleague of Alia. “This combined with her amazing ability to bring people together and build community has led her to create a wonderfully inclusive ABE Massachusetts network of teachers, students and colleagues. The ABE MA community that she has grown and nurtured is truly a model for global ABE sites.”
None of this would have happened if the lab job she had landed after undergraduate graduation hadn’t fallen through due to a funding cut. Luckily, she was able to continue working in Northeastern Residential Life, where she had been active as an undergraduate.
“There, I had a mentor who really pushed me to think outside of the box in terms of career opportunities,” says Qatarneh. “It was the first time that I thought about combining my interests in molecular biology with my interest in building community and student development.”
With this new strategy in mind, she applied to and was hired for a part-time research assistant job in the Life Science Outreach program created by the late Rob Lue. This initiative eventually housed ABE and outreach programs targeting high school educators. There, Qatarneh helped assess, improve, and create labs that would go out to the secondary schools within the ABE community.
Qatarneh took over the administration of ABE upon Lue’s passing in 2020. Her responsibilities vary from semester to semester. She mentors biotech interns from the North Shore’s Essex Agricultural and Technical High School from February to end of school year. Together, they prep, improve, or amend the high school labs for ABE—the work Qatarneh did at the start of her Harvard journey. What they develop not only affects the lab experiences of the 5000 to 6000 students served annually by the Massachusetts ABE site, but also the thousands of students served by 26 other sites worldwide.
“The data they collect in their findings has a ripple effect,” she says. “It’s pretty awesome to see labs be amended or have addendums or extension activities that have been created by high school students for high school students.”
In the summer and early fall, she leads three-day workshops that train biology teachers on the ABE labs they will be presenting during their school years. Approximately 75 teachers implement the training yearly, but there are more than 100 teachers in the network. One of Qatarneh’s major successes in this job was increasing the number of science teachers per school that go through the ABE program, which strengthens a school’s ability to support the students throughout their learning about biotech.
“One example is East Boston High School. And this one meant a lot to me because I’m from East Boston,” says Qatarneh. Though she attended Boston Latin School, most of her family and friends graduated from EBHS.
The whole of the biology department at EBHS has been ABE-trained and has incorporated these advanced lab techniques into their lesson plans, giving the students valuable and unique skills that will set them apart in college and job searches.
“EBHS is predominantly Latinx students, typically first generation, on the lower socioeconomic side of things. So, for every student to graduate from East Boston high to have learned how to pipette and run a gel, that is mind blowing,” says Qatarneh.
“Alia takes her role as a mentor to high school students, undergraduate students and PhD students quite seriously,” says Susan Johnson, Assistant Director for Socially Engaged Learning at the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. “She has invested hours of her time into training high school lab and undergraduate wet-lab assistants, making sure they develop good laboratory habits and an appreciation for how the scientific methods they perform connect to research at large. And, as a result of working with her, many PhD student teaching fellows have developed a strong interest in making STEM education a focus of their career. Her former mentees at all levels make it a priority to stay in touch with her.”
Over her 11 years at Harvard, Qatarneh has earned two master’s degrees. The first was in biotech from the Extension School, graduating in 2020. Her thesis, which focused on creating a lab kit for high school students to study protein folding, won the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding ALM Thesis in Biotechnology. She was also recently honored with the Extension School’s 2023 Emerging Leader Award in recognition of her work with ABE. In 2022, she received a Master’s from the School of Education.
“My father’s advice when I was trying to figure out what I was doing with my life after graduating from Northeastern was ‘be patient,’” says Qatarneh. “Being patient and getting what started as a part time lab job has allowed me to get not one but two master’s degrees and put me on a whole new career path.”
She is excited to start her next phase as a doctoral candidate, but her experiences within Harvard MCB — especially under the mentorship of Rob Lue — have been key in informing the development of her professional philosophy.
“Rob showed me that you can intertwine all facets of your identity into what you do. Rob was artistic, Rob was creative. Seeing him, quite literally, blaze his own trail has allowed me to do the same,” she says. “Rob also underscored the importance of outreach and education, specifically secondary education. He taught me that we are part of a larger educational ecosystem; that we have the power to make change.”