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Harvard Research Assistant Wins Award for Science Raps

By Gabrielle M. Williams, Crimson Staff Writer

From Drake parodies to Nicki Minaj remixes, one Harvard research assistant is transforming scientific procedures into popular music that reaches high schools throughout New England.

Alia Y. Qatarneh, a research assistant for the Life Sciences Outreach Program at Harvard, was awarded the New England Biolabs Passion in Science Award in honor of her devotion to uniting science and arts in education.

According to the NEB’s website, the award is given to individuals in the categories of inspiration in science, humanitarian duty, environmental stewardship, and arts and creativity. Qatarneh has been recognized in this last category as one of four awardees for 2014 who fulfill one of the core values of the NEB, that “great science is fundamentally creative and artistic, and changes the way we see and experience our world," as stated on its website.

Besides the rap remixes, Qatarneh has also engaged with science in a visual arts context, including designing T-shirts for science-related efforts and causes. She explained that her family background contributed to her interest in linking music and science.

“My father’s an engineer, and my mother went to school for fashion design, so I believe my sister and I got a fantastic split down the middle of the science as well as the art,” Qatarneh said.

Now she is sharing her music through the Harvard Life Sciences Outreach Program, which coordinates the Amgen Biotech Experience Program that offers biology experiments in high school classrooms around New England.

Her most recent parody is “Anaconda Science Remix: Look at the Cuts.” With lyrics such as “Restriction enzymes don't want none unless you got cuts, son,” Qatarneh combines concepts from a lab procedure involving restriction enzymes that cut DNA and sets them to the familiar beat and tune of the original Nicki Minaj song. The result , Qatarneh said, is a “big hit” with both students and teachers among the high schools connected to Outreach.

“Music is incredibly personal, music tells a story, and in science, it’s a means of uncovering that story,” she said.

Tara Bennett, Qatarneh’s supervisor and program manager for Life Sciences Outreach, said she sees a future for the young rapping scientist in incorporating both artistic and scientific pursuits.

“She definitely has this passion for education, so I see her being able to certainly incorporate those [interests],” Bennett said.

Jack Howard, manager of the Biology Teaching Labs who has worked in the teaching labs for 35 years, also praised Qatarneh.

“In all the years and all the people that I’ve worked with, Alia really does stand out,” Howard said. “Whether it’s professors or post-doctoral people or preceptors, she’s just got a real good way of interacting with people.”

While writing and recording the song parodies began as a hobby, Qatarneh said that receiving this award has caused her to consider the bigger potential for her artistic engagement in science education. Even as she continues to have interest in research, she said she believes that her research does not have to be “bench-based” anymore.

“I don’t need to be at the bench in order to make a significant contribution to STEM education,” she said.

—Staff writer Gabrielle M. Williams can be reached at gabriellewilliams@college.harvard.edu.

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