MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth
Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

GSBS AMBR SpotLIGHT: Jeanne Manalo

October 11, 2018
Celso Catumbela, GSBS AMBR

The Association of Minority Biomedical Researchers will be featuring interviews with its members as a way to highlight GSBS students and life inside and outside of the lab. This feature will be posted on the group's website and Facebook page. AMBR’s second spotlight features an interview with ASC President Jeanne Manalo conducted by AMBR Event Coordinator Celso Catumbela.


Jeanne is affiliated with the GSBS Program in Neuroscience.  


Like many individuals before her, Jeanne Manalo’s scientific journey was first set in motion by the beautiful landscape that surrounded her.

“I grew up in a rural part of The Philippines that had very lush vegetation,” said Jeanne, “I was very curious and would play around with seeds to see how the flowers and plants would grow.”

At this point, I couldn’t help but laugh, as I immediately started imagining a wide-eyed Jeanne running around the forest and befriending all sorts of wildlife—notably, the specific image playing in my mind was a mixture of The Jungle Book, Tarzan, and the tiniest hint of Step Up 2.

When Jeanne was 12, her father, an electrical engineer, and mother, a teacher, uprooted their family for the sake of better opportunities for their children.

“My parents sacrificed a lot. Seeing them give up their careers to come to the U.S. and have to work odd jobs for our sake...that was tough but it always motivated me to persevere, ” she said.

After arriving in Houston, Jeanne’s family could only afford housing in lower-income areas that were also rife with bad influences. Nevertheless, the life lessons from her parents, in combination with an early desire to pursue a career in journalism, would ultimately enable Jeanne to stay focused throughout high school.

“In high school I was in the debate club,” she said. “Our schedule was very busy, and we had to attend tournaments almost every weekend, and it really helped me stay out of trouble.”

During her high school years, and soon after heading off to the University of St. Thomas, Jeanne began to feel the weight of being an international student—a status that limited her access to scholarship options and all manners of federal financial assistance.

“I always felt like things were against I was always forced to swim against the current and be expected do just as well as everyone else. It wasn’t until I was accepted into the Summer Medical and Research Training (S.M.A.R.T) Program that it felt like things finally turned around,” said Jeanne.


Jeanne with fellow debate team members in high school. "Through trial and error, I found friends that weren’t just there out of convenience, and over time, this really helped me overcome a fear of being vulnerable," said Jeanne. "Now, if I’m struggling, I can talk to my close friends, PI, and my lab mates.”

As if the restrictions of being an international student weren’t enough, Jeanne was further subjected to gender bias that remains ever-present in modern society—and continues to be held dearly by the most ignorant among us.

“Part of my struggle was always being considered the small and bubbly Asian girl. People would mistake my warmth and assume that I couldn’t be taken seriously in science,” Jeanne said.  “I was told because I was woman in science I shouldn’t smile as much, and to be less open, and basically be someone other than myself.”

In turn, Jeanne fought back the only way she knew how: by persevering through the difficulties, as her parents had done years prior, and by refusing to be anything other than genuine and respectful, regardless of her environment.


"I always kept my family close. Especially my grandmother (pictured with Jeanne above), who still mistakenly thinks I’m trying to be an M.D.," said Jeanne.  At this point in the interview we both burst out in laughter, because surely, committing to a Ph.D. program also includes accepting the lifelong curse of at least one family member that will forever view us as the other kind of doctor.

In the midst of all her struggles until finally arriving to graduate school, Jeanne never lost sight of the importance of communication.

“In terms of communication between people, I fear we lose sight of the importance of being respectful towards one another,” said Jeanne. “I don’t know if this is the best method, but I can sleep at night knowing that I’ve never treated or looked at someone disrespectfully.”

To combat the lack of communication between scientists and non-scientists, Jeanne and fellow GSBS students Iman Sahnoune, Ryan Nini, and Akash Mitra, created the Association of Science Communication (ASC). The ASC’s goal is to provide students with the skills that will enable them to take their science outside of the lab, and positively affect the viewpoint of non-scientists.

“We’ve all seen people call facts as hoaxes, and question why science is even federally-funded,” said Jeanne, “there is a need for better communication. I don’t know how we got to this point, but we definitely have to do our best to remedy the situation.”

“Now, I’m even more motivated to get to that point in my career, and provide an opportunity to others like myself, who find themselves constantly swimming against the current,” she said. “This isn’t our final destination, and coming from a place of respect at all times allows me to work with others on this scientific journey, and experience it side by side with them.”


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