A love of teaching
and the chemistry of living organisms

Published March 01 2018

As the child of two doctors, one also a researcher, Ana Maria Barral grew up surrounded by science.COURTESY OF ana maria barral

Ana Maria Barral is an assistant professor at the National University in Costa Mesa, California, a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Public Outreach Committee and a member of the ASBMB Today editorial advisory board. In this month’s Research Spotlight, she discusses her involvement in teaching research and the experiences that led to her career.

Tell us about your current career position.


My university is primarily a teaching institution, although the faculty has a requirement and support for research also. My research explores the microbes attaching to plastic in coastal waters, and I am involved in teaching research, particularly how to incorporate research in undergraduate education and flipped learning, wherein most lectures are delivered outside the classroom and students can dedicate in-class time to problem solving and more active learning.

What experiences and decisions enabled you to reach your current position?


Mine was a conventional academic research scientist’s path, but during grad school I was involved in a lot of teaching and training. As a postdoc, I realized I missed the interactions with students and the challenges and joys of teaching, and I decided not to become a traditional academic. I spent a few years working at a biotech company and teaching as an adjunct at different colleges while learning more about the science of teaching. Gaining expertise in innovative teaching approaches helped me to land my current position.


How did you first become interested in science?


My parents were both medical doctors, and my mother did physiology research, so science has been present in my life since childhood. I read many books detailing the lives and discoveries of scientists and dreamed about becoming one. However, I knew I did not want to be a physician, and biology did not attract me, because I thought it was all about animals and plants. Chemistry was interesting, but it felt a bit dry. Everything changed when I learned about biochemistry; I remember how excited I was about a chemistry that looked at living organisms.


Were there times when you failed at something critical to your path? How did you get back on track?


Many times. I’ve run the gamut from saying no to opportunities that felt too scary to being overeager about interesting results without double-checking everything. How to regroup? Well, one has to accept not being perfect and that it is OK to make mistakes, and be kind to oneself. It is human to err. Then, just pick up the pieces and keep going. It will all pass. Learn from the experience. Personally, I like to have more than one project going (both in science and in my personal life) so setbacks in one can be balanced with successes in others.

What advice would you give to young persons from underrepresented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?


Be brave. Be bold. Network as much as you can, and look for mentors. Never say no to an opportunity, because you don’t know when the next one will come. Be who you are. Be authentic.

About the Research Spotlight

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Research Spotlight highlights distinguished biomolecular and biomedical scientists from diverse backgrounds as a way to inspire up-and-coming scientists to pursue careers in the molecular life sciences. Eligible candidates include Ph.D. students, postdoctoral fellows, and new or established faculty and researchers. To nominate a colleague for this feature, contact the Education department.

What are your hobbies?


I love traveling, particularly going off-roading to remote places. Running. Photography. Backyard work. Paddle boarding and the ocean in general. Reading. Music.

What was the last book you read?


Assuming this is about nonscience books, I am currently reading Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander series”; the latest I finished was “The Fiery Cross.” She has a science background, and I enjoy reading her biology commentaries through the books. I just discovered Nnedi Okorafor (great science fiction) and got started on Sheryl Sandberg’s “Option B.” Science-wise, I am slowly winding my way through Michael Quinn Patton’s book on qualitative research. It is eye-opening and gives me a lot of exciting ideas for assessing teaching innovations.

Do you have any heroes, heroines, mentors or role models? If so, how have they influenced you?


There are many people I admire for what they have done and achieved in life. But my role models are those who live their lives to the fullest, in accordance with their principles, and are very accomplished and still humble and kind. I know a few people like that, and I aspire to be like them.


What is it that keeps you working hard every day?


I am very lucky that I love what I do. As a laboratory scientist, my impact on the world was minuscule, while as an educator, I feel I can influence others’ lives in a positive way. My students tend to be older, so I also learn a lot from them. Even better, I have my research projects, in which I can involve students. One of my greatest joys is to see students who hadn’t thought about becoming scientists do and enjoy science.