Joana Moscoso is a biologist specialising in the study of bacteria which affect human health. She co-founded Native Scientist, a start-up outreach service which uses science to inspire immigrant communities around the world.
While completing her PhD at London’s Imperial College, Joana was asked to help organise a conference platforming Portuguese scientists in the UK.
I found out that children from the Portuguese community were among the poorest achievers in school.
Joana, who is Portuguese herself, was startled by the position of her community in the educational system. She began discussing the information at the conference, and came across Portuguese researcher Tatiana Correia who shared her concerns. After follow-up discussions, they decided to take action and Native Scientist was born with the aim to work with international scientists and teachers to promote science and language learning among school pupils, raising awareness about multilingualism and STEM-related careers.
“I had the idea to go to a school to speak about science in Portuguese,” Joana says, recognising that Portuguese children who live in the UK mainly learn about science in their second language.
The reaction she received was overwhelming. The intention was only to organise one school visit, but Joana saw the potential in the approach and they began visiting more. “This was the seed for Native Scientist,” she says and in 2013, the organisation became registered as a non-profit with a mission to inspire immigrant communities through science outreach.
The educational programs Joana facilitates utilise a very interactive format. “In one session, you might have a mathematician, a biologist, an engineer and an astrophysicist,” she explains. “Then each scientist speaks with four or five children for ten or fifteen minutes. After this, everyone rotates – so the idea is that everyone talks with everyone.”
The reaction of the children is reportedly so enthusiastic that Joana says it’s not uncommon for the scientists to be asked for autographs at the end of the session. But she says she never loses connection with the project’s initial aims – to educate those with limited access to scientific learning. She often remembers a 17 year-old girl who told her that before Native Scientist came to her school, she had never considered the possibility of going to university.
Some of the children may come from low-income families, and their aspirations may not be very high.
“It’s about the science,” Joana says. “But it’s also about the people and their cultures. Immigrant children may go through a phase of identity crisis; they don’t feel English, but they don’t feel Portuguese either. Meeting people who are also bilingual can help them reach a better sense of who they are.”
Native Scientist has now expanded to include Portuguese, French and Spanish sessions in the UK and Portuguese sessions have also been organised in France and Germany. This year, they will be adding a Greek and an Italian branch, and they hope to expand to more countries in Europe.
But the success didn’t come without hard work. “Until the end of my PhD, I was working in the lab from 9am to 7pm, and then going home and working for Native Scientist,” she explains, stating that sometimes she would work in secret.
“I carried a double life and I was conscious of the fact that what I was doing was a bit unusual. I didn’t want my peers in the lab to think that if I failed an experiment, it was because I was distracted with my adventures outside the lab.”
And Joana is ambitious to maintain Native Scientist alongside her scientific career. “I want to be a professor. I’m now starting a second postdoctorate, and I still manage the two things. Because that’s what I want to do! If eventually we go global, I may have to reconsider my decision, but at the moment, I have the energy and the drive to keep on doing both!”