Model-turned-scientist trying to pique students' interest

Model-turned-scientist trying to pique students' interest

Surrounded by stacks of biology textbooks and popular science books, posters (one of the Periodic Table of the Elements, another of the film, "Mama Mia") and a green-dress-wearing Barbie with long, dark locks, Joanne Manaster turns on the camera and waxes poetic about the inner child of scientists.

For this particular vlog, which she later posted on YouTube, she recommends reading science books aimed at middle school and high school students and written by Joy Hakim. Even if you're not a middle school or high school student.

"It's always nice to read things at a lower level, to rediscover that joy of why we like science," she says into the camera, chatting about how young scientists love digging in dirt and looking up at the sky.

Joanne Manaster loves science.

So what better name for her Web site than

The University of Illinois bioengineering instructor, former model and mom also loves books, particularly science books. Classics from Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" to Carl Sagan's "Cosmos," and newer books like Barbara Oakley's "Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend."

Manaster picks up books at the library and bookstore and reads them (devours them is probably a more accurate term). She listens to audio books while sewing, while working in her bioengineering lab and while driving.

"I read all the time. It never ends," she said.

In one recent video, dubbed "Science books are a girl's best friend!," she reveals one find after another from a book-shopping trip, including several books about the atmosphere and a field guide to snowflakes. In the video "Mary Roach is the David Sedaris of science!" she discusses several of Roach's books, including "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex."

"My goal is not to promote an individual author. My goal is to say what's out there," she said.

The first impression Hannah Holmes, author most recently of "The Well-Dressed Ape," had of Manaster was "Sandra Bullock with a brain doing these charming, really intelligent book reviews."

Holmes was thrilled to learn she was recently, as she said, "Joanned."

Where do people turn for information or reviews about new books, particularly ones that deal with science topics?

"It's such a topical issue because newspapers are dying like flies. ... People like Joanne, who establish a reputation for covering a certain niche extremely well, are probably a major part of the future of bringing books to the public's attention," Holmes said.

Manaster embraced her video book review project with her students in mind, as she wants to share with them her love for reading and for science.

Manaster studies stem cells and tissue engineering and teaches at the UI. She's taught there for about the last 20 years, working mostly with pre-medicine and pre-veterinary students. One of her courses focuses on the "cultures of mammalian cells and concepts of tissue engineering."

Once, for extra credit on an exam, she asked students to list their five favorite books and explain how the books were influential. Manaster has done that every year since and now shares the lists with other students. She doesn't limit the students to write only about science books, but she does discourage them from writing for example, why they love the "Harry Potter" books.

She started filming the video reviews in January.

As a professional model in her teens and because her father served in the Air Force, she spent time in places like New York City, Tokyo and Guam. Manaster is comfortable in front of the camera.

"It doesn't faze me at all," she said.

In her videos, she often weaves in bits of information about her personal life, talking about what she enjoyed about the books and what people could learn from reading them.

"What is selling now in publishing are nonfiction books," said author Barbara Oakley, associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. "Why is that? You can read a fictional book and some of them are phenomenal, but if you read something that's well-written nonfiction, it informs you about something maybe you were interested in or you need to know about.

"There are so many scientific breakthroughs changing our world today, it's no wonder people are drawn to this discussion. Joanne has been able to tap into that hunger people have to find out more. She's so fun and so enthusiastic. She's a treasure."

Manaster does not prepare written remarks before she films the reviews. Instead she thinks about the book and what she liked about it for a few days before filming.

"I'm having a blast. I hope to continue doing this," she said.

Now all she needs to do is write her own book.

"If I wrote a book it would be on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine for the layman," Manaster said.