Career Spotlight: Manaal Ali

by South Dakota Biotech
Published 09/01/2020

One to watch: New graduate blends bioscience beginnings with passion for making a difference

Manaal Ali knows something about trial and error.

She saw it at work in a lab at Sanford Research, where she spent time working on cellular disease research while still in high school.

She lived the concept as a teenager and young adult, navigating college preparation and her undergraduate work as a first-generation American whose family had never been exposed to the world of college applications, scholarships and internships.
And she’s embracing it now, as a new graduate of Augustana University, who is confident and comfortable not knowing exactly what her future holds.
“I have so many passions. I just don’t know how to narrow it down,” she said. “But I’m trying to gain skills and resources.”
For now, Ali is the newly named communications director for the nonprofit DRACO, which stands for Dakota Research and Consulting Organization. Its roots are in biotechnology, helping companies access cost-effective services while investing in the professional development of student consultants and educating about regional science initiatives.
For Ali, who once thought of pursuing a career in biology and has a minor in the subject from Augustana, it’s a chance to blend some of her many passions. She ultimately pursued a double major in international affairs/government and sociology.
“I want to go into something related to social activism,” she said. “I don’t know what that looks like. I thought as an 18-year-old that I did, but I don’t. I just want to help people and support my parents and give back to them. Those are my two goals, whatever I end up doing.”
Ali’s parents are enormous influences in her life. Her mother first immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1990s, and Ali was born in Chicago. Her father soon followed. At the time, he was a doctor in India who had practiced for a few years.
“When he tried to make the transition here, it didn’t match, so he had to do the training all over,” she said.
While her father completed his residency and fellowship, the family moved around – to Staten Island, then Buffalo, N.Y. – then finally to Sioux Falls nine years ago, where his first job as a physician was at Sanford Health. Ali was in seventh grade. She’s the oldest of three who has taken her experience navigating academia and now helps her siblings.
“I grew up in an interesting time for our family and learned a lot about figuring it out along the way,” she said. “My parents, especially my mom, would sit down and help me with all my homework, and they really are why I pushed myself to be successful and to find excellence in the things I do. And my life in Sioux Falls has molded my direction and interest, for sure.”
While in high school, she became a Sanford Promise scholar and later a part-time employee, which connected her with a laboratory at Sanford Research where she worked on diseases related to the nuclear envelope, or membrane, of cells. It exposed her to working with proteins, cell culture and “very nitty gritty stuff in the sciences” while still a teenager.
So when the Argus Leader newspaper named the Harrisburg High School senior one of its Academic All-Stars in 2016, she leaned toward following in her father’s career footsteps when asked about her next steps.
“I look back and laugh, because that’s not at all what I want to do,” she said.
Instead, her path has been a varied one the last four years, exposing her to civic engagement through an internship with LEAD, which supports candidates for elected office, and Zeal Center for Entrepreneurship, where she interned with a focus on communications and engagement.
Along the way, she interned with a legislative affairs firm and an international affairs firm in Washington, D.C. and spent time at the University of Oslo in Norway.
Her biology background “really did help me out with a lot of the jobs I’ve gotten because of the work ethic – writing reports and research papers – and working for a couple years at Sanford Research helped me to learn how to present in front of people,” she said. “And doing lab bench work was beneficial in helping me learn patience and perseverance.”
It certainly helps her talk the talk with DRACO’s team, which she met through Zeal where the group has a membership.
In her first few months there, she’s helped create a new initiative called Catalyst, that will launch soon and reach out to regional universities to cultivate a statewide network of strong student leaders interested in engineering, design and business relationships. The program hopes to partner with student-driven competitions such as Governor’s Giant Vision and the Hult Prize and provide resources to help students excel.
“We’re reaching out to students who are interested generally in innovation and creation," Ali said. "If they want to build businesses, we can help with projects and the design and business plan.”
And – still embracing growing by trying things out – Ali recently discovered she enjoys design work, after helping with DRACO’s logo, and she now is drawing illustrations and selling paintings online through her Instagram page, @manaal_ali. She’s taking some online courses to learn coding, too.
“I’m trying to build my skillset to become well-rounded,” she said. “And I want people to look at me and know you can find a balance between doing what you know and like to do and also making your parents and people around you happy. It’s important to give back to those who gave to you, but you also need to make yourself happy. So take it slow and live your life and don’t be too stressed about expectations.”
Graduate school could be in her future, but nothing is set, she said. For now, she’s focused on helping launch Catalyst and seeing where her ever-evolving interests take her.
“Manaal is such a strong example of why it’s so important to connect students to our industry as early as possible,” said Joni Johnson, executive director of South Dakota Biotech.
“It’s clear how her early experience in the biosciences continues to support her career today, regardless of the direction it takes. And it’s exciting how she’s already discovered the variety of supportive roles offered in our industry, from advocacy to communication. We need talent in these areas to support the growth of biosciences within our state, so we hope she stays engaged in the industry and can’t wait to see what’s next for her.”
The opportunities offered by staying close to home have been significant, Ali added.
“I think a lot of times when people think about South Dakota and say this is flyover country and we don’t have much here, that it takes away from the diversity and creativity that are here,” she said.
“Through my internships and volunteer experiences I learned we have a vibrant immigrant community doing a lot of great things, a vibrant social activist community that has gotten a lot done and a lot of people creating in great ways in South Dakota. I think there’s more to South Dakota, especially Sioux Falls, than people think. And I like to work with people and places that don’t show necessarily that they are amazing, but they have this quality to them once you look deeper into them. And you realize they really are exceptional.”
To learn more about DRACO and its Aug. 31 Catalyst launch, click here.