Celebrating Women Making History at MPFI: Dr. Ilaria Drago, “The Educator”

This post is part of our Women’s History Month series of features spotlighting some of the women making history at MPFI.

March 4, 2021
Dr. Ilaria Drago
Dr. Ilaria Drago

Ilaria Drago is Max Planck Florida’s Head of Education Outreach. Dr. Drago received her Ph.D. in cellular biology in her home country of Italy before coming to Scripps Research in Jupiter to study mitochondrial calcium’s role in learning and memory. In 2018 she joined MPFI as Head of Education Outreach where she channels her love of science into community engagement.

For Ilaria, the goal of MPFI’s education outreach programs is to not only expose students to scientific concepts but to give them the confidence to see themselves as scientists. “While not everyone is going to have a career in science, it is important for me that as many people as possible are aware of science, what scientists really do in the lab, and what the process of scientific research entails. The kids of today are going to be responsible for the world of tomorrow, and scientific knowledge helps make evidence-based decisions in many aspects of life,” she said.

Through programs like Science Career Day, Ilaria seeks to present students with a diverse panel of scientists who share their journey toward a career in research. This emphasis on diversity is particularly important for students who don’t see role models from their backgrounds typically represented in a scientific career. “While you always need a first person to do something, or to break the proverbial ‘glass ceiling,’ it is much easier for someone to believe they can achieve their dream if they see someone coming from a similar background that already did it. Science has a huge diversity problem, and the first step to increase diversity is going to schools, interacting with students, and highlighting the success stories of scientists coming from different backgrounds,” she explained.

While she has built a successful career in research, as a young girl, she didn’t have a lot of encouragement to pursue a career in science. “There was very much the culture that ‘boys are good in math and science; girls are good in history and literature.’ It was not until the last year of high school when I learned how basic science discoveries can be applied to cure diseases and to diagnostics, that I seriously started considering a career in science,” she recalled.

For Ilaria, having mentors and role models was critical to her professional development. “I had a lot of role models as an aspiring scientist, but the one that stood up is my Ph.D. mentor, Professor Tullio Pozzan. At the time, he was one of the most famous scientists in Italy and one of the only six Italians that were a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences. Despite being a busy scientist, he always found the time to sit with me at the live imaging microscope, or to bounce ideas on what experiment to do next. He was always very open with me about the challenges I would have faced as a woman in science, but he always trusted in my abilities (way more than I did!), and he pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

In Ilaria’s role as Head of Education Outreach, she oversees MPFI’s internship programs for high school students and teachers and works with schools all over Palm Beach County to provide speakers and resources to classes studying neuroscience. Ilaria finds working with schools to be tremendously rewarding, but low-income schools, known as Title I schools, have a special place in her heart. She tries to make sure Title I schools are represented and are given the opportunity to participate in all of MPFI’s education outreach.

“The average STEM job hourly pay is double one of non-STEM jobs: encouraging a career in STEM is thus one of the ways to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds to build a brighter future,” she said. “Making science fun, accessible, and exposing students to the research that we do at MPFI can be enough to spark an interest, and sometimes a spark is all it takes to start an amazing career in STEM!”

As a woman in science, Ilaria both acts as a mentor and benefits from mentorship herself. In fact, mentorship from fellow women in science is one of the things she credits for giving her the confidence to pursue a scientific career. “Very often, women are hyper-critical about themselves, and having a mentor that can see your strengths is crucial to find the courage to apply for that position you think you’ll never get!”

As for her advice to young women who are interested in exploring a career in science, Ilaria says: “Believe in yourself, find supportive mentors, and grow your communication and management skills on top of your scientific ones.”

Click here to learn more about MPFI’s Education Outreach Programs