The special mission of the Mann Educational Opportunity Fund is to provide mentoring support and educational tools primarily, but not exclusively, to students of color from the Madison Metropolitan School District who show potential for academic achievement, but face significant economic and personal challenges in reaching their full potential. This is the 20th year that the Mann Scholars Program has been working with students in Madison and last month they just celebrated their first doctorate Mann Scholar.
Yes, you may now call her Doctor Alisa King. The 2008 Madison West graduate and former Mann Scholar earned her doctorate degree in microbiology from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.
King still remembers those boosts of encouragement she got from Mann Scholars Program Coordinator Amy Wallace back in the day.
“I remember Amy would always check on me every once in a while to see how I was doing,” King tells Madison365. “We would meet for lunch and coffee all the time. She helped me with different things. It was good to know I had somebody on my side.
“Amy and my parents were always there for me, and my sister, Jeimi King, helped me get through the tough parts of my journey, as well,” she adds.
Each Mann Scholar receives $1,000 per year each year during high school. They also receive mentoring support and assistance in planning high school and post-secondary studies. The scholarship funds help pay for extracurricular and school expenses during high school, and the program also provides academic mentoring. The Scholars work year-round with Wallace and Mann Program Assistant Pahoua Thao.
“There are bright, talented students who struggle to be seen and recognized for a variety of reasons in a large high school setting,” Wallace tells Madison365. “The Mann Scholars Program strives to demonstrate what can happen when a student feels personally supported and connected to educational opportunities and community resources. Alisa is a great example of what can happen when opportunities are available to a bright, talented student. The sky’s the limit, dreams can become reality.”
After graduating from Madison West, King would go on to earn her bachelor’s of science at UW-Madison in 2012 and would soon start her Ph.D. program in microbiology at the University of Illinois.
Her research involved looking at and identifying small RNA in E. Coli. King has been working on her thesis for seven years culminating in her graduation in December of 2019. Now, she’s a science writer at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“My job here is basically to communicate science to the public and to try and bridge the gap between the community and the faculty and research facility while making the science more accessible,” she says. “I spend a lot of time writing press releases for new papers that come out for different faculty. I also write articles about faculty members, as well, and also outreach activities that we do here on campus. That’s a huge thing. We want to expose kids and people of all ages to genomic biology.
“Since I’ve always had this passion for writing, I learned that science writing was a career that I could do by meeting the Ph.D. background that I have,” she adds.
STEM fields have traditionally been very white and very male. But that is changing as more and more women and people of color have been getting exposure and opportunity. King considers herself a role model for everybody, but particularly young women of color.
“I definitely consider myself to be a role model as a young woman of color in this field. You just historically do not see that many – especially in science,” she says. “I was a camp counselor at a summer camp last summer and there were young minority students in the camp and I felt empowered being able to teach them about science and then they became interested in science. I want to show that you can do anything if you work hard and not to let your skin color be a barrier to that.”
King has a unique upbringing in that her father is African American and her mother is Japanese.
“It was very interesting for me growing up where there were two cultures. I was able to speak two different languages growing up and experiencing different cultures,” she says. “I got to travel to Japan. It just gave me a whole new perspective on life and the values that they hold in Japan are similar but different to the ones they hold in the U.S.”
King has a busy summer coming up. She plans on getting married in May and then being a featured speaker at the 20th-anniversary celebration of the Mann Scholars, which will take place this June at the new Madison College South. The celebration will be titled “Celebrating 20 Years of Excellence.”
The Mann Scholars Program selected their first two Scholars in 1997 to honor the late Bernard and Kathlyn Mann, long-time Madison residents and strong advocates for high-quality and equitable educational opportunities for all students enrolled in the Madison Metropolitan School District. As the first Mann Scholar ever to earn her doctorate, King is an important part of the Mann Family that keeps growing and growing.
“I invited Amy to come to my graduation ceremony and she actually came down to Champaign and she got to see me walk and get hooded at the ceremony. That was awesome,” King says. “I’ve invited her to my wedding in May. And I’m planning on speaking at the next Mann Scholars Graduation Ceremony to talk about my journey from the Mann Scholar Program to Ph.D.
“I’m hoping that my story will inspire the students. I’m really looking forward to it.”