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Ed. Magazine

She Sets the Pace

Alum works to dismantle what it means to be a runner and a scientist
Alia Qatarneh running along the Charles River
Alia Qatarneh running along the Charles River
Photo: Puma

Alia Qatarneh, Ed.M.’22, is many things. She’s first-generation, East Boston-raised, Arab-Italian-American. She’s an educator, rhymer, runner, learner, leader, and scientist.

She’s also a TrailblazHer — part of an all-female running “crew” that launched in 2020 in Boston to respond to a need — the need for women in and around the city, and especially women of color, to have a safe space to truly see themselves as runners. Too often, the common narrative in society is that to be a “runner,” you must have a certain body shape or be able to hit specific PRs. But as Qatarneh once said in an interview about women interested in joining the TrailblazHer group, “if you run for the 39 bus, you are a runner.” 

That’s why the TrailblazHer’s mission isn’t about going faster or besting one another in races. It’s about being visible and dismantling mainstream messaging about women and their bodies. It’s about the mental, physical, and spiritual fitness of the women who show up each week. And, more than anything, says Qatarneh, a crew “Lead-Her” who oversees weekly runs, it’s about community. 

“TrailblazHers isn’t just a run crew,” she says. “We are a family, a sisterhood even.” 

That sisterhood supported Qatarneh last April when she ran the Boston Marathon for the first time. She had been running for years before joining TrailblazHers — first as a sprinter in high school at Boston Latin, then tackling longer distances, including seven half marathons. But running Boston — the biggest race in her hometown, and known worldwide — was never, ever on Qatarneh’s radar. 

“It’s important to differentiate between knowing about the Boston Marathon and wanting to run the Boston Marathon,” she says. “As a Bostonian, I’ve known about this iconic race since I was in elementary school. Did I know it was iconic? Absolutely not. My father had taken my sister and I to the finish line a few times in the 90s, but I did not grasp the gravity of this oneday event. I did not know anyone who ran a marathon, let alone Boston. No family member or relative, no Eastie neighbor, no co-worker of my parents. Begs the question, why? Who is this race for? It surely wasn’t for me. But things changed in 2022.” 

That was the year the Boston Running Collaborative, an extension of the Boston Athletic Association, opened nominations for their inaugural Boston Marathon Program. This goal was to actively engage local runners and make the iconic marathon more inclusive and representative of the city. TrailblazHers nominated Qatarneh to receive a coveted bib. On the big day this past April, future Ed.L.D. classmates tracked her progress and one of her former professors, Monica Higgins, cheered her on in the rain at the 13.1-mile mark. 

This past summer, Qatarneh reached another milestone: In June, as she prepared to start the Ed.L.D. Program, she left the job she held for the past 11 years at Harvard working with middle and high school biology teachers across New England. In the job, she helped bring cutting-edge lab techniques to the classroom as part of the science education outreach program housed in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

The job was a way, she says, for her to challenge another unwritten narrative, in this case, that science isn’t for everyone. “With the underrepresentation of marginalized populations prevalent in stem fields, it has been my personal ambition to help students see themselves in stem,” she says. “While pushing the boundaries of science education, I have recognized that the intersection of education and industry is central to uplifting underserved communities. This is why I applied to the Ed.L.D. Program at hgse; to become an agent for change in advancing school-to-career pathways for k–12 students who are underrepresented in the stem fields. Why? I was that student. I continue to be that student.” 

Now with the fall semester at the Ed School underway, Qatarneh finds herself reflecting on the interconnectedness of her work as both a TrailblazHer and as an educator. 

“My inspiring cohort of 13 peers have helped me recognize the synergy between these two facets of my identity,” she says. “It’s simple really; as a TrailblazHer, I am indeed an educator. And as an educator, well, it’s time to trailblaze.”

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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