Columbia People: Manuela Douglass
WHO SHE IS: Lab Technician, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center
YEARS AT COLUMBIA: 44
WHAT SHE DOES: Manuela Douglass slices human brains for a living and loves her work—the first step in Dr. Victoria Arango’s ongoing research on the biology of suicide. Using specialized machinery, Douglass, cuts sections of brains into paper-thin slices, which she uses to create imprints on slides. Then Arango, a clinical professor of molecular imaging and neuropathology, examines the slides for abnormalities that could indicate an inability to control impulses and inhibition.
Sitting at her desk in a white lab coat, Douglass identified a portion of a brain stem and cerebellum on one slide. “Once you know the anatomy of the brain, you are able to cut specific parts. I’ve created my own technique. It’s like an art,” said Douglass, who also maintains the laboratory, including 30 freezers where the brains are stored. “I like to keep it nice and clean. It’s my house.”
BEST PART OF THE JOB: Douglass is very proud of her work. She had never seen a human brain before she started working in the lab, but Arango gave her the training and encouragement she needed. “She has always trusted what I’m doing. I’ve learned so much from her. I have great respect for her,” Douglass said. “I’m not a doctor, but I understand the brain. I’m working for prevention, treatment and cures.” She likes to pass on her knowledge to the student interns who have come through the lab over the years and remains in touch with most of them. Their photos decorate her desk.
ROAD TO COLUMBIA: “My story is beautiful,” said Douglass. “I left my country for a better life.” In 1970, Douglass, then 23, and her husband emigrated from Cuba without knowing how to speak English. Both took jobs cleaning floors at the Columbia University Medical Center, and they had their first child, a daughter, a year later. Years later, Douglass got a new job at CUMC cleaning glassware in a lab, but expressed interest in doing more. She took classes at Lehman College, and the doctor who oversaw the lab in which she worked let her try data entry. When Arango, a Colombian immigrant, arrived at CUMC, Douglass’s interest was piqued. “I wanted to work for Dr. Arango,” she said. “I was interested in her work.” With a good recommendation from an administrator, she began work in Arango’s lab in 1994.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: Landing her job. Douglass’s husband died in 1984, and she was left to raise her two daughters, by then 13 and 9, on her own. Her work ethic never wavered—or went unnoticed. Steven Papp, a former deputy director of administration at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, arranged Douglass’s job interview with Arango. “It’s amazing what he did for me,” said Douglass. Arango was appreciative. “Manuela was very well liked by everyone here,” she said. “And I couldn’t say no once I met her. She was very eager and willing, and I saw an opportunity for someone who could do an important, but tedious job.”
IN IN HER SPARE TIME: Douglass, who lives in the Bronx’s Marble Hill neighborhood, remarried in 1990. She and her husband's story is not unlike that of the Brady Bunch—raising a blended family of his three sons and her two daughters. “I’m a little woman,” said the 5-foot-1-inch lab technician, “but I’m very strong.” Now Douglass enjoys spending time with five grandchildren and her pets—a dog and a parrot. “I also love to cook, decorate my house and shop. That’s what I’ll do when I retire,” she laughed.
—by Meghan Berry