LSD’s Canaria Shaking Up the Stereotypes of Scientists

— By Sabin Russell

(Photo by David Gilbert)

When Christie Canaria was in college, she was, in her own words, “a very awkward and uncoordinated person.”

Today she is a neurobiologist at Berkeley Lab’s Life Science Division, with a PhD in chemistry and a few specialties on the side: Away from the lab bench, she is an accomplished Middle Eastern (belly) dancer; an enthusiastic ukulele strummer; and a member of the Bay Area’s “fire community,” local practitioners of a Pacific Islander art form that involves athletic whirling of flaming torches and/or swords.

It would not be too out-of-line to ask, “What the heck happened?”

Somewhere between college and her current work, Canaria did indeed find her stride. She now not only dances on stage, last April she explained neurobiology to a live audience for Berkeley Lab’s Science in the Theater series. Today as a staff researcher and microscopist, she is engaged in cutting-edge research on Huntington’s disease while on a public mission, of sorts, to shatter preconceived notions of who scientists are and what they do.

“Scientists don’t have to look a certain way, or have a certain kind of personality,” she says. “I would like to break that stereotype.”

Canaria introduced herself to much of the Berkeley Lab community by performing traditional Middle Eastern belly dance during last year’s Cultural Festival, a celebration of diversity at the Lab. Wearing an Egyptian bedlah — a blue outfit of a beaded top, hip belt, and skirt — she left “awkward and uncoordinated” to some faraway corner of the past.

“I find it mentally satisfying,” Canaria says of belly dancing. “Your legs are doing one thing, your arms something else, and on top of that, you are doing a shimmy.”

A first generation Filipina, Canaria grew up in San Diego. Since then, she says, “I have been slowly moving north.” She credits an active outreach program for minority girls in grade school for piquing her interest in science. Later in high school she was tapped for a mentorship program with a UC San Diego Professor Michael Sailor, and she ended up getting a B.S. in Chemistry from UCSD. Later she earned her PhD from Cal Tech, where she worked as a postdoc before moving to Berkeley and joining Berkeley Lab in 2010. “People have always supported me in my pursuit of a scientific career,’’ she says.

Much of that career is spent peering through high-powered microscopes at images of the neural networks of mouse brains. The mysteries of neurodegenerative diseases may be unraveled in the way proteins fold and interact with others at the molecular level. Her research is a curious flip-side to that of her husband, UC Berkeley astronomer Brad Cenko, who uses some of the world’s most powerful telescopes to study galaxies billions of light years away.

Canaria’s “hobbies,” as she calls music and dancing, started in college when she decided to confront her self-perceived awkwardness by taking up competitive ballroom dancing. The Rumba, Cha-Cha, and Samba were a nice counterpoint to her violin playing, which had kept her busy at school concerts and performing in church. It was while she was working at the San Diego gene sequencing equipment maker Illumina that she discovered Middle Eastern dance — “You can dance without a partner!” — and that started what Canaria calls her “cultural education.”

In 2008, she went to Egypt for a chance to study more formally the technical aspects of belly dancing. She performs at Bay Area dance festivals, and dances with a studio at least once a month in Rockridge. She acknowledges she was nervous about dancing at the Lab’s Culture Festival. “I had just moved to the Lab,’’ she says, “but I found the experience worthwhile.” Most gratifying for her was when a Lab employee came up to her after her performance to thank her. “She was from Egypt, and said she hadn’t seen her culture represented this way before,” Canaria recalls. She plans to dance again at this year’s Culture Festival on August 15.

At the Lab, she learned about the Ukulele club, and another passion was born. “I play just about every day,’’ she says. And although she views her dancing and her music as artistic endeavors, her hobbies are intertwined with science. “In stringed instruments, there are harmonics, which are a very physical manifestation of mathematics,” Canaria says. “And the body is a machine, with 206 bones. If you can tap into it musically, you can do fantastic things.”

Fire dancing? She picked up Poi, originally a Maori dance form, while living in Los Angeles, and found that the “fire community” is even larger in the Bay Area. Often the dances are performed with flags, streamers, or LED lights, but the lit flame brings out the most adrenaline. It can also be performed with a sword. “That adds another layer of complexity,” Canaria says with a smile. “The sword was about a kilogram. It’s not so much sharp as heavy.”

Despite her attraction to hobbies with a fear-factor often built in, Canaria says she likes to keep a balance. And she has her limits. “I have a fear of heights,’’ she says. “You will never see me jump out of an airplane. I like to keep my excitement on the ground.”