Cypress Alum Awarded Prestigious National Science Foundation Fellowship at UNLV

If someone had told her six years ago that she would feel right at home at a Nevada research laboratory, Cypress College alum Jessica Grifaldo would have laughed them off. It had only been a few years since she was a lifeguard, spending her summers at the pool with zero consideration for college. Now she is on her way to a Ph.D., the only student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), and just one of three in Nevada to receive a highly prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship.

The five-year fellowship will help Grifaldo in her research at The Robleto Lab at UNLV, where she is studying how bacteria can mutate, providing her and other awardees three years of financial support, including an annual stipend of $37,000. Designed to ensure the scientific and engineering workforce’s quality, vitality, and diversity, the fellowship program’s distinguished alumni include numerous Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin, and “Freakonomics” co-author Steven Levitt.

The 27-year-old Southgate native grew up in a low-income, but very tight-knit family, the eldest daughter of two Mexican immigrants. After high school, she worked as a lifeguard and swimming instructor, making good money for an 18-year-old.

“After graduating high school, I never considered pursuing higher education. Maybe because I never had role models in my life to support me in going to college, or maybe because my priorities were to make money. But after being an instructor, I realized I enjoy teaching,” she said, getting her first taste of teaching science to others when she was a lifeguard instructor. “Instead of memorizing steps to perform CPR, I would teach the lifeguard trainees the physiology behind why CPR is formed the way it is. By doing this, trainees are more likely to effectively perform CPR in stressful situations.”

And she was good at it too. Her students, wannabe lifeguards in their teens and twenties, would tell her she should be a high school science teacher, planting the seed that maybe something else was out there for her. Now Grifaldo thinks back to that time and recognizes it as a moment that solidified her desire to go to college so that someday she could become a teacher.

At The Robleto Lab, she and her peers study a bacterial protein called Mutation frequency decline (MFD) found in all bacteria. Scientists found that when the gene that produces that protein is removed, the rate of mutations in bacteria decreases, signaling the potential for mitigating drug resistance. However, Jessica’s project will investigate how MFD affects gene expression, which is beyond MFD’s well-established role in mutagenesis.

“An organism’s genome can be considered like the manual that encodes the necessary information to form the organism’s traits and physiology. The pathway for how the genome gets decoded to physiology is referred to as gene expression. MFD is quite the enigma as it induces mutations and drug resistance, but it also helps the cell be the cell, and I think that’s so cool.”

Although she applied to and was accepted to several colleges in her area, she ended up choosing Cypress because it worked best with her work and family schedule. After learning about the benefits she could receive through Cypress’ STEM2 program, she was surer than ever that Cypress was the college for her. The STEM2 program aims to support students interested

in STEM and increase the 4-year transfer rate. Program benefits include individual counseling sessions, additional instruction workshops in gatekeeper courses, transfer support to any 4-year university, a textbook loan program, and more. She was especially impressed, however, by her instructors.

“The STEM2 and SEM faculty at Cypress were something else. I’ve never been around so many people who love their job and are good at it. I’ve also never been around so many people who believed in me more than I believed in myself. Sometimes when I’m doing this, I feel like I’m doing it for them.”

Cypress Biology Professor Dr. Adel Rajab called Grifaldo “very special to us at Cypress” and said he is not surprised that Grifaldo has had continued success at UNLV.

“From the first day I met her, [Grifaldo] showed an enormous amount of enthusiasm for science with an incredible hunger for wanting to truly know how things work in a cell,” said Rajab. “She was not interested in learning facts for the sake of a grade. Rather, she was genuinely awed by the information she learned, and this passion for knowing things is the spark needed inside every budding scientist.”

Rajab and Yanet Garcia, Cypress’ director of Educational Partnerships, encouraged Grifaldo to apply to summer research at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). After just her first semester at Cypress, Grifaldo was one of ten in a research program at UCI. Her peers were more advanced, and some even were already working scientists.

“I applied to the summer research opportunity with no real intention of actually getting in. I only applied because it was a STEM2 requirement to apply for an internship every semester,” Grifaldo said. “That was my first taste of witnessing the benefits of having a mentor. [Garcia] always pushed people to apply to everything and to believe in themselves. And honestly, it was quite inspiring seeing a Latina be in charge of such a big program.”

The experience transformed her, and she knew she needed to pursue more research and maybe even become a community college professor herself. She wanted to give back and help other students, particularly Latinos, just like Garcia and Rajab had done for her.

“I struggled to find a field of science I was going to commit to. Partly because the SEM faculty were just great lecturers and taught with so much enthusiasm. I was seriously confused thinking ‘Do I actually like this subject, or do I like it because my teachers like it?’ But Rajab’s intro to cell biology class really reinforced that biology is what I wanted to pursue. I remember going into Rajab’s office hours and blatantly asking, ‘How do I become you?’ I remember him saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to get a Ph.D. then.’ And the rest is history.”

After completing her studies at Cypress, she transferred to California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), and received the competitive 2-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) fellowship. As a RISE fellow, Jessica was mentored by Dr. Deborah Fraser, who studied the inflammatory response in immune cells like macrophages. Before completing her bachelor’s in molecular cell biology, she applied and was accepted to a research opportunity at UNLV, where she would eventually seek her Ph.D.

Now Grifaldo works 8- to 10-hour days in The Robleto Lab at UNLV and spends her free time mentoring others. She is known as “the crazy one who takes on all the undergraduate students.”

“I currently have four undergraduate trainees working with me. It’s almost like I have my own little lab in the lab,” Grifaldo said. “I think because I am Latina and a first-generation student, I feel for our student population, and so I’m more inclined to become a mentor. I know what it’s like to want something but not have any real idea how to obtain it.”

UNLV has an undergraduate enrollment of over 30,000, where LatinX students make up 37% of the College of Sciences undergraduate population but only 12% of graduate enrollment. Grifaldo is determined to improve these disparities.

“To increase LatinX student enrollment at the graduate level requires having mentors with similar racial or ethnic backgrounds during their undergraduate career,” said Grifaldo. “Since graduate students teach classes, they can be extremely influential to the undergrad population.”

“I feel like there is this big stigma that you have to be this highly gifted person in the STEM fields. People think you must be naturally brilliant and good at math. And that’s not entirely correct,” she said. “I would say that you do have to be a person who is willing to do the uncomfortable work to succeed in STEM,” she said. “So, you might say, ‘I’m not good at math.’ That’s fine – but are you willing to do the hard work that it takes to be good at math? Being in STEM requires persistence more than talent.”

Garcia said Grifaldo embodies those traits she described.

“Witnessing Jessica’s personal and professional growth over the past few years has been inspiring to many students who are now following in her footsteps,” Garcia said. “This young lady has grit, and I am so proud of all that she’s accomplished since starting her higher education journey at Cypress College.”

To learn more about the STEM2 program at Cypress College, visit

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