Exploring New STEM Opportunities Beyond Guam

Q&A with Janielle Cuala

This Q&A is part of the Inspiring Islanders series.

ASP: Can you tell me a little bit about your research as an Amgen Scholar?

Cuala: I had a wonderful time as an Amgen Scholar! I had a wonderful mentor, Dr. Ellen Rothenberg. She paired me with a postdoc, Dr. Hiroyuki Hosokawa, and a lab technician, Maile Romeo-Wolf. With all mentors, I learned a lot throughout the summer. My project for the summer was studying early T cell development by determining phenotypes through transcription factor knockouts using the CRISPR/Cas9 system. The significance of the project is to deepen the understanding of how T cells develop because they are important players for our immune system.

ASP: What has been your favorite part of the Amgen Scholars Program?

Cuala: I don’t think I ever had a successful project where something conclusive came out. Coming from Guam, I was never able to do this kind of intensive research. At my home institution, California State University LA, the resources are also different, so my projects move more slowly. However, at Caltech, all I ever needed to worry about is doing actual science.

The moment I thoroughly analyzed my data and talked to my mentors about it, I realized I was the first person in the entire world to see these results. To be the first one to have novel knowledge about something scientific was very empowering. At that moment, I felt like I grew as a scientist. I had a feeling of scientific accomplishment that still motivates me to this day. It was a good reminder that even though science is hard and full of failure, that one feeling of finding something novel is always going to be worth it.

ASP: What has the transition been like moving from a small island for your high school education to a large campus environment in college?

Cuala: It was honestly a culture shock. It has been very different coming from a small island to a big city like Los Angeles. To this day, I am still trying to adjust to my environment as well as being a scientist. All I ever knew about science came out of textbooks or out of science fair experiments that you just look up on the internet. I knew I loved science ever since I was little, but I never knew what I could do with it. I would never have imagined that I would have the opportunity to do significant research such as researching how T cells work!

ASP: What did get you first interested in science?

Cuala: I remember in elementary school I would try to join the science fair every year even though it was not required. The first experiment that I remember doing was trying different types of fertilizers on plants. I had a control, one with a commercially used fertilizer, and compost made up of bananas — and if I remember correctly, I added some Cheerios in there. Other experiments included the can crushing experiment, which tested the pressure properties of liquid water and vapor.

As I grew older, I was always fascinated by questions specific to our bodies. I was specifically interested in diabetes, as my mother has it and it is also one of the top diseases on Guam. However, I never had a specific medical class anatomy/physiology class where I could pursue these curiosities. Therefore, when I was in high school, my one option was to become a medical doctor. All I knew was that I couldn’t do that on Guam, which is why I left for California.

ASP: Can you tell me about your experience learning science in high school in Guam?

Cuala: Even though I knew I loved science, being on Guam, there was not much I could do with it. All I knew is if I stayed on Guam, I could major in biology and then go to the mainland United States to become a doctor or stay on Guam to become a teacher. I liked the idea of being a medical doctor, but I don’t remember anyone ever talking to me about getting a Ph.D. to work in academia, industry, or the government.

I was not exposed to much career opportunities of a Ph.D. besides academia until being an Amgen Scholar.  After the UCLA symposium, I realized that I had a great interest in the industry path.

ASP: What are your goals for after undergraduate school?

Cuala: I want to get my Ph.D. in a biomedical area such as Biochemistry. Eventually, after all my training and experience, I want to be able to go back to Guam to help expand STEM education there and give students the opportunities I was able to obtain.

ASP: How has Amgen Scholars affected those goals?

Cuala: I was not exposed to much career opportunities of a Ph.D. besides academia until being an Amgen Scholar.  After the UCLA symposium, I realized that I had a great interest in the industry path. I was inspired by the speakers throughout the symposium, especially when we visited the Amgen headquarters. The way the scientists spoke their work is exactly how I want to talk about science in the future. I want to be able to get experience working in industry to continue finding novel aspects of the biomedical sciences.

ASP: What excites you most about the biosciences?

Cuala: Biotechnology and bioscience try to mimic’s nature’s mechanisms and improve upon on it to better human life. It’s amazing how inspiration can be taken from what is already exist to create novel technologies.  I am also excited that this field can never get boring in my lifetime. There are so many things we still do not fully understand, and I believe that in my lifetime I will never run out of scientific questions to ask.

ASP: Anything else you’d like to add?

Cuala: Shout out to Maria, the Amgen Scholars program director at Caltech! She’s been with me since I transferred from community college. She is one of the main reasons why I pursue STEM opportunities.