Changemakers

This Nature Q&A series celebrates people who fight racism in science and who champion inclusion. It also highlights initiatives that could be applied to other scientific workplaces.

JoAnn Trejo’s early mentors include a primary-school vice-principal who inspired her to continue her education and an engineer who helped her to get summer research jobs testing groundwater at a mining site.

Now senior assistant vice-chancellor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) medical school, Trejo co-leads the university’s Faculty Mentor Training Program , alongside measures to encourage postdoctoral scholars from under-represented backgrounds. A pharmacologist, Trejo grew up in poverty in a single-parent, Mexican immigrant family.

Data and research back up the success of her initiatives.

Over the past decade, more than 125 postdocs — two-thirds of whom are from under-represented groups — have engaged with the San Diego Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA) programme, which provides three years of mentored postdoctoral training, including career planning, grant-writing training, networking and mentorship. Of those from under-represented groups, 48% are now in tenure-track jobs, and that is nearly double the typical success rate1 for these positions.

Furthermore, the interdisciplinary approach of Trejo’s health-sciences faculty training programme has so far benefited close to 400 colleagues, boosting the effectiveness of their mentoring, especially for under-represented trainees, as well as improving their morale and the campus culture2. Senior faculty mentors complete an 8-hour course on communication, aligning expectations, building independence and achieving work–life integration in junior faculty members before crafting a personal mentoring philosophy. Trainees are taught how to maintain and develop mentoring partnerships, as well as set goals, in a 3-hour workshop. Thanks to Trejo’s determined recruiting efforts, the number of tenure-track faculty members from under-represented groups at UCSD shot up by 38% from 2017 to 2022.

What is the great passion that has driven you as a scientist?

Since a very early age, I have wondered about how things worked and liked to fix things. In high school, I was fortunate to meet an engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who was the father of one of my teachers. He connected me to research opportunities at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as a first-year university student, and I did that every summer, testing groundwater for contaminants at mining sites. Early-career opportunities to do hands-on research weren’t as readily available then as they are now.

I then developed a passion for understanding how drugs work. And that led me to study G-protein-coupled receptors — proteins that mediate all sorts of physiological responses, such as inflammation or cancer. They’re currently the target of about one-third of the drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Who has been your biggest influence or mentor, and why?

I’m from a single-mother, Mexican immigrant farmworker family who grew up in poverty in Stockton, California. My sister finished high school, but my three brothers didn’t. Neither did any of my uncles, aunts or cousins in our very large extended family; they all worked in the fields doing labour-intensive jobs. Certainly, it was the strong women in my family — my mother, my aunts and my sister were responsible for the family — who were my earliest mentors.

In elementary school, I was bright and did well, so I’d finish all my work by 10 a.m. and then get sent to the office because I had nothing to do. I got to know the vice-principal, who was also from a Mexican background, and she had a pivotal role in encouraging me to continue my studies in high school and beyond. She is now 87 years old and lives in San Diego, California, and I still visit her once a month.

When did you decide to address the lack of diversity in science?

You develop a shield around you to survive, so that you can deflect microaggressions, the little comments or behaviours that can be put-downs or criticisms, to get through your training and advance. I really became aware of this when I became a junior faculty member in 1997, and I was on the committees making decisions, often as the only woman and the only person from an under-represented ethnic background. That was an ‘aha’ moment and a time to reflect on my experience. I saw that discrimination wasn’t hearsay or rumours — it really did exist.

Another part of it was helping my colleagues to reassess the metrics that the graduate-school admissions committee used for evaluation. There was a complete lack of understanding of how people with different experiences face different barriers, such as financial constraints or standardized tests. If you take test-preparation courses, you do really well. But many students from under-represented backgrounds score poorly. Graduate programmes use these metrics to define success, but they’re completely irrelevant3. The best metric for predicting graduate school success is research experience coupled with supportive letters.

What is the biggest misconception or racial stereotype you’d like to dispel?

In a lot of our structured mentorship programmes, our faculty members, who are mostly white men, are mentoring women and under-represented individuals. When they have an opportunity to work directly with people who are different from themselves, it can be transformative. They realize that these individuals are brilliant; I’ve seen that a lot.

We also let department chairs know that we have a programme to recruit diverse faculty members from across the country. A few years ago, I led an interdisciplinary search committee that received implicit-bias training and conducted extensive outreach to under-represented candidates through direct e-mails, social media, posts in professional groups and journals, and more. The candidates we identified were often better than those found through the usual faculty searches. So, this myth that there are no under-represented individuals who can compete is not true. There are a lot out there, you just have to put effort into finding them.

What is the coolest discovery that has come out of your work?

The prevailing view once was that the signals that tell our body’s cells to grow, stop growing or move came from the cell surface. My lab and others have discovered that these signals can also originate from internal compartments inside the cell, and that’s a whole new area to discover.

Now we think that these proteins or receptors move from the cell surface to internal compartments where they can produce signals and cause the cells to change their behaviour.

What is your best piece of advice to a 20-something researcher in your field?

Find a niche that’s not overworked, that’s gaining prominence and where there’s space for an individual to work in and foster their passion. Talk to expert mentors and colleagues and find an area where you can move the field forward. It’s really important to network and collaborate, which is much easier now with social media and affinity groups that foster connection.

What do you do to get away from science?

I love being outside. For me, it’s about being in nature and disconnecting from everything else — not even listening to podcasts. Growing up, we lived in a rather rural area, so I spent a lot of time outside, and I still like to hike. A great thing about hiking is that you can do it all over the world. My partner and I have done the Dolomites in Italy and the Milford Track in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. And about twice a year, we go to the eastern Sierras in California and do week-long treks; it’s the one time I can get totally off the grid.