JoAnn Trejo selected for 2020 ASCB Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity

JoAnn Trejo

JoAnn Trejo calls herself a problem solver.

“I was born with a natural curiosity, always wondering how things work. I like to fix things—I like problem-solving. This is the essence of science, trying to solve problems,” Trejo said.

These problem-solving skills have no doubt helped her become an accomplished and well-respected scientist, but they have also given her the tools to be a creative advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the scientific community. The ASCB has named JoAnn Trejo as the 2020 recipient of the Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity.

Trejo is a professor of Pharmacology and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences Faculty Affairs at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) where she has made significant contributions to the understanding of cell signaling by protease-activated G protein-coupled receptors. She has published widely on the regulation of cell signaling in vascular endothelial cells and breast cancer. Trejo has also served on the councils of both the ASCB and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, has chaired Gordon Research Conferences, and served on numerous review panels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and currently serves on the National Cancer Institute Board of Scientific Counselors for Basic Sciences. In 2017, ASCB named her as the winner of the E.E. Just Award.

Trejo understands that good role models and mentoring, whether formal or informal, are critical to individual success; she has dedicated herself to creating these opportunities for others. At UCSD, now Trejo directs the NIH/National Institute of General Medical Sciences Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA) Postdoctoral Training Program, which aims to enhance diversity in academia. According to Trejo, the IRACDA at UCSD in its 18th year of funding has trained 103 postdocs, 66% of whom are underrepresented minorities (URM), and 64% of whom are women. Of the total URMs, 60% have obtained tenure-track faculty positions at academic institutions—36% at R1 research-intensive institutions. Also under her leadership, the UCSD Health Sciences Office of Faculty Affairs received the 2017 Hispanic Center of Excellence Award funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration; a 2019 Program to Increase Diversity Among Individuals Engaged in Health-Related Research (aka, PRIDE) award funded by NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute for faculty development; and a recent award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Advancement for Underrepresented Neuroscientists for Change (LAUNCH) faculty development program.

“I have many role models,” said Trejo, who is the youngest of five children from a migrant farmworker, single-parent home. “I grew up in a household with very strong, independent women—my grandmother, mother, aunts, and older sister. In education and science, the most important role models were teachers and research mentors. I was very fortunate to cross paths with great mentors who nurtured my development as a scientist, treated me like a peer, and did not see my gender or ethnic/racial background as a deficit.”

Diversity and inclusivity, Trejo said, are also fundamental to the advancement of science itself.

“Inclusivity is critical for modern-day team science,” Trejo said. “Inclusivity is built by cultivating a culture that values all people and perspectives. I promote inclusivity in the lab through organizational structure and team science. Outside of the lab, I plan team-building activities and events that are meaningful and inclusive of all team members.”

To that end, Trejo’s mentoring activities have facilitated a large cohort of trainees throughout the talent pipeline. Vivian Reznik, professor of Pediatrics and Family Medicine and Public Health at UCSD, wrote of how Trejo has directly mentored trainees at all levels—41 undergraduate students, 15 graduate students, and 21 postdoctoral scholars—as well as numerous research and clinical junior faculty at UCSD Health Sciences. Of her postdocs, so far several have transitioned to academic positions—two professors, one associate professor, and four assistant professors.

“I have worked with Dr. Trejo in the Office of Faculty Affairs and have watched her devotion and perseverance, matched with her enormous enthusiasm and focus, lead to institutional change as well as slowly changing the face of academic medicine,” Reznik said. “Her body of work embracing mentoring at its core is recognized locally and nationally, and her influence and impact will only increase over time.”

Trejo is not only respected but admired, by her colleagues.

“What I have loved about JoAnn is that she is able to be a very serious researcher…and still be so active and incredibly successful in diversity at many levels,” wrote Maggie Werner-Washburn of the University of New Mexico in a letter supporting Trejo’s nomination. “The rubber hits the road in broad swaths with JoAnn. Her directness, intentional organization, brilliance, and love of science and people are unequaled. Her abilities to have thoughtful conversations at the drop of a hat on science, education, business, the future of academia, or Mexican food are unparalleled.”

Despite these remarkable achievements, Trejo sees challenges ahead for attaining true inclusivity in the STEM fields.

“Race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are complex issues that impact the daily lives of our trainees both inside and outside of the work environment,” Trejo said. “The greatest challenge in promoting inclusivity in STEM is that many research mentors believe that discussions of how race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation impact success do not belong in science and are often ignored. I also believe that many research mentors are ill equipped to have informed discussions around these complex issues with their peers and trainees.”

The Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity, funded by HHMI, comes with a $5,000 cash award. Trejo plans to use the funds for outreach events in the Barrio Logan and Sherman Heights communities of San Diego and to help enhance the success of underrepresented undergraduates and graduate students.

Be sure to watch for a profile video about JoAnn Trejo premiering during Cell Bio Virtual 2020–An Online ASCB|EMBO Meeting and for her essay to be featured in a future issue of Molecular Biology of the Cell.

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.