Fil-Am biochemistry major receives CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement

Janielle Cuala. Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA

Cal State LA student Janiella Cuala plans to develop a mentoring program in Guam for students interested in a STEM career

When she was growing up in Guam, Janielle Cuala’s favorite subject was science. But her family didn’t consider that an appropriate field for a woman, so she set out to earn a degree in nursing.

But her passion for science and research proved so strong that she changed her field of study, even though that meant she would have to pay her own way through college.

Cuala is now a biochemistry major at Cal State LA, and one of 23 students statewide to receive the 2018 California State University (CSU) Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement—the CSU’s highest recognition of student achievement and scholarship.

“It’s really exciting. Receiving this scholarship will help me focus on school and research rather than worrying about financial issues,” said Cuala. “I am proud to represent minorities, women and people from Guam trying to pursue a career in the STEM fields.”

Cuala was honored for her superior academic performance, exemplary community service, and significant personal accomplishments during the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in September. She was awarded $6,000 and named a SoCalGas Scholar.

“Ms. Cuala is an incredibly focused and determined student,” Cal State LA President William A. Covino said. “Upon completing her Ph.D., she plans to return to Guam and help others pursue careers in science. I am certain Ms. Cuala will make contributions that will reflect well on the California State University.”

As a child, Cuala enjoyed conducting experiments and participating in school science fairs. She remembers being fascinated by a can-crushing experiment, which demonstrated the science of water vapor pressure.

But there were few opportunities for STEM enthusiasts in Guam, and Cuala felt obligated to please her parents by studying nursing.

When she wound up living in Los Angeles, 6,000 miles from her home, she enrolled in Los Angeles City College and was introduced to the Bridges to the Future Program, which is part of the Minority Opportunities in Research (MORE) Programs at Cal State LA. The ten weeks of scientific research the summer program offered solidified her passion and confirmed her career path.

Cuala never knew what it meant to actually conduct research until that point. “This was exactly what I wanted to do in biochemistry,” she said. “I am so thankful for Professor Cecilia Zurita-Lopez for being my research mentor.”

That summer led her to transfer to Cal State LA through the MORE Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement program, where she continued her research in Zurita-Lopez’s lab. She excelled in her coursework and research and was accepted in the university’s Minority Access to Research Careers-Undergraduate Student Training for Academic Research honors program.

MARC U*STAR helps prepare undergraduate students to successfully compete for positions in top graduate programs, leading to a Ph.D. in scientific fields useful to biomedical research.

A Dean’s List student, Cuala is currently conducting research with Zurita-Lopez on cellular signaling, such as modifications on proteins to find potential drugs to treat diseases.

She is in her senior year and on her way to completing her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. Her goal is to earn a doctorate, become a research scientist and serve as a role model for students in Guam who are interested in the STEM fields.

“I want to go back to Guam to create a mentoring program, like the MORE Programs, to help future students achieve a Ph.D. or career in STEM,” she said.

In the summer of 2017, Cuala was accepted into the highly-competitive WAVE Fellows program at Caltech, where she created potential biomaterials for tissue engineering through chemical engineering of artificial proteins.

This past summer, she returned to Caltech as an Amgen Scholar focusing on immunology research, specifically T-cell development.

“Having opportunities at Cal State LA and off-campus to do intensive biochemical research has given me the opportunity to translate what I learn in the classroom to my research in the lab,” Cuala said.

In addition to her research, Cuala is vice president for the Chemistry and Biochemistry Club at Cal State LA, where she coordinated outreach events for children to encourage interest in science and inspire them to go to college. She has also volunteered in National Chemistry Week activities and assisted other students as a chemistry tutor.

The CSU Trustees’ Award scholarship program was originally established in 1984 by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. In 1999, the Hearst Foundation partnered with the CSU Board of Trustees to supplement the endowment with contributions from CSU Trustees, the CSU Foundation Board of Governors, and private donors. Today, more than 340 students have been honored.

California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 28,000 students and has more than 245,000 distinguished alumni.

Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit

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