Jessica Cabral Jimenez is a 2011 Gilliam Fellow.

Jessica Cabral Jimenez

Jessica Cabral Jimenez shattered multiple bones in her hand in a moped accident last summer, and cheerily says it worked out for the best. Because of her weeklong hospital stay, she received extra time for her summer research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). To her advisor’s surprise, the 21-year-old energetically finished her project, wearing a makeshift latex glove to cover her fingers emerging from a cast.

Jimenez looks at many of the challenges she’s overcome on her path to become a scientist with the same positive viewpoint. And she says she urgently wants to pass along the goodwill that’s come her way by becoming a mentor herself.

“When I first met Jessica, I was leery that she was just saying what we wanted to hear,” says neuroscientist Dwayne Simmons, one of Jimenez’s mentors at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “But you quickly learn she’s just not that way. She has a strong sense of appreciation for how others in her life have helped her, and it motivates her to succeed, and it motivates her to give in return.”

Picture Jimenez at home this past Christmas: two-dozen cousins, aunts, and uncles crowd into the family home in Fresno, California. She talks quickly and joyfully, saying how lucky she is to have an enormous, unconditional support system—including aunts who cook her tamales over Christmas break. Giving is a way of life in this family.

Jimenez explains that when her mother came to Fresno from Mexico as a young girl with her parents and eight siblings, the older teens worked in peach fields to provide for the younger siblings while they focused on school. After her mother completed her master’s degree in social work, she in turn helped support her siblings, who mainly became social workers and teachers. Jimenez’s father, who was born into a Mexican-American family in the Bay Area, pursued social work too.

Originally Jimenez considered following family tradition to become a teacher or social worker, as well. But a frustrating stint at summer camp teaching unruly four-year-olds while in her early teens taught her to think otherwise. Then, when a close family member was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she watched in awe as doctors cared for him. Perhaps, she thought, a medical career in psychiatry could fulfill her interest in science, as well as the urge to help others.

Jimenez became fascinated with the brain while studying psychology and participating in journal clubs during her second year at UCLA, but premed coursework was no longer enough to satiate her curiosity. A scholarship allowed her to quit her job at the local coffee shop and begin a paid internship with UCLA neuroscientist Carlos Portera-Cailliau in 2008. Instead of foaming cappuccinos, she used state-of-the-art techniques to trace the movements of brain cells called Cajal-Retzius neurons. She spent several years doing research in Portera-Cailliau’s lab with funding from various sources, including the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. Frequently, she spent her lunches with postdocs and graduate students in the lab, who would debate neuroscience concepts and share insights. “The lab became another family to me,” Jimenez explains. “They were my friends, and they wanted to see me learn.” Her work in Portera-Cailliau’s laboratory resulted in two awards for best poster presentation and a first coauthor paper published in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy in March 2010. She says, “I’ve realized it’s impossible for me not to do research.”

From her labmates at UCLA, Jimenez learned that new techniques to visualize and test the function of brain cells are key to unraveling how the brain functions or falls apart. So in her junior year she applied for a 2010 summer research internship in Li-Huei Tsai’s laboratory at MIT through HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). Having won the position, she jumped into research on the interaction between two proteins potentially underlying amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and other neurodegenerative disorders. With an elegant series of difficult experiments—finished with that cast on her arm—she found that the two proteins directly bind to each other.

“When Jessica showed me her data I was completely impressed,” says Tsai, an HHMI investigator. “She showed me one of the most beautiful Western blots I’ve ever seen.” Tsai adds, “It’s unusual for even a graduate student to nail a project this well.”

At MIT, Jimenez found herself amid illustrious neuroscientists, but Simmons is foremost on her list of heroes. As director of the MARC program at UCLA, he found the resources to cover tuition for her junior and senior year at UCLA and offered her a stipend to do research. And he opened her eyes to the role that she could play as a mentor, through a program called CityLab.

“CityLab was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” Jimenez reflects. “I didn’t think I’d be able to give back this early in my career.” She told the high school students about how she gets paid to make brain cells fluoresce and was able to travel to MIT to do research, as well as the financial support she has received. “Funding is a big issue for a lot of minority students, so they’re excited to hear that they could do this too. A few of them have my email address so I can give them advice as they need it.”

Jimenez is now applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs with clear goals in mind. “I want to contribute knowledge to the field of neuroscience, but it’s so important to me to help patients directly,” she says. And then, like a true translational scientist, she adds, “I want to see diseases firsthand, and let that inspire my research questions.”

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858