Rising to the challenge

Leaving behind an early life of poverty, student Layla Cervantes is defying the statistics and becoming 'a great scientist'

Layla Cervantes overcame challenges and is proving herself as a talented and determined young scientist. (photos by Carolyn Lagattuta)
The beginning of Cervantes’s research career at UC Santa Cruz started with a caring and observant professor, Manel Camps, (left) associate professor in microbiology and environmental toxicology, who recognized her talent and potential.

When Layla Cervantes was growing up, she and her family sometimes found themselves sleeping on friends' couches and in family members' homes.

She remembers the years when her father, Jose Cervantes, would have to cross and re-cross the Mexican border just to find work to sustain the family.

Despite these challenges, she did well in high school and got into UC Santa Cruz. After her first year here, she got a confidence boost when she got a prestigious summer internship at the Genome Technology Center at Stanford University with the help of two caring mentors.

Her two summers at Stanford eventually led her to the research she is doing today at UC Santa Cruz’s Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology Department.

"It's been a long road, but I'm happy to be here," said Cervantes (College Eight '16, molecular, cell and developmental biology).

Her research focuses on evolution, which can be mimicked in the laboratory by introducing a variation into a gene.

Using a rapidly-dividing organism such as E. coli or yeast as a host allows scientists to go though many generations of evolution in the laboratory. This approach is known as “directed evolution.” It is valuable for exploring the evolution of drug resistance, with applications in everything from laundry detergents to metabolic engineering.

She hopes her research will help people fine-tune protein functionality, a goal with broad health-based and industrial applications as it will help predict the evolutionary trajectory of rapidly evolving bacteria.

She admits it wasn’t easy for her at first. While she had all the support and encouragement of her family to go to college, she never acquired the study habits necessary to succeed academically. At one point, early on in her studies, her GPA dropped to a 2.8 because of a lack of good study techniques and reluctance to reach out for assistance.

"I underestimated how challenging it would be, and unfortunately I have a very hard time asking for help," she said.

She overcame this trepidation thanks to Zia Isola, director of UC Santa Cruz’s Research Mentoring Institute and Diversity Awards, which serves outstanding undergraduate and graduate students from any discipline who are interested in pursuing research projects in areas relevant to the human genome.

The beginning of Cervantes’s research career at UC Santa Cruz started with a caring and observant professor, Manel Camps, associate professor in microbiology and environmental toxicology, who recognized her talent and potential and decided to give her a chance.

Now his faith in her, combined with Cervantes’s strong resolve, are paying off.

Camps, who is also the provost of Crown College, was not at all surprised when Cervantes, whom he considers a "great scientist," was given a prestigious Undergraduate Research Award this year for her work.

He knew Cervantes faced a bit of a "psychological barrier" because of her humble upbringing and lack of academic role models growing up. She liked her research but felt unsure about her abilities as scientist in an academic environment.

But the research award—made possible by a generous private contribution—gave her the chance to prove herself. The award included a cash prize that enabled Cervantes to attend the Emerging Researchers Conference in Washington, D.C., in February. The conference added another layer to her growing confidence. It was a venue for her to share her work with scientists all over the country, including one who invited her to apply to the graduate school where he teaches.

Cervantes attributes her success to the mentors she has had, to her best friend, her parents, and sisters. All have given her the strength she needed for the rigors of long-term experiments and demanding academic life.

 In the opinion of Camps,  Cervantes has "great hands." He uses this informal expression to talk about her reliability, resolve, talent, and strong work ethic in his lab. “Science seems to be her natural habitat,” he said. 

 Cervantes agreed, saying, "Science is a comfort for me.”