National Institutes of Health - U. S. Department of Health and Human Services

Women in Biomedical Careers Top Navigational Links

Women In Biomedical Careers

Women Scientist Profiles

JoAnn Trejo, Ph.D.

JoAnn Trejo, Ph.D.

JoAnn Trejo, Ph.D., is an internationally renowned scientist who conducts basic research on cell signaling. She is best known for her groundbreaking discoveries that reveal how cellular responses are regulated by G protein-coupled receptors, the largest class of drug targets for FDA-approved therapeutics. She recently became Associate Dean for Health Sciences Faculty Affairs at the University of California in San Diego.

Dr. Trejo is the youngest of five children and comes from a family of migrant farm workers raised by a single mother with little education. She credits her mother’s strong work ethic along with her teachers’ support in helping her to become a leading educator and world-class researcher. Dr. Trejo not only continues to be creative in her research that is pioneering new frontiers in cell signaling, but her early life experiences have inspired her to become a passionate advocate for diversity. She is the director of the San Diego IRACDA Program, a NIGMS-supported postdoctoral training program that aims to increase the diversity of academia. In 2015, Dr. Trejo received the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Ruth Kirschstein Diversity in Science Award. This award recognizes outstanding scientists who show a strong commitment to mentoring and encouraging underrepresented individuals to enter the sciences.

Dr. Trejo earned her bachelor’s degree at UC Davis and her Ph.D. at UC San Diego. She then completed her postdoctoral fellowship at UC San Francisco in the lab of Dr. Shaun Coughlin. She took her first faculty position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 2000 and then moved to UC San Diego in 2008, where she was promoted to full professor a few years ago.

She has received numerous grants from the NIGMS and NHLBI, Komen Foundation, UC Tobacco-related Disease Research Program and the American Heart Association (AHA) including the prestigious AHA Established Investigator Award. She was also elected to serve on the Council of the American Society for Cell Biology, as Chair of Gordon Research Conferences, and in multiple NIH Study Sections.

How has mentorship shaped your career?

Mentoring is a critical aspect of scientific training and career advancement. Mentors come in different forms and serve different purposes. Most people have multiple mentors. I have received outstanding mentorship through my persistence to connect with the right mentors, at the right time.

I found great mentorship working with Professor Joan Heller Brown during my graduate studies at UC San Diego. She was the kind of mentor that I needed at that time. As a graduate student, I initially struggled with the pace and demands of scientific research. Professor Brown was patient, friendly, and encouraging. She always radiated confidence in my abilities as a scientist. Her belief in my work built my confidence and fueled my desire to succeed in science and I thrived under her guidance.  

My postdoctoral mentor Professor Shaun Coughlin provided phenomenal mentorship by example. He challenged us to do rigorous and creative research. Careless work was not acceptable. I responded by developing a strong and rigorous scientific work ethic that enabled me to be an independent and successful scientist. I credit my scientific work ethic to this experience. I also realized that my own drive, confidence, and passion for science are necessary to sustain me in the severely competitive and incredibly satisfying scientific career.

Having those two mentors who are quite different from each other and from me was a revelation. As a mentor, it is important to identify what each mentee needs and mentor them based on that. This is challenging, as they are different people, with different backgrounds that shapes who they are and how they respond to different styles of mentorship.

What do you enjoy about being a scientist?

I truly enjoy being a scientist because science is important for understanding how things work and for solving problems. As a scientist you make discoveries and gain new knowledge that lead to breakthrough solutions that can alleviate or prevent problems related to human health and disease. Being a scientist is a human centered activity – our work requires people and teams of scientists. I work with undergraduate and graduates students, postdoctoral fellows, junior faculty, senior professors, staff and administration. Working with people is not always easy. I have therefore learned and developed skills to effectively manage people. I cannot underrate the importance of learning how to manage teams effectively.

What are the barriers to women in science?

I believe that the greatest barrier to women advancing in scientific careers is unconscious bias – the hidden beliefs about women’s capabilities. Women are often perceived and assessed differently then men. Stereotypes of women influence our perception of their competence. Women are often held to higher and different standards in evaluations and overtime this can result in a cumulative disadvantage resulting is lower success rates in obtaining key leadership positions, awards, promotions and compensation. One way to combat unconscious bias is to raise awareness of its existence. This is particularly important to those in leadership positions, because they can affect the culture of institutions.

What do you do outside the lab?

I like to exercise and to be outdoors. I enjoy biking, running and hiking. I especially enjoy backpacking and exploring the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I also love to read biographies – especially about women who have struggled, persevered, and transformed their lives. These stories ignite my imagination and hopes, and I believe that they are road maps that allow people to see where they can go with their own lives. Recently, I enjoyed reading “My Beloved World,” Justice Sonya Sotomajor’s autobiography and “Notorious RBG” the life and times of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

How do you manage work/life balance?

A healthy balance of work/life is essential for me to do my job effectively. I am very organized and use my time efficiently to get work done. I try very hard to use my work week to get as much done as possible so that I have time on the weekends to socialize with friends, see family, and to enjoy activities with my spouse. I also try to eat well and maintain a regular exercise routine. I would encourage young scientists to develop skills in time management and how to effectively manage people – this will save you a lot of time in the long run.

Why is it so important to support and encourage the next generation of female scientists?

The U.S. is a world leader in science. If we are to maintain our status as a world leader in science and our economic competitiveness, then we must draw on the talent of all of our people not just some of them. Women represent half of the talent pool in our society.

Leadership must support female scientists, and it’s not just the men in leadership, women leaders also need to support women. Sometimes, women can be the worst advocates for other women. It’s important for leadership to embrace diversity and inclusion, and provide a welcoming supportive environment to future women scientists. This is one of the reasons I have continued to move up in leadership positions. This type of change has to come from the top down.  

Smart capable women are not getting the opportunities they deserve. But, as more female students pursue graduate studies and careers in science, this may change. In academia, certainly, faculty diversity is needed, so there is a better representation of the student diversity that exists in our academic institutions. Female students need to see more women as professors and scientists, people that they can relate to. Also, having a diverse faculty enriches the teaching and learning experiences for all.

If you weren’t a scientist, what other job would you have?

I like to fix things and solve problems. Around the house, I’m the person who fixes the leaking faucet.  So perhaps I would be a mechanic, a bicycle mechanic. I would love to work on bicycles all day.


This page last updated: August 9, 2018

Women in Biomedical Careers Footer Links