Stem Cell PhD student Alma Zuniga Munoz wins USC’s first Gilliam Fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Alma Zuniga Munoz and Albert Almada (Photo by Cristy Lytal)
Alma Zuniga Munoz and Albert Almada (Photo by Cristy Lytal)

Alma Zuniga Munoz, a student in USC’s PhD program in Development, Stem Cells, and Regeneration, is used to being the first. She’s a first-generation American, the first member of her extended family to continue her education beyond high school, and the first USC PhD student to win a coveted Gilliam Fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

The fellowships are awarded to graduate students and their PhD advisers, with the goals of preparing students from underrepresented groups for leadership roles in science, while partnering with faculty and institutions to foster a healthier, more inclusive academic ecosystem.

“It’s a privilege to be the first one to do these things, even though it’s a lot of pressure,” said Zuniga Munoz, who was awarded the fellowship in partnership with her PhD adviser Albert Almada, an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery, stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, and gerontology, and the chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee for the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at USC.

“I’m honored to be Alma’s mentor as she pursues the path of becoming a principal scientific investigator running her own academic lab,” said Almada, “and grateful for HHMI’s support of our broader efforts to create an inclusive environment for all of our students from underrepresented backgrounds.”

A sense of belonging

Zuniga Munoz was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, the eldest daughter of parents who immigrated from Mexico and El Salvador.

“I owe it all to my parents,” she said. “They are very supportive of school, which is great because a lot of families are very traditional, as in they expect a woman to get married, have children, take care of the house. But my parents wanted to break that cycle that they grew up in, and they wanted to empower me to chase whatever dream I had.”

Her dream originally took the form of becoming a physician, based on the common assumption that high-achieving students should aspire to become doctors or lawyers. She attended under-resourced elementary, middle, and high schools with limited course offerings in the sciences, but she was able to shadow doctors and other health care providers during a summer high school program offered by Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The experience further cemented her desire to go to college.

After high school, she earned admission to several University of California campuses, including UCLA, where she majored in physiological sciences, with a minor in Chicano/a and Central American studies.

In her introductory biology class, she quickly realized that most of her pre-med peers were reviewing material that they had learned in high school, while she was encountering it for the first time.

“I got really anxious. I broke into a cold sweat,” she said. “I felt like an imposter, because I didn’t know anything. And that’s when it really sunk in how underprepared I was. And I felt really down for couple of weeks, because it felt like everyone was invited to a party, except for me.”

She added, “I turned all of that anguish into almost anger and motivation, to rise above and show everyone that I might not have had all the resources or academic preparation, but that wasn’t going to limit what I can achieve. And with that attitude, I finished that first quarter with straight As.”

To provide an easier transition for students with backgrounds similar to her own, Zuniga Munoz served as a chair, committee member, and adviser for UCLA’s Latinx Admit Weekend (LxAW), a student-run program that hosts 200 newly admitted high school students each year. During her time as chair, Zuniga Munoz was in constant communication with leadership across UCLA and took charge of a $30,000 annual budget.

“It was just so fulfilling to see someone that looked like me, that came from a place like me, feel like they belong, because when I started at UCLA, I didn’t feel like I belonged,” she said. “Oftentimes, I was the only Latina in the class.”

This was particularly true in the sciences, which she pursued both inside and outside the classroom. The summer after her freshman year, she was accepted into the Biomedical Sciences Enrichment Program (BISEP), funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The 10-week summer program provided research skills, exposure to careers in biomedical sciences, and an opportunity to join Alexander Hoffmann’s immunology lab, where she studied signaling molecules called interferons that are released during infections.

Zuniga Munoz quickly fell in love with lab work under the guidance of a postdoc who became a key mentor.

“She just gave me a chance, and it was really important for someone to believe in me in that way,” said Zuniga Munoz. “She taught me everything I know today. Dr. Catera Wilder’s mentorship was invaluable, as she not only established my foundation as a scientist, but also taught me how to navigate certain spaces where perhaps I will be the only underrepresented woman present, as she herself is a Black scientist. She is a large reason why I decided to pursue a PhD.”

During Zuniga Munoz’s junior year, the pandemic shut down the lab, so she took the opportunity to delve into computational biology research while applying to PhD programs. She was accepted into several and chose to join USC’s Programs in Biomedical and Biological Sciences (PIBBS), where she discovered her interest in developmental and stem cell biology.

Strength in stem cells

As a member of the Almada Lab, Zuniga Munoz is studying why muscle stem cells, the repair machinery of our muscles, functionally decline with age. Her current project focuses on how an enzyme called Art1 regulates the function of muscle stem cells.

In Almada, she has found a mentor who understands her background, values her opinions and scientific growth as a student, and is, in her words, “a role model.”

“I feel like it made sense from our first meeting,” said Zuniga Munoz. “I talked to him about my entire story, and he told me that he also comes from Mexican descent, and that was really special to me, because I’ve never met a principal investigator from the same culture as me.”

Almada created a purposeful plan and timeline for not only developing Zuniga Munoz as a scientist, but also preparing her for a postdoc and eventual career as a principal investigator.

As part of this preparation, he emphasized the importance of writing well, and worked one-on-one with her as she applied to three fellowships that she was awarded: the HHMI Gilliam Fellowship; the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship (which she declined in order to accept the Gilliam Fellowship); and USC’s NIH T32 Training Fellowship in Developmental Biology, Stem Cells, and Regeneration (which supported her for one year).

As USC’s first Gilliam Fellow, Zuniga Munoz looks forward to not only furthering her own scientific development, but also contributing to a more inclusive environment for students from underrepresented backgrounds at USC. For instance, she would like to help create the first coalition for the Keck School’s underrepresented graduate students—similar to the one that already exists for the MD students.

While achieving these firsts, Zuniga Munoz is also the first to express gratitude.

“My dad works 12 hours a day driving buses, so I’m grateful that he has sacrificed so much to provide for our family,” she said. “But also, it really puts into perspective how blessed we are to be here. The fact that I get to come in every day to learn, to do something that I love, and make a living out of it is just insane. I am grateful every day for this opportunity.”

Mentioned in this article: Albert E. Almada, PhD