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Alumna CSULA biochemistry professor Cecilia Zurita-Lopez (PhD ’11 Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, S Clarke lab) named 2017 Emerging Scholar. 

Zurita-Lopez, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), was given the honor by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine which recognizes 12 minority scholars throughout the nation whose research and scholarship is cutting edge.

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After receiving her undergraduate degree in 2004 from CSULA where she conducted research with UCLA alum Prof. Jamil Momand (Ph.D. ’89 Biochemistry, Steven Clarke lab) and Prof. Frank Garcia, Zurita-Lopez went on to UCLA where she conducted her graduate studies under the direction of biochemistry professor Dr. Steven Clarke. She received her Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from UCLA in 2011. Zurita-Lopez then conducted her postdoctoral research at the University of Southern California (USC) under the direction of Prof. Andrea Armani. She joined the faculty at Cal State Los Angeles in 2014 as an assistant professor of biochemistry.

Photo above right: UCLA alumni Prof. Jamil Momand and Prof. Cecilia Zurita-Lopez at the 2010 ASBMB meeting in Anaheim, California. Courtesy of Steven Clarke.

Former Ph.D. advisor Clarke says it was clear from her graduate work in his laboratory that Cecilia was on her way to the top. “She became probably the world’s foremost expert in the identification of methylated arginine derivatives in proteins. Cecilia was a major player in the studies to understand the enzymology of the members of the protein arginine methyltransferase family, enzymes crucial in the control of gene expression, signaling, and DNA repair. She was the co-author of eleven papers from my lab, many of them resulting from her terrific ability to seek out collaborators across the country.” 

Diverse: Issues in Higher Education is a premier newsmagazine that has been providing information to further the education of people of color and other underrepresented groups for over 30 years. Their Emerging Scholars Program honors young minority scholars with unique scholarly accomplishments and commitment to diversity, teaching and community service.

From Diverse Issues in Higher Education (by Reginald Stuart):

Molecular Mysteries

Dr. Cecilia I. Zurita-Lopez –

Zurita-Lopez’s words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: Try to enjoy the process. It can be stressful. You just need perspective. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Long before she gained any formal training about professional health care and the myriad jobs involved in delivering it, Dr. Cecilia I. Zurita-Lopez knew at a young age that she wanted to help other people.

Helping others could be as routine a gesture as opening a door for someone who needed assistance. During her teenage years, before high school graduation, it led to helping the rest of her family take care of her mom, who eventually died of cancer. “She was taking 13 different drugs, sometimes just to reverse the impact of others,” Zurita-Lopez recalled.

Those young experiences made her even more determined to pursue her dream of being a doctor, she says, until a teacher introduced her to the fascinating world of biomedical science and research.

A mystery buff since childhood, doing real biomedical research complemented her enthusiasm for watching television mysteries. Bones, CSI, Elementary, and remakes of Sherlock Holmes are among mysteries on the list she ticks off as favorites.

Today, Zurita-Lopez finds many opportunities to pursue her desire to help others, regardless of the challenge. With zeal and focus, she pursues biomedical science research at California State University, Los Angeles. In that responsibility she “really enjoys solving mysteries at the molecular level. I’m getting good at it more and more,” she says with self-confidence and enthusiasm.

As passionate as she is about “solving molecular mysteries,” Zurita Lopez shows an equal amount of enthusiasm for helping upcoming peers get their footing in a field of work still largely inaccessible to people like her.

In addition to having eight students conducting research in her lab at Cal State Los Angeles, she serves as the faculty adviser to the institution’s Chemistry & Biochemistry Club. She also has more than 50 students combined in her Introduction to Biomolecules class and her Writing for Chemists class.

“It’s a fulfilling job, but also a very busy job,” says the mother of three. “The work never ends. It’s a service job,” she adds. Stressing the importance of work-life balance, Zurita-Lopez became an instant mother while an undergraduate. She married her current husband, who already had two children.

She credits him for his support of her higher education pursuits, as both have helped raise their family.

“She’s not only a stellar scholar, she’s also an example of what is possible,” says Dr. Rita Ledesma, associate dean for diversity and student engagement at Cal State Los Angeles. “She’s committed to serve the East Los Angeles community. She demonstrates commitment to family and diverse cultures.”

Zurita-Lopez has the support and affirmation that “despite the struggles, you can do really great for our community,” adds Ledesma.

Indeed, Zurita-Lopez sees much ahead in her future, rooted in her childhood, to help those coming behind her. For every Latino/Latina faculty member at Cal State Los Angeles, there are an estimated 200 Latino/Latina students. There is no shortage of need for mentors, she notes. She wants to help all she can, she says.

Photo of Zurita-Lopez courtesy of Diverse Issues in Higher Education magazine.