Biochemistry Student Receives Prestigious Pfizer Fellowship
By Eric Breier
Diana Llamas knows the importance of mental health. It’s one of the driving forces behind her desire to work as a researcher in the pharmaceutical industry.
Llamas, a third-year biochemistry student at Cal State San Marcos, is getting a head start on that career goal this summer as a recipient of the Pfizer La Jolla Academic Industrial Relations Diversity Research Fellowship in Chemistry. She is one of just four people in the western region selected, joining awardees from Arizona State, UC Davis and UC Riverside.
“I was shocked,” Llamas said. “Words can't really explain how I'm feeling. I was just like, ‘I'm not sure if this is real. Am I dreaming?’ ”
The fellowship strives to cultivate diversity within pharmaceutical sciences by supporting undergraduates from historically underrepresented groups. Llamas will use the $20,000 award to research synthesizing novel benzotriazole compounds as potential antifungal agents using gold catalysis.
Robert Iafe, who is Llamas’ faculty sponsor for the fellowship, always stresses the importance to students of interacting with their professors, and that’s exactly what led Llamas to learn about the fellowship. She was taking a biology course last fall with professor Mallory Rice, who recommended that Llamas meet with Iafe. The ensuing conversations led Iafe to identify Llamas as a competitive candidate for the Pfizer fellowship.
“I was blown away with just how confident she was talking to me about opportunities,” Iafe said. “She was very upfront with what she wanted, and I love students who are confident in themselves and can make that step to come and chat with a professor. I highly encourage everyone to do that because it will get you to the next level.”
Llamas grew up in Murrieta, about 40 miles north of CSUSM, and still commutes from her home there to campus each day. Though her parents never attended college and her father, who grew up in Guadalajara, had limited formal education, they always stressed the importance of higher education.
Llamas’ sister, Monique, who is 7 years older, helped paved a path for Llamas by graduating from CSUSM in 2017.
“My sister coming here really motivated me,” Llamas said. “She's my role model. I looked up to her, so I made the effort to come to college as well.”
Llamas plans to pursue a Ph.D. in organic chemistry after graduating from CSUSM in 2025, another step in achieving her goal of becoming a lead researcher in the pharmaceutical industry. She has always been interested in chemistry, but it was her own battle with anxiety that inspired her to work toward a career researching and developing more efficient and accessible antidepressants.
Llamas will train on instrumentation in Iafe’s lab this spring and her fellowship work will begin in earnest over the summer, culminating in a presentation of her findings to Pfizer’s internal fellowship board.
“This kind of research is something that can continue next fall and can easily become Diana’s independent research project for her senior thesis in two years,” Iafe said. “And then, of course, she’ll have an opportunity to present at national conferences.
“My predictions of her being a great fellowship candidate were solidified through the application process, because she accomplished every challenge that I gave her in writing her proposal. She did the online research, she wrote everything, and she was able to adopt the research and translate it into her own words. She has been very impressive and set a high bar for this summer.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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