Vera Villanueva

Coming from a small town in New Mexico, Kellie Jurado had never met a scientist until she arrived at college. Now, she is a postdoctoral fellow at the Yale School of Medicine and recently won a prestigious fellowship to fund her research.

Jurado was awarded a $60,000 grant from L’Oréal USA’s For Women in Science Fellowship on Oct. 10 to support her ongoing research into the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness. Since arriving at Yale in 2015, she has focused on how Zika causes damage to the nervous system and leads to autoimmune diseases.

Jurado said that as a minority woman, she has faced many obstacles while pursuing her passion for biology. Because of this, she describes herself as an advocate for women and minorities in STEM.

“There are specific stereotypes associated with women in science, like a particular way that you need to represent yourself, and I think you almost feel a little bit of pressure as you continue to climb the ladder,” Jurado said. “But … it’s important to maintain self-identity along the way and not feel like you need to minimize that.”

After she graduated from New Mexico State University, Jurado said leaving home for the first time to attend graduate school in 2011 was one of her most trying experiences.

“Culturally, my family doesn’t really leave New Mexico,” she explained, adding that she and her cousin are the only members of her family who have left the state.

After receiving a doctorate from Harvard in 2015, Jurado came to Yale as a postdoctoral fellow. She spent a year in one biology lab before switching to Akiko Iwasaki’s lab.

Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology in the School of Medicine, has been mentoring Jurado for the past year. Iwasaki explained that although her lab is generally focused on viral infections, Jurado started her current projects on her own. She added that Jurado even put together a paper about why Zika infection can lead to neurological diseases and presented her work at a major conference in her first months in the lab.

“Kellie is just a dream postdoctoral fellow. She’s incredibly capable, efficient, technically gifted and driven, and she knows a lot about viruses,” Iwasaki said.

Iwasaki added that she was “over the moon” after learning that Jurado won the research fellowship, emphasizing that Jurado serves as a role model for women in the Latina community.

Sarah Lee ’20, who worked with Jurado over the summer, said Jurado influenced the way she perceives research — not just as a scientist, but also as a woman in STEM. She added that she always saw her relationship with Jurado as “beyond mentorship and more of a friendship.”

“I’ve done a lot of research in the past, but never before have I had a mentor who was as inspiring as Kellie,” Lee said. “She always took care of me, and she was always so understanding of my position, my perspective. I think my words right now don’t really do justice to who Kellie is as a person.”

Outside the lab, Jurado co-organizes an educational program called “Cut the Risk,” which aims to teach the public about reproductive and sexual health, with an emphasis on the HPV vaccine. Through the program, Jurado said, she also seeks to disseminate knowledge about how these vaccines can prevent cancer.

Jurado also serves as a volunteer science teacher for an afterschool program in Connecticut. She said her interest in mentoring students stemmed from her participation in a science enrichment program while at Harvard to help engage high school students in science.

Lauren Paige, a public affairs official at L’Orėal USA, said the fellowship goes to female postdoctoral scientists like Jurado who demonstrate potential to inspire future generations of women in STEM.

“[Jurado] has demonstrated a high level of creativity, originality, scientific rigor in the research she’s conducted throughout her career,” Paige said. “She’s also super committed to mentoring from her undergraduate days to now … All in all, she really exemplifies the type of fellow that we look to award for this program.”

The L’Orėal USA For Women in Science Fellowship began in 2003 and has since awarded 70 women postdoctoral grants, totalling more than $3.5 million.

Amber Hu | amber.hu@yale.edu