Why has research become a passion for this undergraduate?
"When you're in the lab, it's your project, and no one gives you instructions on how to do it," says Villeda, who is majoring in physiological science. "You talk with your professor and graduate students, and you get ideas, but you have to come up with something new. That entices me. You get to think.
"Doing research is like finding a piece of a puzzle, but you have no idea what the puzzle looks like," Villeda says. "As the pieces form together, you start getting a picture, and you want to find those pieces as fast as you can to solve the puzzle. I love it."
Born in East Los Angeles to parents from Guatemala, Villeda grew up in Pasadena, and went to Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, where he was valedictorian. His father works as a bus driver, and his mother has worked as a nurse's assistant.
"My father wanted me to be a doctor-my parents understand 'lawyer,' 'doctor,' 'engineer'-but now he's really supportive of my research."
Villeda's research focuses on the spinal cord, and transmission of pain through proteins in the central nervous system.
"Saul is exceptional," says Patricia Phelps, his faculty mentor and UCLA associate professor of physiological science. "He's creative, original, extremely enthusiastic, and thinks way beyond his years in terms of experimental design.”
Villeda won a national award for the best research presentation in physiology at the Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in New Orleans last year. He co-authored a scientific paper published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology.
"Saul is a born leader, and his enthusiasm is contagious," says Elma Gonzalez, UCLA professor of biology and director of UCLA's Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC). MARC is funded by the National Institutes of Health; the program offers research training support to universities, with a goal of increasing the underrepresented minorities engaged in biomedical research. Villeda is a MARC fellow for the second year.
"All of our MARC fellows look up to him," Gonzalez says. "Saul has a brilliant future. He has the intelligence, enthusiasm, and the drive and commitment.”
It took Villeda some time to be comfortable viewing himself as a role model, but now he embraces the idea.
"I'm very proud to be a minority student in science, and to show that I can do every bit as well in research as anyone," he says. "I want to present more minorities with the option of research as a career. A lot of minority students don't know research is an option. We come from high schools that don't mention it."
In his research, Villeda studies Reelin, a protein in the central nervous system of mice that is involved in the movement of neurons. Villeda found that Reelin and Dab1, a second protein that is part of the Reelin signaling pathway, are both found in the dorsal horn of the spine-an area that is involved with the sensation of pain. Villeda has found an error in the migration of these neurons and he suspects that this error will cause defects in sensory connections.
Villeda devotes up to 30 hours a week in Phelps' lab. "I've learned from Dr. Phelps not to be afraid of taking chances,” Villeda says. “Now I go into a class knowing I have the capability of doing well. That took time to develop.”
Villeda will graduate from the UCLA College in June, and then work toward his Ph.D. in neuroscience or developmental biology.
"UCLA has a lot of smart people who raise the bar, and you have to raise yourself to meet the challenge," he said. "One of the lessons I learned here is that I can make a difference being a scientist-a big difference."