Not only did Mota graduate from CSULB with a master's degree in microbiology, but he helped other students along the way. For two years, he served as a graduate mentor fellow with the NIH-funded Hispanic Health Opportunity Learning Alliance.
At Cedars-Sinai, Mota has continued to demonstrate leadership. In 2019, he served as president of the Graduate Student Association, and currently is one of two student representatives on the Graduate Research Education Oversight Committee.
For his thesis project, Mota is focusing on the gene TANK-binding kinase 1 (TBK1). Mutations in TBK1 have been identified as a cause for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a deadly neurodegenerative condition also called Lou Gehrig's disease. While it's known that TBK1 plays a pivotal role in modulating the immune system response to viral infections, it's not clear how TBK1 mutations lead to ALS. Mota hopes to shed light on that connection.
Although Mota's academic career hasn't been hiccup-free, he's always stayed true to his scientific North Star. "I knew if I focused on my research, that would be my path forward," observed Mota.
Robert Baloh, MD, PhD, professor of Neurology and director of the Cedars-Sinai Center for Neural Science and Medicine, submitted a letter of recommendation in support of Mota's Gilliam Fellowship.
"Thomas is intelligent, widely read and highly skilled in the laboratory," wrote Baloh, who serves on Mota's thesis committee. "He has demonstrated the maturity and tenacity to succeed and become an independent researcher and leader in his field."
Mota is conducting his research in the laboratory of Ritchie Ho, PhD, principal investigator and research scientist in the Center for Neural Sciences and Medicine.
"Thomas is a sharp learner and his scientific skills are well developed for someone at his stage of academic training," said Ho, who is Mota's thesis advisor.
As part of the Gilliam Fellowship, the student's advisor must participate in mentor-development workshops to learn about cultural identities and how to engage across cultures to create inclusive environments.
"I think this is really exciting and a great opportunity to learn how to reach out to different cultures when building a team environment in the lab," Ho said.
For 2020, Gilliam Fellowships were awarded to Mota and 44 other doctoral students nationwide. Each receive annual funding of $50,000 for up to three years. A small portion of each year's award is used by students' advisors to fund activities designed to foster diversity and inclusion at the graduate level.
At Cedars-Sinai, additional funds for these activities will be provided by Graduate Research Education and the office of Diversity and Inclusion.
"Diversity and inclusion are important components of our core values. We plan to provide our graduate students with inclusive leadership and diversity education, and to discuss how these topics impact medicine, research and health equity," said Nicole Mitchell, director of Diversity and Inclusion.