Sometimes, plans change. Sometimes, you enter college knowing exactly what you want to be when you grow up—and then you leave on a completely different track.
At least that’s what happened to Jerlisa Arizala ‘04.
The Saipan native had always had her eyes on becoming a pediatrician.
Her first step was to get into a good university. But Saipan is fairly isolated, and her parents didn’t want her to travel too far.
Chaminade offered the perfect balance—a high-quality education that was relatively close to home, and an island lifestyle similar to the one she was used to. When she visited, she fell in love with the atmosphere. She felt the academic presence, but knew it would be a place where the community would support her and offer help if she needed it. She also really liked the diversity she saw on campus.
And her experience did not disappoint.
“My college experience was one of the best experiences of my life,” says Arizala. “I think Chaminade was the perfect place to feel comfortable being yourself because it was such a big melting pot. Everyone was so different and had an interesting background. It felt like everyone was accepted.”
One of the things that struck her right away was the diversity. For the first time, she realized just how many ways there were to be an American.
“It stood out so much to me that there were a lot of students from other U.S. Territories who were also American,” she remembers. “It was really nice to see all of the different definitions of American in one place. It wasn’t what a typical mainland experience would have been like.“
She started Chaminade as a biology major on the pre-med track. That’s how she met biology professor Ron Iwamoto. Not only was he her advisor, but he also taught a few of her classes. He noticed right away that she had a talent for writing.
“As my professor, he was able to look at my strengths and communicate what those were to me,” recalls Arizala. “He told me I was a good writer, and I should pursue some sort of writing career. And he told me I could do that within academia.”
It was through his guidance that she was inspired to pursue research instead of medical school. She also decided to add on an English minor. It provided a nice balance to the heavy biology classes, and it helped her develop her writing skills.
When she graduated in 2004, she went on to earn an M.S. in Biological Science from California State University Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in molecular biology and virology from the City of Hope.
Sometimes she still thinks about becoming a pediatrician, but she never follows through because she really likes where her path has led her. She’s found that her ultimate goal was always to help people, and she can do that through research.
“I’ve learned so much about how to help people,” she says. “I have no regrets about the track I took. I know there are groups that need help, and I can help them through science.”
Arizala is a cell biologist at Kite Pharma, a subsidiary company of Gilead Sciences, Inc., and couldn’t be happier. The research coming out of Gilead represents everything she stands for—she loves how they want to give to the community and make sure everyone has access to drugs they need. Gilead Sciences is known for its antiviral drugs used to treat HIV. They have also made the news lately for their promising COVID-19 treatment that is currently undergoing clinical trials, Remdesivir.
Arizala’s expertise lies in reengineering T cells, a type of lymphocyte, or white blood cell, to attack and kill cancer cells. It’s a developing treatment for certain types of lymphomas and leukemias, and her company was responsible for the first T cell lymphoma treatment product to be approved and released on the market.
Her work is something she holds very dear to her heart. It’s a source of pride, and she finds it very rewarding. “Working for Kite Pharma is a great way to make a direct impact on a cancer patient’s life,” she says. “I help them have a better quality of life by allowing them to live longer and eradicate their cancer.”
Arizala credits both Iwamoto and Chaminade for the impact she’s had on others. If it weren’t for Iwamoto’s guidance, her educational path would have been very different.
In fact, their relationship came full circle right around 2012 or 2013. She was finishing up her Ph.D. at City of Hope, a world-class cancer hospital in Los Angeles. He was there as a lymphoma patient, receiving a transplant.
“We had dinner together and he met my husband,” she recalls. “It was the last time I saw him in person.”
Though they are in different states now, she still keeps in touch with her professor—he sends her updates of his grandchildren, and she sends him updates about her children. He’s also served as a reference, and helped her get into graduate school and get her first job.
Her time at Chaminade not only fostered her passion for science, but it also taught her to recognize her strengths and embrace who she is.
“Going to a school that was very warm and friendly taught me to be that way with others,” says Arizala. “It taught me to be genuine and to keep my morals.”
As a female and as a minority in the sciences, that has come in handy. She recognizes the responsibility she has in paving the way for others and has been able to stay true to herself and always represent where she is from.
“Chaminade prepared me to be a role model,” says Arizala. “Not only in building my passion in science, but also by building my character.”