top of page
Angelica Riestra.jpg

Prebys Research Hero: Awardee

Angelica Riestra

Assistant Professor, Biology

San Diego State University

Dr. Riestra’s lab studies pathogens that affect female reproductive health. Her lab has a special focus on investigating how the sexually transmitted parasite, Trichomonas vaginalis, causes the disease trichomoniasis. Trichomoniasis disproportionately affects Black women and women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and is associated with severe health outcomes like preterm birth, cervical cancer, bacterial vaginosis, and HIV. By learning how T. vaginalis promotes inflammation and interacts with other microbes in the female reproductive tract, Dr. Riestra aims to find novel ways to help counteract the disproportionate impact of trichomoniasis. Dr. Riestra is also involved in efforts to promote student success and retention in STEM fields and biomedical research. 

"We're a small community working on an understudied parasite. It takes resilient people to be part of this team, building tools and methods as we progress.” 

- Dr. Angelica Riestra

Dr. Angelica Riestra: Pioneering the Fight Against a Stealthy Parasite

At her lab at San Diego State University, Dr. Angelica Riestra leads a team of researchers with relentless curiosity and resilience, diving into the world of a tricky parasite that has long flown under the radar. 

Dr. Riestra was recently awarded a $500,000 Prebys Research Heroes grant, part of a $10 million two-year initiative that celebrates the contributions female scientists make in the field of biomedical and medical research, and which honors outstanding San Diego scientists as a key lever to create a more innovative, equitable, and collaborative medical research system. 


Trichomoniasis, caused by a sexually transmitted parasite, is widely prevalent and is the most common non-viral STD in the world and the U.S. Dr. Riestra’s work is crucial because it targets a disease that doesn’t command headlines or compel mandatory reporting to health agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a silent affliction, disproportionately affecting Black women and women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and is associated with dangerous health outcomes like cervical cancer, prostate cancer, and HIV.  


“There’s a lot we don’t understand about this disease,” Dr. Riestra explains. “Many people carry the parasite without symptoms, yet it’s there, wreaking havoc, potentially killing good bacteria, causing inflammation, and potentially leading to serious health issues.” 


Her fascination with the parasite began during her graduate school days, where the sight of the organism under the microscope swimming with its five flagella fascinated her. “It’s captivating, seeing it move, but it’s also a reminder of the complexity of the diseases we’re fighting.” 


Dr. Riestra’s journey in science started early, thanks to the C.H.U.M program for middle and high school students that allowed her to take college courses as an eighth grader and perform research in a laboratory throughout middle school and high school. This exposure was life-changing, planting the seed for her future in scientific research. 


Her lab, which she fondly refers to as a home away from home, is a testament to her leadership style – a place where effective communication is as valued as hard work, and where the team ethos is paramount. “We're a small community working on an understudied parasite,” she says. “It takes resilient people to be part of this team, building tools and methods as we progress.” 


The grant from the Prebys Foundation has been a windfall for Dr. Riestra and her team, allowing them to explore new methods to tackle the parasite. With no commercial kits available, they’ve had to be creative to help adapt protocols and innovate techniques to study various aspects of how the parasite develops and progresses.  Many projects are started from the ground up with bioinformatics – an interdisciplinary field that combines biology, computer science, information technology, and statistics to analyze and interpret biological data. They also work on cloning genes, and they are now trying to improve CRISPR/Cas9 technology – a groundbreaking tool used for editing the genomes of living organisms with high precision and efficiency. 


“It’s challenging,” Dr. Riestra admits, “but we’ve taken this as an opportunity to train our students in a wide array of disciplines. They come from all walks of science, each bringing a different perspective that enriches our work. Similarly, their wide exposure to interdisciplinary science will hopefully also best prepare them for their future careers.” 

At California State University, a Hispanic-serving institution, Dr. Riestra takes special pride in recruiting students who may transform their lives through education. She’s open about her background as a first-generation college student from Southeast San Diego, which resonates with her students and helps them see a future for themselves in academia or industry. 


“Our lab has built a great community. We write and read papers together, sharing the excitement and the setbacks,” Dr. Riestra shares. Her students have been on the ground floor of exciting discoveries, recently earning accolades at a major conference, affirming that their work is breaking new ground in the field. 


Dr. Riestra’s lab is a microcosm of the change she hopes to see in the scientific community – a place where different types of research and backgrounds come together to make science more inclusive and exciting. “Science is done by people,” she notes, “and acknowledging our humanity makes our work more enjoyable and our field more welcoming.” 


Her students know what adversity is like, but in the lab they learn to channel it into resilience and creativity. “We’re not looking for the fastest or easiest solutions,” Dr. Riestra states, “we’re in it for the discoveries that will make a difference.” 


As she reflects on the future, Dr. Riestra’s enthusiasm is unmistakable. She sees a world where science becomes more multidisciplinary and where conversations that weren’t possible before are now shaping a more positive field. Her vision for her students and her science is clear – a world where curiosity meets passion, and where the next generation of scientists is nurtured to ask the questions that will transform our understanding of health and disease. 


With the support of the Prebys Foundation, Dr. Riestra’s work not only contributes to the global fight against infectious diseases but also molds a new generation of scientists who will carry on the legacy of curiosity, resilience, and the pursuit of knowledge to benefit us all. 

bottom of page