UCI Professor Inspires Student with Gift

His office is filled with hundreds of books, scholarly medals, family photos, travel mementos, a Templeton Prize award, photographs with various dignitaries, and years of wisdom and life experience as a renowned evolutionary biologist. Francisco J. Ayala’s work space was the perfect setting to host a special dialogue between him and a young man who received the 2017 Ayala Fellowship here at UCI, neurobiology graduate fellow Joshua Crapser.

With a twinkle in his eye and his cherished DNA tie, Ayala extended his hand to meet Crapser for the first time. Crapser is a confident, young man with a genuine smile and an eagerness to engage in an intellectual discussion with Dr. Ayala, a mentor to generations of students at UCI.

Paying his Gratitude Forward

Their dialogue began with Crapser asking Ayala why he provides fellowships to graduate students. Ayala explained that his desire was initiated by the Templeton Prize award he received in 2010. Valued at about $1.53 million, the prize is the world’s largest annual award given to an individual and honors a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. In the spirit of wanting to pay his gratitude forward, Ayala created the fellowship with his prize. He felt that he wanted to, in essence, pass the torch of inquiry into scientific principles. His generosity has a profound purpose for future young scientists like Crapser.

As a young man, Crapser pondered religion, which led him to study philosophy in his free time and eventually science. This background and his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis led him to study biology as an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. There, he began doing neuroscience research with Louise McCullough, first as an independent study and then as a full-time employee after his graduation in 2013 with a degree in biology.

A Shared Passion for Research

For two years, he worked in the McCullough lab where he earned his own projects and had the opportunity to present them in San Diego, Calif.; Nashville, Tenn. and abroad in Germany. His passion for research validated his desire to go to graduate school at UCI, so he applied and drove cross country to start in the fall of 2015!

Their conversation then turned to travel and the many symposia and keynote speeches that are part of Ayala’s vast research. Remembering his recent time in Europe, Crapser recalled going to Spain and falling in love with the rich culture there, knowing it was the birthplace of Ayala. They have yet another passion in common. In their discussion of Spanish culture, Ayala made it a point to say that the best opportunities for personal career growth and advancement are here in America. The funding opportunities exist here as does the professional collaboration, which is why Ayala has spent his career here in the United States and has been a UC faculty member for most of his professional life.

It was an honest interaction between an expert scientist and a future scientist whose paths have crossed here in real time but whose lives were destined for discovery and infinite possibilities on a global scale.