Grad Student Unpestered by Adversity

Woman inspecting a vine in a vineyard
UC Davis entomology graduate student Cindy Preto inspects a grapevine for harmful insects. Liam Swords/photo
One California, One UC Davis

The first thing you notice about Cindy Preto is her unbridled enthusiasm, whether she’s monitoring leafhopper eggs in a UC Davis research vineyard, or sharing insect photos of everything from assassin bugs to praying mantids.

Preto, a former foster-care youth, has hurdled numerous obstacles heaved in her path and lets nothing block her education, enthusiasm, research or goals. 

Foster-support Program for Grad Students

UC Davis has launched the Guardian Scholars Program, a scholarship and mentorship program that helps former foster youth earn graduate degrees at UC Davis.

It's the country’s first program dedicated to helping former foster youth earn graduate and professional degrees.

Started this fall, the program provides a support network of UC Davis staff members who help students as they apply for and pursue their graduate degree in any of the 94 graduate programs or professional schools at UC Davis, including education, law, business and medicine.

A college diploma and graduate school

She turned a disadvantaged childhood into a college diploma — and a college diploma into graduate school. She has also become a world traveler, having journeyed to 59 countries on all seven continents and to all 50 states in the U.S.

“I’m the first in my family to graduate from college and to attend graduate school,” says Preto, who calls Los Angeles home.

She received her bachelor’s degree in viticulture and enology — grape growing and winemaking — with an entomology minor in agricultural pest management in June. She’s now working on her master’s degree in entomology — the study of insects.

“I first met Cindy in my Entomology 110 class — Arthropod Pest Management,” says Frank Zalom, a distinguished professor in the Department of Entomology and Nematology and Preto’s major professor for her graduate studies.

Last student to leave the lab

“She was usually the last student to leave the diagnostic labs each week, and one time she apologized to me for staying so long,” Zalom recalled.  “She said that she had been out of school and working for awhile so she wanted to get the most out of her classes.” 

Since Preto was majoring in viticulture and enology, she and Zalom proposed an undergraduate research project focused on the development of the invasive European grapevine moth, a serious agricultural pest. The project garnered a scholarship from the MURALS  (Mentorship for Undergraduate Research in Agriculture, Letters and Science) program that funded Preto so she could conduct the project in Zalom’s lab.

Now, as a graduate student, Preto is studying the population dynamics of three leafhoppers: Virginia creeper, western grape and variegated leafhoppers.  Her work includes a biological survey of the Virginia creeper leafhopper in vineyards, looking at the population dynamics of all life stages.

Recognizing leafhoppers that suck sap

In rearing these leafhoppers from eggs to nymphs to adults, she’s learned to recognize the distinguishing characteristics of each species. These tiny pests, which as adults are no bigger than a couple of grains of salt, cause damage by sucking sap from grapevines and other plants.

Zalom admires Preto’s enthusiasm, commitment and professionalism. “I was not seeking another grad student, but I couldn't help but accept Cindy into my lab when she decided that she would like to pursue a master’s degree,” he recalled.

Goal to work in the grape industry

“Her project on leafhoppers associated with grapes fits her goals of working again in the grape industry when she completes her degree,” he said. “Her enthusiasm for learning hasn't changed, and her research has been proceeding very well.”

Preto already is drawing widespread attention as a scholar and has received numerous scholarships in recent years.

She participates in the Guardian Professions Program, a new UC Davis effort to assist graduate students who are former foster care youth. And, she continues to participate in the Guardian Scholars Program, open to all UC Davis students who were cared for in foster homes.

Students in the program offer support for one another and encourage current and former foster-care youth in local high schools and community colleges to seek higher education, by sharing their stories and offering UC Davis campus tours, outreach activities and panel presentations.

Scores of insect photos

Along the way, Preto has taken scores of images of insects.

She's recorded and photographed not only leafhoppers, but also assassin bugs, minute pirate bugs, stink bugs, lace bugs, mites, thrips, damselflies, dragonflies, moths, bees, wasps, jumping spiders and black widow spiders, whiteflies and praying mantids.

When she is not out in the field monitoring insects, you’ll usually find her reading about them or studying them in the lab — weekends included.

“It’s extremely fascinating; I love it,” she said. 

After receiving her master’s degree, she hopes to manage pests and diseases in an organic or sustainable grape vineyard and to earn her Pest Control Adviser license.

UC Davis is growing California

At UC Davis, we and our partners are nourishing our state with food, economic activity and better health, playing a key part in the state’s role as the top national agricultural producer for more than 50 years. UC Davis is participating in UC’s Global Food Initiative launched by UC President Janet Napolitano, harnessing the collective power of UC to help feed the world and steer it on the path to sustainability.

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