Grappling With Science

The summer of 2012 has been a legendary one, with news outlets hyping up farces of superheroes dominating the silver screen and Olympic giants setting world records. But we cannot overlook the heroes of the UC Irvine campus. One such hero is Melissa Davis, a doctoral candidate working in the Frostig lab at UCI’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. By day, she is a first class scientist researching a treatment for ischemic stroke, which results from damage of a blocked artery in the brain. By night, Melissa is a feared blue- belt competititor in Jiu-Jitsu, fiercely competing in national Jiu-Jitsu tournaments. As a child, Melissa always had an interest in science, and during her undergraduate years at UCI she took a neurobiology class with Dr. Cahill and became fascinated by the complexity of the human brain. Following that class, Melissa switched from a general biology major into Neurobiology.

“It was so incredibly interesting that studying didn’t seem like work,” Davis said.

“I figured that was a good sign for a life career choice.”

Spending up to 60 hours every week in the Frostig lab, Melissa studies neurovascular plasticity following middle cerebral artery ischemic stroke. She has had her share of late nights and struggles, but she works for a greater cause – the possibility of someday saving people from the devastating effects of stroke, our nation’s leading cause of death. The constant stimulation and challenge that comes with research is what keeps Melissa captivated and dedicated to her work, much like our celebrated Olympians.

The scientist-athlete is also an inspirational woman with a love for teaching neurobiology. She was granted the Edward Steinhaus Teaching Award  which she won for outstanding reviews and nominations by her students, whom she teaches and mentors in the lab.

Despite the demands of research, Melissa still finds time to dedicate to her other passion in life: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (a form of wrestling), often training around 20 hours a week  in the mornings and learning sparring and submission grappling techniques in the afternoons. Her mornings typically start at 5 a.m. with a run or power lifting followed by Jiu-Jitsu training.

“Jiu- jitsu is my break, my meditation, my fun,” Davis said.

“I feel truly happy on the mat with my teammates. It is a body on body debate that transcends language and time, and in the context of a modern, safe, friendly competition, is a truly unique and life changing experience.”

Melissa had to stop training for a couple of years due to the demands of graduate school, however, she came back stronger than ever with the willpower to train intensely and compete at national and world championships.

Starting out as the only female in Total MMA Studios in Tustin, Melissa found great satisfaction in her work with Coach Fernando Travessoni in recruiting and training 12 women to form the gym’s first women’s team. She attests that “seeing Jiu-Jitsu transform the girls like it transformed me into a more confident, but still humble person, comfortable with her body and driven to excel, has been amazing.”

Jiu-Jitsu holds a deeper significance in Melissa’s life than mere competition. She explains that “for women in particular, the brute assertion of self that must occur when one attempts to beat her opponent, followed by the friendliness and collegiality (usually) is incredible – a message to the brain that you will still be loved, accepted, okay, after asserting yourself, confronting and being aggressive. This alone contributes to personal development on a host of levels.” She believes that these same lessons can be generalized to life situations.

Training, much like research, has been both challenging and rewarding. Amongst numerous regional first and second place awards, her Jiu-Jitsu record boasts a recent first place female blue belt light division at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation National Champion in 2011. This year, Melissa won two, third place medals for both female blue belt light and open weight divisions in the World Championship.

“For Melissa, participating in Jiu-Jitsu and research is quite similar;” Dr. Frostig said, Melissa’s faculty mentor.

“For both she has to be dedicated, persistent, endure delayed gratification and constantly improve so she can tackle new, more demanding challenges.”

Looking to the horizon, Melissa is still deciding on her plans for the future. She hopes to win some world titles at the black belt level and to continue research and teaching. A true hard worker, Melissa admits that “most days I don’t feel much like a superhero, but I always try to put out a superhero effort.”

Those who know her well, like fellow researcher Chris Lay, can attest to her extraordinary and heroic qualities.

“In all aspects of her life, Melissa is a considerate and thoughtful person who adheres to a code of integrity, curiosity and compassion,” Lay said.

“She refuses to compromise on these core values, and this ferocity is one of her most admirable characteristics.”

For women interested in Jiu-Jitsu, Melissa can be contacted at Undergraduates interested in research can contact the Frostig lab at (