"I was pretty surprised — very honored and surprised," said Amaro, 34, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences and computer science and chemistry. "I feel really very, very fortunate to be selected as a recipient of this award."
Amaro's research focuses on discovering new treatments for cancer, influenza, chlamydia and neglected diseases such as African sleeping sickness, Chagas disease and Leishmaniasis disease.
Her research also centers on creating new methods to develop drugs using computers. The goal is to create a generic method to share with other scientists, Amaro said.
"We want to change the way we use computers to do drug discovery and help advance research in human health," she said.
The San Clemente resident was one of 94 researchers selected for their innovative research in science, technology and dedication to community outreach, according to a White House news release.
"It is inspiring to see the innovative work being done by these scientists and engineers as they ramp up their careers — careers that I know will be not only personally rewarding, but also invaluable to the nation," Obama said in a prepared statement.
In 2010 Amaro received the National Institutes of Health Director's New Innovator Award, a five-year, $2.3-million grant, that qualified her for the presidential award.
The Chicago native earned a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and completed her postdoctoral fellowship at UC San Diego. She started teaching at UCI in 2009.
It was while completing her undergraduate work that Amaro said she became interested in computational chemistry, but her interest didn't turn to disease-related research until her postdoctoral fellowship.
Amaro said several people in her life have been touched by cancer, but her interest in neglected diseases comes from her perpetual aspiration to help the underprivileged.
"I'm driven by the desire to help people in general," she said.
Amaro said while growing up she liked science, but had a stronger interest in math. Even in high school, Amaro said she never would have thought her life would go in the direction it did.
"This is beyond my wildest imagination," she said. "Every day I have so much fun. It doesn't feel like work."