Biotech major set for summer at Princeton and Research Day at Columbia

Robert W. Fernandez’ York College journey is turning into quite an exciting trip. This summer the Biotech major will spend several weeks doing research at Princeton University.

“I will be part of a research group headed by a faculty member in the Summer Undergraduate Research Program in Molecular and Quantitative & Computational Biology,” says Fernandez. “I will receive intensive laboratory research experience, will collaborate with other graduate/post-doctoral fellows, will be part of research discussion groups, attend career forums, and present my research in a poster session.”

His research abstract has also been accepted for a poster presentation and PowerPoint discussion at Columbia University’s Undergraduate Science Journal Symposium, this spring. The annual event “aims to establish a forum for the display of outstanding undergraduate research to be viewed by faculty and students of pre-eminent Northeastern region research institutions,” according to the university.

Fernandez’ abstract, “Loss of Function and Overexpression of VMAT Suggest that the Levels of Dopamine Signaling Correlate with the Capacity to Avoid Social Stress Signals in Drosophila Melanogaster,” was originally submitted to the Columbia Undergraduate Science Journal and inspired the invitation to present at the Ivy League institution.

He will also present his research at York’s Undergraduate Research Day to be hosted in the York College Health and Physical Education Complex on April 19th.

Although everything seems to be coming up roses for Fernandez this spring, it wasn’t always that way. He has had to deal with thorny issues in his life and fight for every success he has achieved.

Born in Lima, Peru, Fernandez, his younger brother and their parents, came to the United States in 1994 when he was four years old. The family settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It wasn’t until he was a high school senior preparing for college that Fernandez realized that his immigration status was “undocumented.” Rutgers and other senior colleges in New Jersey rejected the honor student on that basis.

He turned to the community colleges and graduated with honors from Union Community College in Cranford, New Jersey with an associate’s degree in Business. He then spent a year at Queens College but transferred to York the following year in 2010.

“I took a biology class at Union County College and it changed my mindset towards Biology,” Fernandez recently recalled. “When I first arrived at York College I doubted if this was the right choice for me, but Dr. Louis Levinger advised me; and I left convinced that this college was very student-oriented and the science professors here were very open.”

Fernandez has been guided in the lab by Dr. Anne Simon whose research “aims at understanding the molecular mechanisms relevant to complex behavior in adult organisms.”

“It focuses on Drosophila melanogaster as an animal model,” says Dr. Simon who recently presented in her research area at a recent Provost Lecture Series forum. “I apply the tools of genetics to study behaviors ranging from learning and memory to social interaction.”

Simon has enjoyed guiding the young scholar.

“Robert is very sharp, serious and extremely dedicated in addition to being very good at the bench,” says Dr. Simon. “He no doubt has the qualities required to succeed in a PhD program. I also think that he will succeed at any endeavor that he will decide to pursue. I'd be proud to be a colleague of his in the future.”

After his first semester at York, Fernandez founded the Biotechnology Club at the college in order to help guide students through their major and inform them on the opportunities available at this school. He credits much of his success to the devotion of his mother.

“My mother worked up to 60 hours per week to take care of us,” he says. “She is responsible for the man I am today. And I try to be a role model for my younger brother to show him that despite several hardships, one should not give up on their dreams. However, as for my success at York College, I attribute that to the opportunities York College gave me, to the mentoring I received from Dr. Levinger and Dr. Simon from the Biology Dept. as well as from Dr. Lynch from the Physics Dept., and to my friends who have been there for me every step of the way.”

The soft spoken go-getter does not qualify for financial aid so he has two tutoring jobs on campus. He tutors in the Academic Achievement Center and for the Physics Department. Due to this busy schedule his GPA recently slipped from a perfect 4.0 to approximately 3.93, to his dismay.

Fernandez who is “about four classes” short of his bachelor’s degree, plans to pursue a PhD in Molecular Biology, Biomedical Engineering, or Biotechnology and do research in the area of stem cell research.

It is an area that matters so much to Fernandez that it was the topic of his Writing 303 term paper. Furthermore, this past winter he spent a week at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with another York undergraduate and a graduate student from Levinger’s lab at York - on a week-long trip with Professor Levinger, who had completed post-doctoral studies there.

Fernandez presented at MIT on the topic he had pursued there – genetics. He also went to Brown University with several other York students. They met with Dr. Andrew Campbell, a professor of Medical Science in the Department of Molecular Microbiology at Brown, who has recruited several biology majors from York over the last five years. Campbell is a member of York’s Class of 1980 and serves as a member of the York College Foundation.

Fernandez, according to Princeton University, will join “a world-class research group” headed by a HYPERLINK "http://molbio.princeton.edu/faculty/molbio-faculty?layout=blog"Faculty member and will carry out an original research project. “Participants are immersed in a culture of close collaboration with other undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty, and thereby experience first-hand what it is like to be a scientist.”

He credits Simon for being a tough taskmaster.

“I am honored and privileged to have her as a mentor,” he says. “And I’m excited that I have a mentor who pushes me hard to succeed.”

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