Graduate student Irma Fernandez wins award from Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Irma Fernandez knows the value of good mentorship. After all, the support of trusted instructors guided her from a poor childhood in Los Angeles, California – where she was raised by a single mother from Mexico – to the science labs of Cornell. Recently, the rising fourth-year Ph.D. student in biochemistry, molecular and cell biology received a further boost to her academic career and her own plans to pay it forward: Fernandez is one of this year’s recipients of the Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study, awarded annually by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to racially, ethnically or other underrepresented doctoral students in biomedical or life sciences disciplines and their advisors.

Fernandez’s research on the mitochondrial protein Sirtuin 5 and its role in breast cancer and potential novel therapies spans two labs: those of Dr. Robert Weiss, professor of molecular genetics in the department of biomedical sciences at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), and Dr. Hening Lin, professor in the department of chemistry and chemical biology. “I’m fortunate to have two extremely dedicated and experienced mentors with complementary expertise, which makes my project highly collaborative and gives me access to learning and doing experiments across various fields,” she said.

“I also feel very happy and fortunate to have been awarded this fellowship,” said Fernandez, who received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, San Diego, and is the first in her family to attend college. “It will open up a lot of opportunities for me.” For one, she will have the funds to attend her first national conferences, including the HHMI science meetings and Gilliam fellow meetings, where she hopes to expand her connections to role models and the Gilliam community.

More importantly, the award provides $4000 per year to Fernandez, Weiss and Lin to carry out ideas for improving diversity and inclusion at Cornell that they proposed in the Gilliam application. They hope to create a program for current underrepresented minority graduate students to return to their alma maters, accompanied by their advisors, to speak to undergraduates about their experiences in graduate school and invite them to apply for summer or Ph.D. programs in Ithaca. In addition, Weiss and Lin will receive mentorship training from HHMI and plan to pass on their new perspectives locally by running two workshops for faculty members on successful mentoring and improving communication with advisees.

“This is the most meaningful part of the fellowship to me,” said Fernandez, who is already actively promoting diversity as co-president of Cornell’s chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science and a co-founder of the Molecular Biology and Genetics Diversity Council. “As an underrepresented scientist, I hope to serve as a role model and mentor for others with similar backgrounds, as was done for me.”

Weiss, who also serves as associate dean for research and graduate education at CVM, certainly believes his advisee is the right person for the job. “I was delighted by the news of this well-known and highly prestigious fellowship and extremely proud of Irma. She is well organized, hardworking and extremely committed to being successful as a graduate student and scientist. She has a long career ahead of her, and the Gilliam will not only help propel her through the next stages in her training but also provide resources for her to continue and extend her work as an advocate for diversity in science.”

By Olivia Hall