Mentoring the Next Generation of Neuroscientists

A business major turned biologist, Columbia postdoc Robert Fernandez studies the nervous system of roundworms while helping college students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds pursue PhD programs in science.

Kim Martineau
May 06, 2022

Robert Fernandez was finishing up his business degree when a biology course set him on an entirely new path. The class introduced him to evolution—the theory that all species are related and change with time—and he knew in an instant that he had to become a scientist. Nothing would stop him.

More than a decade later, after earning a biology degree from the City University of New York (CUNY), and a PhD at Yale, Fernandez landed in Oliver Hobert’s lab at Columbia as a postdoc, studying the nervous system of the roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans. Along the way, he has been recognized by the Simons Foundation for his promise as a scientist, and by CellPress for his commitment to mentoring other Latinx students.

Roundworm nervous system

Fernandez was 4 years old when his family immigrated to the United States from Peru, settling in Elizabeth, N.J. His parents were college educated, but as undocumented immigrants had limited job prospects—his mother landed a job in a glass-making factory, his father, in a fast-food restaurant. Ineligible for financial aid, Fernandez paid his way through college, at one point working nights at a deli in Midtown.

At CUNY’s York College, his work caught the eye of a microbiology professor, Anne Simon. She invited him to join her lab, and for two years, Fernandez studied stressed-out fruit flies and how dopamine influences their social life. (When agitated, they release an odor that tells other flies to back off). The lab was filled with other undergraduates like himself from modest means. “I truly felt at home,” he said.

Columbia News caught up with Fernandez to talk about C. elegans, his journey to Columbia, and Científico Latino, the organization he co-founded to help underrepresented students pursue careers in science.

Oliver Hobert’s lab at Columbia has pioneered a technique called NeuroPal for coloring the nervous system of C. elegans to understand how networks of neurons influence behavior.

After studying social behavior in fruit flies, and egg-laying behavior in roundworms, what made you shift to the nervous system?

For my thesis, I worked on mapping the neurotransmitter receptors in the C. elegans egg-laying circuit to determine their role in regulating egg laying. I drew on two discoveries involving the C. elegans nervous system: how neurons connect to each other, and where neurotransmitters are expressed throughout the worm’s nervous system—the latter mapped by the Hobert Lab. It was my dream to work in his lab, studying the regulation of neuronal identity in C. elegans, while also training undergraduate students. It’s work that can help us understand how neuronal circuits develop, and eventually, to better understand diseases like depression or Parkinson’s disease.

What does a typical day in the lab look like?

I plan my research experiments for the day, handle lab and academic correspondence, touch base with my mentees on their progress, conduct cell identifications of reporter genes expressed in the C. elegans nervous system, and track the experiments done that day. After work, I focus on Científico Latino activities.

What have you learned about the C. elegans nervous system so far?

Just how redundant some molecular components are. My thesis at Yale focused on mapping the 26 small-molecule neurotransmitter G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs) expressed in the worm’s egg-laying circuit. The goal was to determine what these receptors do. I co-designed an experiment to see if knocking out five neurotransmitter GPCRs in the same egg-laying cell would make any difference. Surprisingly, even with a quintuple neurotransmitter GPCR mutant, we found no change in the number of eggs laid.

What kept you going all those years at CUNY?

My parents took a chance for a better future for us in the U.S., and that kept me motivated. I knew that my passion for science would help me overcome the obstacles, whether it was navigating college as an undocumented immigrant or learning how to apply for a PhD, something I could not imagine at the start of my journey.

What was your mentor at York College like?

Anne Simon was my molecular biology professor. She showed me how to be a scientist, to plan experiments, tackle the scientific literature, and give a good talk. Most importantly, she understood the different backgrounds of her students. I could be open with her about my undocumented status, and she was nothing but supportive.

Her mentorship had a domino effect. I soon had a team of mentors in the biology department and beyond. I went on for a summer internship at Princeton, presented my undergraduate research at a national conference, and learned how to apply for a PhD. I was nominated by Dr. Simon to speak at undergraduate research day, and so I shared my undocumented journey and the importance of mentorship in pursuing the sciences in academia.

How did Científico Latino get its start?

I’m the scientist that I am today because of the mentoring I received. When I started my PhD at Yale, in 2013, I was the only Latino student in my PhD program, and one of just three in the molecular biophysics and biochemistry department. I felt isolated and struggled academically. However, after passing my qualifying exams, giving my first research talk, and winning the PD Soros Fellowship, I got past my imposter syndrome.

It drove me to want to help others. I reached out to another PhD student, Olivia Goldman, and together we launched Científico Latino in 2017. It began as a website offering links to summer research programs, fellowships, post-bac programs, and other resources. Two years later, we launched our Graduate School Mentorship Initiative (GSMI) program to give low-income and first-generation college students help with graduate school applications, interviews, and other parts of the process.

So far, we’ve helped more than 250 students enroll in master’s and PhD programs. Recently, we also launched a program for older grad students to mentor first-year PhD students. We’re currently a volunteer-based LLC and plan to eventually become a nonprofit to continue building a pipeline for underrepresented students to pursue PhDs in science.

What are some dos and don’ts for good mentoring?

In the lab, I set up research goals for my students each semester and train them in the various techniques they need. It’s my responsibility to make sure they are prepared. Since my research focuses on examining the role of transcription factors in regulating neuronal identity in C. elegans, I’ve trained them on genetic crosses, confocal microscopy, and how to identify neurons using a multicolor landmark transgene, NeuroPal. I also compile relevant research papers, training manuals and datasets, review the design of their experiments, and provide feedback on their presentations. When an experiment fails, I tell my students it’s part of the learning process. The trick is not to repeat those mistakes.

When it comes to mentoring don’ts, a big one is not making the assumption that your mentees want to follow the same career path as you. One of my first mentees wasn’t interested in a PhD, but rather, an MD-MBA, and I ended up connecting her with a colleague who was pursuing an MD-MBA at Stanford.

Advice for aspiring biologists and neuroscientists?

Find your research and academic mentors, try to work in a lab as an undergraduate, present your work at conferences, and network with academics in your field. You never know how one conversation might lead to a job. If you have a dream you’re working toward, surround yourself with supportive colleagues and friends.