Robert Fernandez spent 20 years as an undocumented migrant, but is now a US citizen with a PhD from Yale, and co-founder of Científico Latino, an organisation helping international students –especially from developing countries– to enter and navigate STEM graduate school in the US.
Fernandez, who is now a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Hobert Lab at Columbia University, came to the US at the age of four from his birthplace of Lima, Peru and faced an uphill battle to arrive where he is now, a scientist with research interests in genetics, connectomics, neural circuitry and behavior in the nematode worm C. elegans.
“My parents brought my younger brother and me to Elizabeth, New Jersey and growing up, I remember my mother telling me a set of rules to survive as an undocumented immigrant, “he said.
“I never questioned why I could not get a driver’s license, find official employment, or even travel on Greyhound buses – all I knew was that I had to hide in plain sight,” he said.
At the end of highschool, Fernandez missed the college application deadline because he did not know about application timelines or entrance exams. Even when later successfully applying for community college, Fernandez could not put his social security number on the form because he didn’t have one.
But his passion for science was already ignited.
“I told myself if I work hard enough, if I dedicate myself to science, maybe one day I would be recognized for my work and escape my undocumented status,” Fernandez said.
After moving to New York City and spending a year of working under-the-table jobs and saving up money as a deli worker, along with the support of family, Fernandez was able to transfer to York College, CUNY, where he was asked by a biology professor if he had ever considered research.
“That one question changed my life. I went on to do research, and for two years studied the role of dopamine on the social behavior of the fruit fly,” he said, “I learned what it meant to be a scientist, the importance of mentorship, and to have pride in sharing my undocumented story.”
His experiences navigating funding and other pitfalls as a PhD student at Yale led Fernandez to team up with long-time friend and fellow scientist Olivia Goldman to start Cientifico Latino (Spanish for Latino scientist), which today has 20 volunteer members.
“With Cientifico Latino, we want to make sure that every underrepresented student in science has the information and resources they need to prepare for higher education in the sciences and to successfully navigate the graduate school application process,” Fernandez said, “The mission is to increase the pool of underrepresented scientists and professionals by creating a platform where everyone—regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or immigration status—has equal access to fellowship and scholarship opportunities, and the chance to learn from their peers on how to become successful STEM professionals.”
Fernandez says the more trained scientists from diverse backgrounds in the U.S. and throughout the world there are, the more well-equipped humanity will be to tackle global problems.
“There is an unequal distribution of opportunities and advantages across socioeconomic classes, ethnicities, and nationalities and it is important to remember this is not by chance, ” he said, “Modern-day developed countries have in many cases handicapped the economic progression of other countries through exploitation of resources, colonization, or other political means.”
In April 2019, Fernandez, Goldman and Daisy Duan launched the Graduate School Mentorship Initiative (GSMI), a one-on-one guided mentorship program, where science professionals mentor underrepresented undergraduate and post-bac students through the STEM graduate school application process.
“A total of 77 GSMI applicants, 90% of our 2019 cohort, were accepted into STEM graduate programs,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez is far from the only scientist from Latin America to rise to the challenges of US graduate school. Another example is Jose Martinez-Claros who went from being caught up in a hurricane at a child to flying through storms as a scientist.
Martinez-Claros, who is now a PhD Candidate at the Physics Department of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, says that immigration uncertainties add another layer of stress for international students.