Student Spotlight: Irma Fernandez

Irma Fernandez

December 20, 2019

Irma Fernandez is a doctoral student in biochemistry, molecular and cell biology from Michoacan, Mexico and Los Angeles, California. After studying pharmaceutical chemistry and English/Spanish literature at UC San Diego, she chose to attend Cornell due to its supportive and highly collaborative environment.

What is your area of research and why is it important?

My research focus is on studying the roles of mitochondrial Sirtuin 5 (SIRT5) in breast cancer. SIRT5 regulates novel protein post-translational modifications on key metabolic enzymes by catalyzing the removal of negatively charged acyl groups: succinyl, glutaryl, and malonyl. SIRT5 represents an attractive therapeutic target, as it is over-expressed in many cancers, including breast cancer, but has little effect on normal cells. I focus on research investigating whether SIRT5 promotes breast cancer progression and test novel SIRT5 pharmacological inhibitors, in both human cancer cell lines and mouse models. I also focus on elucidating the molecular mechanism by which SIRT5 promotes breast tumor progression and metastasis.

What are the larger implications of this research?

Our findings could open a new avenue of targeting cancer cells specifically since SIRT5 loss does not affect normal cells and will provide novel mechanistic insights into the role of SIRT5 in breast cancer.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

My grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer and is now in remission (yay!) so I would say I have a personal tie to cancer research. However, I would also say that being a joint student in both Weiss/Lin labs really inspired me to pick this research project as I feel fortunate to have two extremely dedicated and experienced mentors with complementary expertise. As a result of this arrangement, my project is highly collaborative and gives me access to learning and doing experiments across various fields. My research allows me to combine all my interests and prior research experience in biology—enzymology, biochemistry, and immunology—while still learning completely new fields like chemistry, cancer biology, and cancer metabolism.

What does it mean to you to have received an HHMI Gilliam Fellowship?

I feel very happy and fortunate to have been awarded this fellowship. It will open up a lot of opportunities for me. I have not been able to attend any national conferences during my graduate career so far. This fellowship will allow me to attend HHMI meetings, requires my advisors to attend HHMI mentorship workshops, and provides additional money for conference travel. More importantly, one of the parts of the fellowship application is to propose an idea with your advisors on how you would improve diversity and inclusion at your institution. If you receive the fellowship that proposed idea will also be funded. Therefore, my advisors and I will receive $4,000 per year to establish our idea. This is the most meaningful part of the fellowship to me.

What will this fellowship allow you and your mentor to do?

We proposed to use the diversity/inclusion award to launch two new programs:

First, we will create a mechanism to enable current underrepresented minority graduate students to return to their undergraduate alma mater together with their current adviser to give research seminars and hold information sessions related to graduate studies at Cornell. These visits are designed to make undergraduates aware of the opportunities at Cornell and to illustrate in a tangible way how current students that they can relate to have been successful in graduate school. The visiting speakers will also convey that Cornell has much to offer as an academic institution and research university, in the context of a pleasant and welcoming community. Depending on their stage of training, undergraduate students will be invited to apply for one of our many summer research programs or to the relevant Ph.D. program on campus.

Second, we will create two new workshops focused on faculty mentoring of students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds. One of these will be specifically for faculty and aimed at providing guidance and best practices for successful mentoring. The resources and training offered by HHMI will be a central source of the content included and will be supplemented with additional information and personal experiences shared by experienced mentors. The second workshop will be offered for both faculty and their trainees. This will include recommendations for how students and mentors can work together effectively, resolve conflicts, and support diversity and inclusion in their graduate program. During this workshop students and faculty will develop and discuss individual development programs and will participate in exercises designed to increase communication and remove barriers between individuals at different career stages.

What are your hobbies or interests outside of your research or scholarship?

In addition to my research, outreach and giving back to my community is important for me to do in my spare time. I am currently co-president of SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science), a Graduate Student Ambassador, and a co-founder of the Molecular Biology and Genetics Diversity Council. I passionately believe that outreach with the goal of promoting diversity and inclusion is necessary and serves to positively impact society by broadening experiences, increasing different points of view, and thereby promoting innovation in science. Therefore, I strive to recruit for more diversity in science and introduce more people to the collaborative and supportive environment that I discovered through my research at Cornell.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?

At UCSD, I participated in programs for minority students, such as McNair, LSAMP, and SACNAS, and these had a profound influence on me. While at UCSD, I was awarded a SACNAS travel scholarship in 2015 and so I was able to attend my first national science conference. This made it possible for me to meet Steve Halaby, a Ph.D. candidate in Cornell’s biochemistry, cell and molecular biology (BMCB) program (now he has graduated and is Dr. Steve Halaby). Steve successfully recruited me by sharing his personal experience and background as he was also from Los Angeles and Hispanic. This encouraged me to apply to Cornell! Representation matters! I chose Cornell because at my interview weekend, I was struck by how genuinely happy the graduate students seemed to be. Moreover, I was expecting an intimidating and intense interview at an Ivy League; however, I found that the environment here at Cornell was reminiscent of home in that faculty/students alike in BMCB seemed laid-back, supportive, and highly collaborative.