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Robert Fernandez

College: York College
Awards: Soros Fellowship for New Americans, 2014

An Immigrant's Path to Science

It wasn’t until his last year of high school in Elizabeth, N.J., that Robert W. Fernandez, who at age 4 emigrated from Peru with his family, learned that he was an undocumented alien. Colleges wouldn’t admit him or demanded prohibitively high out-of-state tuition.

At that frustrating moment, he could not have imagined that he was on his way to a B.S. degree in biotechnology from York College in 2013, to a doctoral program at Yale University and in 2014 an extraordinarily competitive $90,000 award from the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans.

Fernandez did gain admittance to Union County College, a community college where he conducted independent study research on immigration, evolution and Down syndrome, was elected to the Phi Theta Kappa Honor society and graduated with a 3.9 GPA with an associate degree in business.

Then, “I was stuck until a friend, who also was undocumented, told me about the CUNY system” which welcomes students regardless of immigration status.

He took off a year to work and establish New York residency to qualify for in-state tuition. “The curriculum and research at York led me there,” he says. After talking with biology professor Louis Levinger, who became a mentor, “I knew this was the school I wanted to go to.”

During his time at York College, he went on to participate in a quantitative biology workshop at MIT. He conducted research on social behavior with Drosophila, the common fruit fly. In summer research at Princeton University, he delved into the mechanism stem cells use to differentiate for individual tasks.

At Yale, he has spent his first year rotating through biophysics, biochemistry and structural biology laboratories. He studied how neural circuits control egg-laying in a tiny round worm; tested novel drug compounds that might affect membrane leakage in Alzheimer’s disease; examined how an extracellular matrix protein, laminin, figures in nerve stability in the cerebral cortex of mice; and worked to create a cell line that mimics aberrant gene fusion that can lead to cancer. He will decide which field to pursue for his Ph.D. this spring.

In 2013 he received permanent U.S. residency status. “My parents came here because of economic hardships in Peru,” he says. “They knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but they knew I’d have a better future. My mother worked 60 hours a week in a factory to support us, and I’m very grateful to her.”

Fernandez’s younger brother is now a sophomore at City College, planning to major in biology and intending to go to medical school. “My mom is so proud,” Fernandez says.

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans is a nationally competitive fellowship which in 2014 awarded grants for graduate studies to 30 immigrants or the children of immigrants. They were selected from among 1,200 applicants based on creativity, originality and initiative in light of the challenges and opportunities that were part of the applicant’s immigration story.