Changing the STEM narrative: A former undocumented immigrant’s journey in STEM. - Robert Fernandez

Twenty-five years ago, I never would have imagined I could be a scientist, let alone working on a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry at Yale University. Looking back on my journey, this was possible by the role of mentors who guided me on my journey towards STEM. I plan on sharing life lessons I’ve learned that can help you on your journey. My story began when my family immigrated from Lima, Peru to New Jersey when I was 4-years-old. My mother worked at a factory for over twenty years and my father worked as a manager of a fast food restaurant. At first, I had no exposure to what careers were possible in science and so my initial dream was to be a manager of a fast food restaurant like my father. Throughout the years, I saw how hard my mother worked to support our family and I wanted to help out. For this reason, I decided to pursue a career in Business Administration to one day give back to the family. My new dream was to be a CEO, I was not sure of what, but all I knew was that I wanted to provide for my family.

One day in high school, all of my classmates were talking about what colleges they were going to. They wrote on a board “Harvard, Columbia, and Brown”, but I did not write anything because I did not know where I wanted to go to college. However, one day a community college representative from Union County College (UCC) stopped by our class and left college applications. I remember feeling excited because I felt that this was an opportunity and a place where I could pursue my dreams. I filled out the application in the middle of 7th period. I was breezing through it, until I reached a question asking for my social security number. I called my mom and asked her what my social security number was, she told me: “No tienes uno, hijo”. And at that moment, I understood what being undocumented meant. I saw the limitations it imposed and why I had to live my life hiding this secret; always looking from the outside at the opportunities available to others, but never really grasping them. Though there were waves of confusion, frustration, and hopelessness, I was also stubborn. I looked for a way out of my undocumented status. I filled out the application leaving the social security number blank and I applied to UCC and on that white board, I wrote down UCC as the college I would attend. This was the day I learned to never give up.

The spring semester of my final year of high school, I took summer courses at UCC that started in May. I graduated from high school and that same afternoon, I changed from my graduation gown to regular clothes as I went on to take night classes. I took an English and a Macroeconomics course to get a head start on my college courses. One lesson I learned is to make the best of every opportunity: the school you go to does not matter, what matters is what you do once you are there. I told myself that I would make my own path and that I would go as far as possible. I went on to be a part of an honor society Phi Theta Kappa, ended up graduating with Honors in Business Administration, and found my first mentor. My last year at UCC, I took a biology class as it was a major requirement; this was a subject I was once kicked out of during my high school AP biology class. Biology soon became my passion and my first mentor encouraged me to do an independent study on common misconceptions on evolution. I had no reference as to what I could do with a degree in biology. All I knew was that I wanted to see how far I could go.

To figure out my next steps, I went to a college fair at UCC and stopped by every college exhibit booth explaining my desire to major in biology, my GPA of 3.98, and my community outreach activities; all of them were excited to hand me an application up until the moment I told them I was undocumented. One by one, they told me that they could not accept me or would have to charge me out of state tuition, which I could not afford. An undocumented friend of mine told me about York College (CUNY), which accepted undocumented students. I knew this way my way forward.

With no more than rent money provided by my family, I moved to NYC where for over a year, I worked as a busboy and deli worker to save up funds to attend York College, CUNY. During one of the introductory biology lab courses, everything changed when a professor, Dr. Simon, asked me if I was interested in doing research. At the time, I had no idea that research experience was necessary to pursue higher education in biology, let alone the doors that it opens. For the next two years, I studied the social behavior of fruit fly and began to develop my skills as a scientist. My hard work came to fruition as I proudly talked about my research at a conference for fruit fly scientists in D.C. while also contributing to scientific publications. I gained further research experience by participating in a summer research program at Princeton University, learned what a PhD program was, and gained the confidence to apply for Ph.D. studies.

If it was not for Dr. Simon, I would not have been a scientist as I would not have found the steps that I needed to take to become one; the impact that a good mentor has on a student’s career path is vital and this is why it is important to find your mentors. A month before graduation, I had the opportunity to share my story at a research symposium at York College; for the first time in a long time, I shared my truth that I kept a secret. It shared my story in a room full of faculty members proudly saying that I was undocumented. I did not let my immigration status stop me from pursuing higher education. I was able to overcome educational barriers because of family support and guidance from my mentors. My next journey took seven years, but I will soon say that I have earned and received my Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University.

A month before I started Yale, I became a permanent resident. I was no longer undocumented and for the first time, I felt that nothing could hold me back. I could now apply for all of these fellowships that were once denied to me because of a piece of paper. But more importantly, I made a promise to myself. I told myself that I would help underrepresented students on their path towards higher education. The goal is to pass on the opportunities my mentors passed on to me and provide the support I needed when I was undocumented. Throughout my time at Yale, I started a mentorship program in my department to make sure 1st year graduate students do not feel isolated. In order to improve diversity at the Yale BBS program, I worked with Latinx graduate students and a faculty advisor to host graduate school campus visits for underrepresented students to visit Yale for a weekend to learn about Ph.D. programs. Lastly, I was able to mentor underrepresented students in the research lab and through the Science, Technology and Research Scholars (STARS) program, which fund underrepresented students at Yale to do paid research.

I am grateful that my hard work was realized when I received the PD Soros Fellowship for New Americans and awards at Yale for promoting community outreach. I am finishing my Ph.D. research that focusses on mapping every neurotransmitter receptor in the neurons of the egg-laying circuit of the nematode C. elegans. I am also grateful that my parents’ sacrifices came to fruition and that I was able to make a difference. However, I am not done yet. With the help of Yale and Rockefeller University students, I am continuing this work through Científico Latino, a platform that makes science accessible for everyone. We prepare underrepresented Latino/a students for higher education in science and aim to change the narrative that we do belong and can succeed in STEM.