Undocumented & Pursuing a Career in STEM? Check out the work of Científico Latino!

Científico Latino is an organization dedicated to increasing the pool of underrepresented scientists 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. At My Undocumented Life, we had an opportunity to interview Robert W. Fernandez, PhD (co-founder of Científico Latino & Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University) to learn more about their work and the resources that undocumented students pursuing a career in STEM can access. We thank him for responding to our questions via e-mail.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about your trajectory, including what inspired you to pursue a career in science?

A: My path to becoming a scientist took time. I was originally a Business Administration major at Union County College (UCC), since I wanted to find a well-paid job to support my family. But during my time at community college, I took my first introductory biology class and became passionate about studying science. But I had no clear route, let alone guidance, of what I could even do with a degree in science. I told myself that if I work hard enough, and if I dedicate myself to science, maybe one day I would be recognized for my work and escape my undocumented status. At York College, my dream of going into science was solidified when a biology professor, Dr. Simon, asked me one day, “Have you thought about doing 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. From her, I learned what it meant to be a scientist, the importance of mentorship, and to have pride in sharing my undocumented story. Her guidance led to me contributing to several publications and presenting at research conferences. These accomplishments led to a domino effect where other professors at York College, CUNY also invested in me. Due to their mentorship, I went on to do a summer research program at Princeton and a Quantitative Biology workshop at MIT, learning what a PhD was and how to apply.

I was accepted to the Yale PhD program in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. Wanting to get a head start in my graduate school studies, I did a summer rotation in the lab of Michael R. Koelle, PhD, where I studied the role of the neurotransmitter tyramine and how it inhibited egg laying in C. elegans. I did not know this at the time, but Michael would go on to be one of my most dedicated Yale mentors and my thesis advisor. During these past seven years at Yale for my thesis, I have mapped the location of every neurotransmitter G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) in the C. elegans egg-laying circuit and hope to one day do the same the entire C. elegans nervous system. Under Michael’s mentorship, I trained several undergraduate students to execute their own independent research project and go on to present at national conferences. There were several moments where I imagined it felt like how it would to lead to my own lab – and this is what I have decided to pursue. In addition to receiving excellent graduate training, I had the freedom to pursue my STEM diversity initiatives and mentor the next generation of scientists and doctors. I am forever grateful for that.

Q: What motivated you to launch Científico Latino? 

A: The idea of Científico Latino originated from the difficulties I encountered throughout my first year as a Yale PhD student in Molecular Biochemistry and Biophysics (MB&B). For 20 years, I was an undocumented immigrant and a month before I started graduate school, I became a permanent resident and finally received my green card. I had waited for this day for 20 years and I felt that nothing could stand in my way anymore.

However, my first year of graduate school was full of unknowns: I did not know what to expect in terms of how to tackle graduate school classes, how to find research mentors, or even what fellowships I should apply to. It did not help that I was the only Latinx student in my incoming class and only one out of three Latinx PhD students in the entire MB&B department at the time.

One of the most important lessons that I learned from that first year in graduate school: I could not do this alone. For that reason, the idea of Científico Latino came to me as a way I could guide others so that they would not feel alone either. Looking for collaborators as a 1st year graduate student, I pitched the idea of establishing a database of online STEM resources for underrepresented students to several colleagues, however, each time I was dismissed. I let the idea get pushed aside back then, but luckily the story did not end there.

As a 5th year, I received valuable advice from my PD Soros family about this idea and it only came to fruition when I reconnected with a close friend, Olivia Goldman, who I knew from a summer research program at Princeton University back in the summer of 2012 – back when I was an undocumented immigrant. Ever since we met, she has been a supportive friend and ally in making science accessible to everyone. We decided to work together. She named our website, “Científico Latino,” because that’s what I wanted to become and she wanted to communicate that people like me belong in higher education in the sciences.

Q: What do you hope undocumented students in particular will be able to learn from the work Científico Latino is doing?

We hope that undocumented students find the resources to start building their scientific resume as they are navigating higher education in the sciences. Our platform features information about finding summer research programs and scholarships that undocumented students are eligible for as undergraduate students, advice on how to successfully apply to graduate school in the sciences, and how to find support once you are in graduate school.

Q: Many of our readers are undocumented students who are considering applying to grad school, what advice would you like to share with them in terms of preparing their applications and searching for programs to apply to? 

A: As an undocumented student applying to graduate school, there is a lot of groundwork that has to be done on your side. In addition to making a list of graduate school programs that you are interested in applying to, you need to email the department administrators to determine if they accept undocumented students. It is important that you are transparent about your immigration status as this will determine whether the graduate school can fund you or not; as unfortunately, undocumented students are not eligible for public funding from some NIH and NSF grants. At times, the program department administrator may not know whether they accept undocumented students. In that case, I suggest contacting the department chair, director of graduate, administration from offices of affirmative action, or Deans from the graduate school to which you are applying.

Another conversation of how undocumented students are funded during their time in graduate school. There may be universities that accept undocumented students but do not guarantee funding. I suggest having a conversation with several school administrators from different schools to learn more about how undocumented students are funded. It may be the case that there is no funding mechanism and that undocumented students have to be teaching assistants every semester or apply to external private fellowships. If so, I suggest undocumented students apply to mainly private universities. Private universities often have more flexibility with their finances and sometimes have more funding available for undocumented students compared to public universities.

Q: Lastly, for graduate programs especially in science, what are 1-3 practical steps that they can take to better support undocumented students? 

A: Practical steps that graduate programs in the sciences can do to support undocumented students include: 1) Creating a list on the eligibility section of their PhD program indicated that they accept undocumented students and explain the funding opportunities for undocumented students; 2) Establish a fellowship that helps fund undocumented students during their time in graduate school; 3) Hire an administrator that is experienced with mentoring and supporting undocumented students so they can better assist these students to successfully navigate graduate school.

You can learn more about Científico Latino on their website (https://www.cientificolatino.com/), Twitter handle (https://twitter.com/cientificolatin), Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/cientificolatino/), Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/cientificolatino/), and Instagram handle (https://www.instagram.com/cientificolatino/).

ROBERT is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University in the Oliver Hobert laboratory. He went to community college in New Jersey, Union County College (UCC), where he majored in Business Administration in 2009. Robert transferred to and received a Bachelor’s of Science in Biotechnology at York College, City University of New York in 2013. In May 2020, Robert finished his PhD in Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry at Yale University in the Michael R. Koelle laboratory.


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