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From student to scholar, mentoring makes better scientists

Dr. Javier Juarez Fernandez knew he wanted to be a molecular biologist since he was around 7 years old. He didn’t have much exposure to the field of science. His mom was an elementary school teacher and his dad worked construction.

“I didn’t know what a PhD was, and I didn’t know how to get one,” Fernandez said. But he loved science and declared a biology major in college.

During his sophomore year, Fernandez had a biochemistry professor who took the time to sit and chat with him for a couple of hours each week. The professor explained his professional path and the potential career options for a biologist. This was one of Fernandez’s first experiences benefitting from a mentor.

“It really opened my eyes and showed me there were ways to be successful that I couldn’t have even imagined,” Fernandez said.

Fast-forward to the present day—Fernandez is now a Staff Research Investigator at the Forsyth Institute and a mentor himself. He was recently selected to serve as a judge at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), a major scientific, educational and mentoring opportunity for underrepresented minority students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

As a judge at the conference, Fernandez evaluated poster presentations in the microbiology area, providing personalized feedback to students. He was impressed with the quality of the projects, some of which were completed during summer internships. One student examined a family of genes in a pathogenic bacterium, learned all the molecular biology techniques necessary to clone the genes, and performed experiments to understand how the proteins in the bacterium interact.

“That’s a range of skills that you could acquire normally in your first full year of graduate school, and this student learned them in about two or three months,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez also serves as a mentor for the Forsyth Student Scholars Summer Internship Program, which gives Massachusetts high school students the opportunity to work alongside Forsyth scientists in the lab. The program provides scholarships for students from underserved communities and seeks out students from minority backgrounds.

For Fernandez, mentoring is a major priority that allows him to pay forward the help he received as a young scientist.

“I think we’re all here because people were able to guide us and present different career opportunities,” Fernandez said. “I feel very privileged that I had good mentors throughout my career, and I wanted to reciprocate.”

It’s particularly important, Fernandez said, for minority students to have role models in science.

“Talking to students and telling them that I come from a small town in Spain and now I’m working here, that shows them there are multiple paths they can follow to have a career in science,” Fernandez said.

Mentoring can also allow scientists to look at their work in a new way. Fernandez said that serving as a mentor forced him to simplify the way he explains his research, and to plan experiments differently, so students can meet smaller goals that contribute to the larger research objective.

Mentoring has shown Fernandez that science can and should be collaborative.

“I used to see my science like a one-man operation. It’s me against the biochemistry and microbiology,” Fernandez  said. “But when you have the responsibility to spend time with a mentee, you realize you’re not an island anymore. Science takes time, it’s hard, it demands a lot of work. But your work is a tiny tile in the larger mosaic.”

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