Outstanding Mount Sinai Doctoral Student Receives a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellowship to Support Diversity and Inclusion in Science
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded a Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study to Michael B. Fernando, a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and The Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded a Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study to Michael B. Fernando, a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Program at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and The Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This prestigious fellowship provides awards to pairs of dissertation advisers and their graduate students based on criteria that include the institution’s and adviser’s commitment to creating a healthy academic ecosystem and the student’s potential for scientific leadership.
The Gilliam Fellowship was created to ensure that students from groups historically excluded from or underrepresented in science are prepared to assume leadership roles in research and science education, and to foster healthier and more inclusive academic environments by partnering with faculty and institutions committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in the sciences.
Mr. Fernando’s thesis advisors are Paul Slesinger, PhD, Lillian and Henry M. Stratton Professor of Neuroscience, and Kristen Brennand, PhD, Adjunct Professor of Neuroscience, and Genetics and Genomic Sciences, who is also a Professor of Psychiatry at Yale University.
“We are delighted at HHMI’s recognition of Mr. Fernando’s talent and potential to become a leading scientist and also, at their recognition of the commitment his outstanding co-advisors have to creating inclusive and inspiring scientific environments for young scientists,” says Eric J. Nestler, MD, PhD, Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience, Director of The Friedman Brain Institute, and Dean for Academic and Scientific Affairs for Icahn Mount Sinai, who nominated Mr. Fernando and his co-mentors. “This fellowship reflects Mount Sinai’s commitment to creating an equitable, diverse, and inclusive research enterprise that empowers all members of our community to drive scientific discovery.”
Mr, Fernando's research integrates neuroscience, genetics, and stem cell biology to study the functional impact of deletions in the neurexin-1 gene. Deletions in this gene have been reported to be strongly associated with several neuropsychiatric syndromes including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism. The highly complex nature of this gene arises from its ability to produce hundreds of variants that have been reported to be unique to brain regions and cell types, and is hypothesized to be fundamental to neurotransmission and neuro-circuitry. Combining the expertise of both the Slesinger and Brennand labs, Michael generates neurons derived from stem cells from patients affected by unique deletions in neurexin-1, comparing their molecular and electrophysiological states to neurons of healthy individuals. Ultimately, his work aims to shed insights on the biology of neurexin variants and how different deletions in neurexin-1 contributes to aberrant circuitry.
In addition to his work as a thoughtful and diligent scientist, Mr. Fernando has a strong interest in learning to mentor trainees, to effectively communicate science, and to lead outreach efforts targeting historically underrepresented minorities. Outside the lab, he serves as co-President of Mentoring in Neuroscience Discovery at Sinai (MiNDS), a student-led initiative that strives to make neuroscience education more engaging and accessible. This group empowers and inspires young students by extending resources to local East Harlem schools and community centers. As one of the leaders of MiNDS, he co-organized Icahn Mount Sinai’s annual Brain Fair, led teaching at an East Harlem public school, and is currently planning to host students from underrepresented communities for tours and mentoring by several Mount Sinai lab staff members. He also attends The Friedman Brain Institute quarterly leadership meetings, where he represents the voice of the student body. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Mr. Fernando co-led a group of trainees who self-organized into a volunteer workforce for COVID-19 testing and other essential tasks in the hospital.
“Michael embodies everything one could expect in a promising young scientist. He is exceptionally talented and extremely motivated to ambitiously tackle the biggest problems in brain disease, exuding that excitement that we all recognize in individuals that will make a difference,” says Dr. Slesinger. “We are grateful to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for the support they are providing to support us in helping him realize his goals.”
Mr. Fernando strategically chose two co-advisors with unique mentoring styles to guide him. Dr. Slesinger, an expert in neurophysiology and protein biology, and Dr. Brennand, an expert in applying stem cells to model complex neurogenetic disorders, have a long history of collaboration together and are invested in his development. Working closely with his advisors and other faculty members to develop key skills, Mr. Fernando has contributed to several publications and helped peer-review manuscripts at various journals. He has presented his work at a number of conferences, and participated in selective workshops to increase his expertise, such as the Human Brain Organogenesis Workshop at Stanford University, for which he was interviewed by Nature Methods.
“I have been fortunate to have worked with many incredibly talented graduate students at Icahn Mount Sinai over the years,” said Dr. Brennand. “Through my experience mentoring Michael, he has actually taught me so much about motivation and perseverance. It has been a true pleasure watching Michael grow into the scientist he is and I’m looking forward to seeing what he will do next, since he is destined to be a true superstar and leading academic scientist.”
“I am so grateful for this opportunity, and to be joining such a welcoming and diverse community at the HHMI. I cannot thank my advisors enough for all they have done to support me, both professionally and personally, since I began my graduate training. Their mentorship is remarkable and I truly feel I've won the jackpot in choosing my thesis labs," said Mr. Fernando.
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