By Megan Hervey
Class of 2011
While some college students will be relaxing on warm, sandy beaches this summer with their minds far from school, Gonzaga University sophomore Fernando Rodriquez Perez will seize the rich opportunity to do hands-on developmental genetics research with some of the best minds in the field at Harvard University.
Gonzaga is among 48 of the nation’s best colleges sharing $60 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help usher in a new era of science education in the United States. In 2008, Gonzaga received its first-ever grant from the HHMI’s Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program for $1.2 million. The grant is transforming Gonzaga’s successful science programs, nearly tripling research opportunities for undergraduates.
Rodriguez Perez, a biochemistry major from the coastal town of Long Beach, Wash., was chosen to work in the lab of Harvard Professor and HHMI investigator Norbert Perrimon as part of HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). Gonzaga biology Professor Nancy Staub, who nominated Rodriquez for the program, said he is among only 78 students nationwide chosen to take part in the prestigious initiative.
Suffice to say, Rodriguez Perez is looking forward to summer.
“I’m super excited for this. Working with these distinguished scientists on cutting-edge research is something that I don’t get to do every summer,” said the Ilwaco High graduate. “It will provide me with experience for the future, and Boston sounds like fun.”
He will study developmental genetics in Drosophila fruit flies. The lab is using the fruit flies as a model system to research the responses of specific cells to extracellular signals. Perrimon’s lab is part of the Harvard Medical School’s genetics department.
Staub also is excited for Rodriguez Perez and the transformative impact of HHMI’s grant at Gonzaga. Rodriguez Perez is the second GU student selected for the program. Last summer, Staub had the pleasure of informing Isaac Strong, a pre-medicine student from Canby, Ore., that he would spend the summer doing research in Rockefeller University Professor Cori Bargmann’s lab in New York City. For Strong, the youngest of seven children and the first in his family to attend college, the experience was life-altering. Strong will study science in graduate school next year at the University of California, San Francisco’s Tetrad programs.
“I love our partnership with HHMI because it is taking our science programs to the next level,” Staub said. “It is thrilling to send our students off to experiences that will change their lives. It’s all part of facilitating the transformation of our students into the next generation of productive scientists. Fernando has a sharp, inquisitive mind and I look forward to hearing about all his science adventures at Harvard.”
EXROP aims to bring together HHMI’s science and education programs by offering selected undergraduates summer research experiences in the labs of HHMI investigators and professors. It has launched many students into careers in academic science.
Although Rodriguez Perez’s summer won’t be filled with sun, surf and sand, he appreciates the magnitude of the opportunity and how it will shape his biochemistry career.
HHMI is the nation’s largest private supporter of science education. It has invested more than $1.6 billion in grants to reinvigorate life science education at both research universities and liberal arts colleges and to engage the nation’s leading scientists in teaching.