HHMI Student Research

Student Researches Small Organisms
with Big Implications

When Fernando Rodríguez Pérez was a boy in Mexico, he dreamed of becoming a computer scientist. For a child who could type before he could talk, this career choice seemed like a no-brainer.

The family moved to a small town on the Pacific coast of Washington when Fernando was 11. Later, when he was in high school, his mother became very ill. Fernando and his father were unhappy with the medical care she was receiving.

“Doctors weren’t really helping her,” Fernando said. “So I told my mom, ‘I am going to cure you one day,’ and that got me interested in the medical side of things.”

This promise changed Fernando’s dream from computer science to work in medical research. That dream brought him to Gonzaga University.

A Summer with Fruit Flies

Fernando came to college expecting to work mostly with TAs, based on what he’d been told in high school, but Gonzaga exceeded those expectations, he said. “My chemistry professor would hold tutoring sessions on the weekend to go over things with students. He is actually the reason I switched majors to biochemistry,” said Fernando, who’s now a senior at Gonzaga. “I discovered that I love this stuff.”

When the opportunity came to nominate students for participation in a competitive Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) research program, Fernando’s professors told him he’d be a good candidate, he said.

HHMI is a non-profit medical research organization that supports biomedical research and science education across the U.S. In 2008 and again in 2012, HHMI has awarded science education grants of $1.2 million each to Gonzaga, which has helped the University expand its science research opportunities for undergraduate students like Fernando.

After being selected as one of only 72 nationwide, Fernando found himself on a flight to Boston for a summer research program at Harvard University.

“That was an amazing summer—one of the best experiences in my scientific career and personally,” Fernando said.

Fernando’s HHMI research focused on using fruit flies to test tumor-inhibiting drugs.

“The beauty of fruit flies is that their genes can model human diseases. If we can reduce trachea growth around fruit fly tumors, the tumor growth could possibly stop. We can then translate that into a human model and may be able to starve off tumors,” Fernando said.

Research at Gonzaga

Fernando’s lab experience at Gonzaga prepared him well for his research at Harvard, he said. “Gonzaga has a very multi-disciplinary lab. We have organic synthesis going on, biothematics, microbiology, and smaller categories of chemistry and biology.”

In Dr. Jennifer Shepherd’s lab in Gonzaga’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, Fernando and other students are researching parasitic infections found in developing countries.

“There are no efficient, safe treatment options to cure parasitic infections,” Fernando explained. “Treatments are aggressive and have serious side effects, or they just don’t work. Our research focuses on solving this problem.”

The tricky thing, said Fernando, is finding a treatment that effectively eliminates the parasite without harming the human host. “That’s the goal: developing a drug that will stop the parasites from growing. But engineers, biochemists, health care professionals, and educators all need to work together to solve these problems.”

Looking Ahead

Fernando has clear goals after he graduates. “I plan on working in Spokane for a couple of years to help pay my brothers’ college expenses,” he said. Fernando has two younger brothers who also attend Gonzaga. “I want to put my degree to work and help out my family, then go to grad school and get a Ph.D. in molecular genetics or biochemistry,” he said.

When asked where he imagines himself 20 years from now, Fernando says, “I have thought about coming back to Gonzaga and teaching. I would love to give back to Gonzaga for what they have done for me. I love the mission of the University.”

Of course, many at Gonzaga would say that Fernando, in his dedication to science research that could one day save lives, has already given something back to the community: an inspiring model for living out Gonzaga’s mission through scholarship that cares for others.