Meet MS-PSD student, Fernando Bañales Mejia

April 27, 2021

Fernando Bañales Mejia was born and raised in Riverside, California. After graduating from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, in 2017, he was a chemistry and microbiology lab technician for a Quality Control lab at Herbalife for a year. There he was exposed to the rigorous and extensive chemical and biological processes that in-process materials and finished products undergo to ensure material goods meet quality specifications.

He attended the University of Chicago for two years as a PSD Pathway scholar in the Master of Science in the Physical Sciences Division (MSPSD) program. He completed the program in 2020, during the pandemic. We interviewed Fernando about his experiences below.

Fernando Bañales Mejia

Why did you choose the University of Chicago?

I chose UChicago since the MSPSD program would deepen my knowledge in chemistry and biology “through vigorous intense inquiry” while working alongside distinguished professors, along with the aid of the Pathway Scholarship. Additionally, before coming to UChicago, I had previously attended the 2017 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) conference at McCormick Place and became excited about Chicago. 

What is something you are proud of accomplishing here?

I am proud of the knowledge and research skills I gained while working in the lab of Dr. Bryan Dickinson. I worked alongside post-doctoral and graduate researchers to develop small molecule inhibitors of the post-translational modification, S-palmitoylation. Additionally, I optimized a robust split esterase reporter that unmasks small molecules in protein-protein interaction (PPI)-dependent manner. The versatility of small molecules enables PPI-dependent unmasking of imaging agents to generate fluorescent and chemiluminescent outputs, as well as PPI-dependent cell death via controlled unmasking of a cytotoxic compound. 

What’s something you love to do outside of the classroom and lab?

I enjoy reading, running, weightlifting, and music. While in Chicago, I enjoyed exploring the “windy city.” I especially loved going to coffee shops and bookstores. I would highly recommend Unabridged Bookstore and Colectivo Coffee, both near Lincoln Park. 

What are your plans post-graduation?

I am pursuing a Ph.D. in Biological Physics, Structure, and Design at the University of Washington in Seattle. In my first quarter, I rotated in Dr. Dustin Maly’s lab in chemistry. The following quarter, I rotated in Dr. David Shechner’s lab in pharmacology. Currently, I am rotating in Dr. Steven Hahn’s lab at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. 

What support have you received at UChicago that was particularly valuable to you?

From the start of my program, I was put in contact with people and resources that have been helpful throughout my journey at UChicago. Some of these people, whom I am incredibly grateful for, include Dr. Vera Dragisich, Dr. Emily Easton, and Dr. John Anderson in chemistry. It is important for students to find people and resources to help them strive.

If you were speaking to someone who wants to learn about UChicago, what would you tell them?

I would tell them not to hesitate to reach out to faculty or departments they are interested in. I would also inform them about the university's resources, such as UChicagoGRAD to help with any admissions-related questions.

How has your background or experience prepared you to contribute to an environment where diversity and inclusion are valued?

As a first-generation Mexican-American, I initially struggled adjusting to and finding community at UChicago. While much work needs to be done in terms of diversity and inclusion, graduate students in BSD and PSD are working towards this through the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT). By getting out of my comfort zone and immersing myself in GRIT, I found community. Through GRIT, I had the opportunity to attend a national diversity conference hosted by the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). As a LatinX, attending the SACNAS conference was an empowering opportunity to meet other LatinX students and have meaningful conversations about our experiences in navigating the sciences. Outside of UChicago, my unique background allowed me to help as a Spanish interpreter for doctors and patients at the Community Health clinic in West Town, which provides free medical services for a low-income community. By serving as an essential interpreter for underserved patients getting examined and treated, I gave back to my community by helping individuals overcome language barriers. 

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