Biochemistry major earns competitive Goldwater Scholarship

Micah Fernando pictured in front of his research poster
Micah Fernando is pictured in front of his research presentation during a past Student Scholars Day. Fernando received a Goldwater Scholarship.
Image credit - University Communications

Micah Fernando, a junior majoring in biochemistry, earned a competitive Goldwater Scholarship, a national award that supports undergraduates who want to pursue research careers in STEM fields.

Fernando has spent the past two years working in the labs of chemistry professors Brad Wallar and Rachel Powers, assisting with their project on bacterial resistance to antibiotics by studying beta-lactamase enzymes. The long-term project is funded by the National Institutes of Health and is a collaborative study with Case Reserve University and the University of Modena in Italy.

Fernando was still a student at Grand River Preparatory High School, a charter school authorized by Grand Valley, when he first sent an email to Wallar, expressing interest in joining Wallar's lab. Wallar said he met with Fernando, mostly because his sister had been one of his students.

"At our lab meeting, Micah was enthusiastic, motivated, and asked fantastic questions," Wallar said.

The questions and impeccable research have not stopped. 

Fernando will spend the summer as a research intern for the Mayo Clinic at its Jacksonville, Florida, campus. In the fall, he will travel to Germany for another research internship through the Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE) program.

Fernando, who also received Grand Valley's Ott-Stiner Fellowship in Chemistry, recalled shadowing students in Wallar's lab during his first year at Grand Valley. "There was a steep learning curve but I caught on quickly," he said. 

A fellow student, Erin Fish, encouraged Fernando to apply for a Goldwater Scholarship. Fish, now in the MD/PhD program at the University of Colorado, earned the award in 2019 and was also mentored by Wallar. Goldwater scholars receive a $7,500 stipend and access to mentoring and networking opportunities.

"I learned from Erin in the lab and she sort of passed the baton to me," said Fernando, also a member of the Laker track and field team.

Wallar said Fernando, who would like to pursue a career in research involving drug design and discovery, is well on his way to enrolling in a top graduate school and his research contributions have helped advance the team's goals, even during a pandemic. And it's the current pandemic that makes this research even more accessible to the larger community, Wallar said.

"We specifically study and develop inhibitors of the most current variants of beta-lactamases that contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Due to COVID-19 and its emerging variants, people can see how slight mutations of proteins and enzymes can provide a competitive advantage to the virus or bacteria," Wallar said. 

Fernando has presented at the Midwest Enzyme Chemistry Conference and multiple times during Student Scholars Day and other Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship programs. He said OURS and the Chemistry Department have provided a launchpad for his career in research.

"I have been given more and more responsibility in the lab and have been trained as a researcher very well. Professor Wallar always says he wants to train us to be better scientists than he is," Fernando said. "I am very grateful to everyone who has mentored me along the way."


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