When Isabela Fernandez ’22 was a child, she loved to bake. The idea that individual ingredients could be combined, in a particular order and under specific conditions, to create something entirely new fascinated her. Fernandez spent hours in her family’s kitchen experimenting with various recipes. But she didn’t yet realize that what she viewed as a hobby was actually her first foray into chemistry, that the texture, taste and presentation of the desserts she made were dependent upon the ingredients she used and how they reacted with one another.
“It wasn’t until my junior year honors chemistry class that I made the connection between baking and chemistry,” she said. “The ingredients are our reagents. The utensils and appliances are our equipment. We’re even given a ‘theoretical yield.’ On top of all that, recipes, like experiments, must be followed step-by-step or the product won’t come out correctly.”
Today Fernandez has deftly made the transition from amateur baker to burgeoning researcher. The Cicero, N.Y., native is currently studying curcuminoids – which are found in turmeric and have been shown to possess a variety of anti-cancer properties – in the lab of Associate Professor of Chemistry Joseph Mullins, Ph.D. Not only is the work personally meaningful to Fernandez, but it has also reaffirmed her belief in chemistry’s capacity to unlock answers to the questions that matter most to her. And the more time she spends in the lab, reading through literature and refining her technique, the more determined Fernandez is to continue this work. She hopes to become a chemistry professor herself one day, so that she too can inspire students to appreciate the discipline’s “beauty and constant presence in our everyday lives.”
That is music to Mullins’ ears. Nurturing and supporting the work of a small number of undergraduate researchers, to whom he can devote time and attention, is along the most rewarding aspects of his professional life. He enjoys getting to know these young men and women as individuals, and watching them become more curious, meticulous, patient and independent-minded scientists.
“As a faculty mentor, you really come to appreciate your students for the people they are, and for the contributions they make to the College and to the study of chemistry overall,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to witness their growth and success, and to know the College has played a role in that success; that includes everyone from their professors in the Core curriculum to their professors in the physical sciences. We all help to ensure that our students graduate as truly well-rounded individuals.”
None of the work Fernandez is doing would have been possible without the support of the Clare Boothe Luce Research Program at Le Moyne. Named for playwright, journalist, U.S. ambassador to Italy and first woman elected to Congress from Connecticut, the program encourages women like Fernandez to pursue vocations in science, mathematics and engineering by providing them with research, networking and professional development opportunities. The Clare Boothe Luce Program has become one of the single largest sources of private funding for women’s STEM higher education in the United States. As of 2020, the program has supported more than 2,800 women in STEM through a total of 807 grants to 200 different institutions, including 64 minority-serving institutions.
The program is critical component of the College’s overall goal of encouraging more women to enter the STEM fields. The federal government estimates that women make up 48 percent of all workers, but just 27 percent of those working in STEM. This disparity is concerning. Studies have long shown that diverse teams arrive at better decisions than homogeneous ones. They tend to focus more on facts, to process those facts more carefully, and to be more creative in their thinking.
“I am very proud of Le Moyne for having received one of these Claire Booth Luce grants,” Mullins said. “They are to encourage women to enter, study, graduate and teach in science, mathematics and engineering, and I see it fulfilling that purpose at Le Moyne.”
Isabela Fernandez '22 is one of two students currently enrolled in the Clare Boothe Luce Research Program at Le Moyne. The other is Eva Keohane ’21, a chemistry major working in the lab of Associate Professor Chemistry Anna O’Brien, Ph.D. Since it was launched at Le Moyne in 2019, three Le Moyne students have received CBL Research Scholar Awards; all three are either pursuing a doctorate currently or planning to after graduating. College officials expect to name four additional CBL Research Scholars next year and 19 Scholars in all.