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Felix Fernandez-Penny Stays True to His Roots

Felix Fernandez-PennyEach June, eager new interns arrive at BTI, ready to immerse themselves in lab work for 10 short weeks, only to resume student life again in August.

But some interns, like Cornell University first-year student Felix Fernandez-Penny, enjoy their time at BTI so much that they keep showing up at the laboratory, long after the summer ends.

“I fell in love,” said Fernandez-Penny. “I loved it so much that I inquired about staying on longer.”

Fernandez-Penny began working in the laboratory of Professor Georg Jander in 2013, the summer after his junior year at Ithaca High School. Fernandez-Penny had applied unsuccessfully the previous year, but Jander reached out and asked him to consider working with him as a Plant Genome Research Program intern. He spent that summer studying toxic maize compounds called benzoxazinoids that plants make to fend off feeding insects.

Even after the program ended, Fenandez-Penny continued working throughout his senior year of high school, squeezing in lab work after school and on weekends. The next summer he received a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates fellowship through BTI to support his research. He started work on a project using milkweed plants to understand the genetics underlying the production of cardiac glycosides—potentially poisonous compounds that traditionally have been used to treat heart problems. He pursued this project throughout his first year of college as well.

Plant science is Fernandez-Penny’s chosen major, with a concentration in plant genetics and breeding, though he is also interested in its applications, such as sustainable agriculture and food security issues in developing countries. He admits that his dorm room has more plants than floor space and he is a member of the Hortus Forum, Cornell’s plant club.

“I had always really liked science and I had a fantastic biology professor in high school,” he said.

But Fernandez Penny wasn’t always so devoted to the idea of life as a plant scientist. At Ithaca High School he was very involved with the theater scene and considered a life on stage. He grew up with artistically-minded parents: his mother is a professor of art history at Cornell, teaching digital art and technology and his father is a professor of studio art at the University of California at Irvine, specializing in robotics. Having grown up with professor parents, Fernandez-Penny initially wanted to strike out on his own, away from the academic lifestyle.

“I was very involved in performing arts and theater, but science just kind of took my heart,” he said.

Felix Fernandez-Penny

His experience at BTI, however, has made academia an appealing path. He credits the Jander laboratory members and Director of Education and Outreach Tiffany Fleming for creating a welcoming and enriching environment. Research assistant Kevin Ahern taught him all of the basic laboratory techniques and “all these things that you just need to survive” and postdoctoral researchers Vered Tzin and Tengfang Huang, who has since left the laboratory, mentored him on his projects.

The hours spent at the bench, after school and between classes, is paying off. He received a MaGNET award to attend the Maize Genetics Conference in Chicago in March, where he had lunch with plant geneticist Susan Wessler of the University of California at Riverside and presented a poster on his work. Then in April, he attended the American Society of Plant Biologists Northeast Section 2015 Meeting at Northeastern University in Boston and received encouraging feedback on his poster.

This summer, he’ll continue his work in the Jander laboratory.

“I probably would have found my way to plants and plant science without BTI, but it may have been through a completely different path,” said Fernandez-Penny. “Having the exposure to fundamental research through the internship and doing lab work just convinced me that this is what I want to do. This is what I really enjoy.”

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