By MJ Paulines and Olivia Rissland
Cody Hernandez’s passion is embedded in his name: HeRNAndez. A graduate student at the University of Chicago in the lab of Professor Jonathan Staley and a HHMI Gilliam Fellow, he is interested the function of Prp22 in 3’ss fidelity during pre-mRNA splicing. Mr. Hernandez chose the lab after seeing Prof. Staley give a talk “on dynamics of spliceosomal particles using single-molecule approaches—the idea was mind-blowing to me.” Before starting graduate school, Mr. Hernandez graduated cum laude from the Honors College at Texas State University with a minor in applied mathematics. During that time, he was awarded an NSF-REU scholarship to work with Dr. Matthew Welch at University of California Berkeley, and he also worked as a research assistant with Dr. Corina Maeder at Trinity University on tri-snRNP formation, a research experience that sparked his fascination with RNA.
The journey to graduate school has not been smooth. In college, Cody started in remedial classes, and, even after he realized that he wanted to do science, it was still difficult. “When I first tried joining a lab,” Mr. Hernandez explained, “I was fresh out of remedial classes and was laughed at and told to pick a different career choice because I wouldn’t make it in science.” Rather than being discouraged, he used that experience as motivation, and just a few years later, Dr. Maeder gave him a chance—“she took me under her wing and also paid me so that I wouldn’t have to work, go to school, and do research.” He was hooked.
“When you pay forward what people have given you, you appreciate the amount of work people put into your own career”
Because of the impact that Dr. Maeder and others have had on his career, Mr. Hernandez has been determined to do the same for scientists coming after him. He said, “When you pay forward what people have given you, it makes you appreciate the work people put into your own career.” These efforts even began his first year in graduate school when Mr. Hernandez and a friend Mat Perez-Neut revitalized the UChicago SACNAS chapter (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science). Their initial efforts have expanded into a mid-west regional SACNAS conference and a student-led, faculty supported organization at UChicago called GRIT (for Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team), which now has more than 70 UChicago graduate students as members. “GRIT is focused on recruitment and retention of racial/ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQA+ students, and students with disabilities.” He continued, “We recruit at large conferences focused on these groups, provide feedback on student applications, and conduct on-campus activities.” During his time as director, he also wrote the open letter to faculty that was signed by all of GRIT that led to the removal of the GRE as a requirement for BSDs applications. Strikingly, there has been an increase of over 25% in URM applications since its founding, and GRIT helped recruit 80% of the URM students in 2018. Moreover, because of GRIT’s success, Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Perez-Neut have begun expanding GRIT across the country, including on-site visits and faculty–student workshops.
As passionate as Mr. Hernandez is about advocacy, these efforts have not been without challenges. “I’ve had to have difficult conversations with faculty about race, sexuality, and gender. There’s not much room for error, and so I’m constantly adapting to the outcome and re-organizing my approach.” Another challenge is the perception of how advocacy impacts his research. He said, “I think that when you’re a leader for these types of initiatives, your mistakes in the lab can always be attributed to the time you devote to advocacy. That is, without a doubt, the hardest thing about being in this position. It’s a feeling that plagues the student-advocate.”
But Mr. Hernandez draws a lot of inspiration and motivation from the RNA community. In addition to his graduate advisor, Mr. Hernandez is inspired by Joan Steitz, Jean Beggs, Jennifer Doudna, and Tracy Johnson because “their attention to mechanism has always been something I’ve idolized.” He continued, “Dr. Steitz gave the first scientific talk I ever attended. It was a life-changing moment to see how you can go from asking a question to answering it. I met Dr. Johnson immediately after, and she’s the one who really amped up my confidence and made me feel that I could accomplish what I put my mind to.”
Although still a graduate student, Mr. Hernandez is steeped in RNA, and he loves that the community is extremely welcoming to new members and young graduate students (although he is already thinking of ways that it can be better). His favorite RNA memory is attending the 2018 annual meeting in Berkeley and seeing Prof. Jean Beggs receive the Lifetime Achievement award. “Getting the chance to walk through her lived experience during her award talk was probably one of the coolest things I’ve seen,” he said. “And we swapped name tags at the end of the meeting!”
You can find Cody Hernandez on Twitter as @NonCodyRNA—he was also our 2000th follower of @RNASociety. His favorite RNAs are U4 and U6 because they are “what brought me into the RNA game!” If you’re interested in speaking with Mr. Hernandez about advocacy, you can also email him at RNA@nulluchicago.edu