Rice graduate student, DeBakey High grad wins Soros Fellowship

David Ruth

Jade Boyd

Rice graduate student, DeBakey High grad wins Soros Fellowship

Ismael Loera Fernandez chosen in national competition

HOUSTON — (April 20, 2015) — Rice University graduate student Ismael Loera Fernandez is one of 30 scholars awarded a 2015 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

Loera Fernandez, a first-year graduate student in chemistry, was selected by the Soros Foundation from more than 1,200 applicants in a national competition and will receive a $90,000 grant to pursue graduate studies at Rice. Fernandez is a 2009 graduate of Houston Independent School District’s (HISD) DeBakey High School for Health Professions and earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 2013 from Emory University in Atlanta.

Ismael Loera Fernandez

Ismael Loera Fernandez

Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships are awarded annually to the most accomplished and promising immigrants and children of immigrants in American graduate education. Criteria for the award focus on creativity, originality and initiative in light of the challenges and opportunities that have been part of the applicant’s immigration story.

Born in Tamaulipas, Mexico, Loera Fernandez immigrated to Houston with his family at age 11. Despite speaking very little English, he excelled in middle school at Houston Gateway Academy and decided to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor at DeBakey, a highly competitive health-focused magnet school in Houston’s Texas Medical Center (TMC). He also excelled at DeBakey, which offers a unique program that allows juniors and seniors to spend several hours each day working side by side with medical professionals at TMC hospitals.

“It’s kind of like pre-pre-med,” he said. “I got to see surgery for the first time when I was a junior.”

At the time, Loera Fernandez didn’t know how he could afford or even attend college, but he learned that he was eligible for the QuestBridge National Scholarship program, which gives need-based aid to low-income students. The program allowed him to attend Emory — a school he had heard of but never visited.

He still intended to pursue a medical career, but his favorite class at DeBakey had been Advanced Placement chemistry, which was taught by award-winning HISD teacher Barbara Williams.

“That was the first time that I found something that I really liked and that I was really good at,” Loera Fernandez recalled. “So when I got to Emory, the first thing that I did after the deadline to declare majors was open, was declare a major in chemistry. I just knew that I wanted to do it, and I never had a regret about it.”

His interest in medicine waned and was replaced by a passion for higher education and volunteerism. Loera Fernandez became heavily involved in campus life at Emory. As president of the Latino Student Organization, he worked to expand Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations and develop fundraisers for Caminar Latino, a shelter for battered immigrant women and children. He also served on the planning committee for the Latin American Association’s Youth Leadership Conference, which brought about 1,200 middle and high school students to Emory to learn about higher-education opportunities.

He was inducted into the Emory Hall of Fame and graduated Phi Beta Kappa with degrees in both chemistry and economics. In his honors thesis, Loera Fernandez developed a model course to change the way chemistry is taught at the undergraduate level to have a more holistic approach to the subject, for which he was awarded magna cum laude.

Returning to Houston was an easy decision, partly because the graduate program in Rice’s Department of Chemistry seemed like a perfect fit and partly because it afforded him an opportunity to both live on his own and also be close to his family. But Loera Fernandez deferred graduate school for one year to work as a residence hall director in Emory’s Residence Life and Housing Office.

“When I was a student, I was getting the student perspective, but being a staff member makes you see what’s going on behind the scenes,” he said. “There are things students never see, like rules that are there for a good reason and rules that don’t necessarily make sense. It was like seeing the other side of the coin, and I’m glad I took that year off because in the long run I think that experience will help me with how I interact with my students if I become a professor.”

At Rice, Loera Fernandez works in the lab of Ken Whitmire and is studying the synthesis of bismuth carboxylate complexes — the same kind of molecules as bismuth subsalicylate, the active ingredient in over-the-counter sour-stomach remedies like Pepto-Bismol. The exact structure and mechanism of bismuth subsalicylate is unknown, and Fernandez is interested in synthesizing new organic compounds with similar ratios of elements.

“Bismuth has a very low toxicity level when you compare it with other things, and it is possible that new bismuth-based compounds could have potential medicinal properties,” he said. “In addition, if we can synthesize new compounds and study their structure, and then show that they have an identical ratio of component elements to bismuth subsalicylate, that may allow us to learn something valuable about its structure as well.”

Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships are funded by Paul and Daisy Soros, Hungarian immigrants and American philanthropists who wanted to give back to the country that had afforded them and their children such great opportunities and to call attention to the extensive and diverse contributions of New Americans to the quality of life in the U.S.


High-resolution IMAGES are available for download at:

CAPTION: Ismael Loera Fernandez
CREDIT: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

CAPTION: Ismael Loera Fernandez
CREDIT: Paul & Daisy Soros Foundation

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About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.