Bioinformatics graduate student awarded HHMI Gilliam Fellowship
By Deborah Wormser
Bioinformatics graduate student Andres Nevarez – who is working on a project that uses advanced computer vision to detect the spread of skin cancer – says his parents fostered his interest in science from an early age.
Mr. Nevarez, one of only 34 people selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for a 2016 Gilliam Fellowship in Advanced Study, says his parents’ encouragement began with regular trips to the library in Fresno, California, and continued through providing the tools and support he needed to compete in middle and high school science fairs.
“In college, they helped me buy a car and pay for books, the rest was funded by loans and a part-time technician job in a molecular biology lab. I am naturally curious and my parents helped me realize what it is I want to do,” he said. The Gilliam Fellowship provides full support to doctoral students for up to three years.
Mr. Nevarez’s fellowship project could someday aid in the treatment of skin cancer patients, he said.
“Using simple and accessible experiments, we are developing a workflow that can be used in the clinic to determine a patient's potential for metastasis (cancer spread). Our work will enable clinicians to treat patients strategically, at a resolution that has never been done before,” he said of the advanced imaging techniques used in his strategy.
“The Gilliam Fellows are outstanding young scientists who have expressed a clear commitment to advancing diversity among scientists. Their potential for scientific leadership is enormous, and the program emphasizes the professional development of the students and their thesis advisers,” the HHMI said in announcing the 34 scholars from across the country named to the newest class of Gilliam Fellows.
Mr. Nevarez credits his scientific career to his mother’s influence.
“She noticed my interest with the world and did not let the flame go out. We would walk to the library and check out books on insects. When I was younger I wanted to become an entomologist. Both my parents did everything they could to foster my interest in science. In middle and high school, we had science and math fairs at the local university. My parents made sure I had a computer, internet, books – anything I needed to enable my success,” he said.
Dr. Gaudenz Danuser, Chair of the Lyda Hill Department of Bioinformatics as well as a Professor of Cell Biology, said, “Andres stands out as someone who incessantly wants to do things he knows very little about. This trait of genuinely curious studentship has become all too rare in an era in which much of science has become about calculating rapid success. I applaud my colleagues for nominating Andres and the HHMI reviewers for picking a candidate who leans out of the window.”
A graduate of California State University, Fresno, Mr. Nevarez explained that he decided to come to UT Southwestern because the University encourages curiosity.
“I chose UT Southwestern because of the open, collaborative mindset of the research community. I love the forward thinking atmosphere. The faculty are not afraid of taking risks on new, harebrained ideas,” he explained.
He stressed that UT Southwestern’s unique culture makes such high-risk, high-reward projects possible.
“Everybody is invested in one another and there is a community working to help you along the way. While it is very rigorous, you are well prepared throughout it all. And above all, (you experience) close collaboration,” Mr. Nevarez said.
Dr. Danuser, a CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research, holds the Patrick E. Haggerty Distinguished Chair in Basic Biomedical Science.