Luis Fernando (Luifer) Schachner, a third year graduate student, jointly mentored by Neil Kelleher (chemistry, molecular biosciences, and medicine) and Yuan He (molecular biosciences), has been awarded a 2017 Gilliam Fellowship by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).   The award recognizes “exceptional doctoral students who have the potential to be leaders in their fields and the desire to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.” The program’s ultimate goal is to prepare a diverse and highly-trained scientific workforce that can help develop the next generation of scientists.

Luis is one of only 39 awardees across the nation and only the second graduate student at Northwestern to receive this honor.  This year, HHMI received applications from 135 students.

As a Gilliam Fellow, Luis will receive an annual award totaling $46,000, which includes a stipend, a training allowance, and an institutional allowance, for up to three years.  The award also provides a year of mentoring development activities for Luis’s advisor, Professor Kelleher, including online training and an in-person workshop at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland.  This support is provided by HHMI in recognition of the mentoring challenges that may arise when the advisor and student come from different racial and/or cultural backgrounds.

Luis came to the United States as a teenager, fleeing homophobic threats in Venezuela.  “Growing up in Venezuela, I witnessed heartbreaking inequality and turmoil,” Luis says. “At seventeen, I arrived on Yale’s campus intending to major in International Relations. All too familiar with oppression, I became an activist on campus. Participating in LGBT and Latinx advocacy groups as well as environmental campaigns solidified my passion for social activism.”

According to Luis, “The acceptance and freedom I encountered in the United States started me on a path that unexpectedly led me to science. My freshman year summer internship on environmental human rights fell through at the last minute. Scrambling to find a summer job, I landed in Professor Jack Gilron’s environmental engineering and water desalination lab. In a matter of days, I was ankle-deep in brine and sucrose solutions (literally), and found the thrill of tangible scientific discovery. I decided to pursue chemistry when I realized that science, beyond its thrilling discoveries, was also a tool with which to empower disadvantaged communities: I could bring about the social change I could not in Venezuela. “

A successful project in the Gilron lab led to additional undergraduate research experiences in Israel, Genentech and Yale.  Luis’s outstanding academic achievements led to the award of the 2011 US Presidential Award for Academic Excellence, graduation with honors from Yale, and a departmental fellowship for an exceptional chemistry applicant from Northwestern University.

As a graduate student at Northwestern, Luis has spearheaded the development of new technology that measures protein and their complexes with high fidelity for metal binding and their chemical modifications. Luis will use the approach to increase our fundamental understanding of how proteins control access to the human genome and how this goes awry in certain human cancers.  He has already published two co-authored papers.

Luis was nominated for the Gilliam award by Professor Richard Silverman (chemistry), in his role as director of the NIGMS-funded Chemistry of Life Processes (CLP) Training Program.  Luis was awarded a university fellowship by the CLP Training Program and has been active participant in the program’s student-invited seminar series, graduate research forums, career development and entrepreneurship training.

He continues to promote diversity in STEM by tutoring local minority high school students and his work with major Chicago centers for Latino culture and advancement and the LGBTQ community.