Sophie Hernandez ’22 has performed fish surgery successfully at least a hundred times. "It sounds odd to say," she laughs, when recalling her early research at Syracuse University. Initially enrolled as a biology student, Hernandez graduates this spring with a dual degree in biology and environment, sustainability and policy. At Syracuse she had the opportunity to choose an Integrated Learning Major (ILM) that has propelled her research not only in biology but also public policy, giving her the tools to become a leader in the future of Earth's climate.
With a passion for environmental biology, Hernandez was inspired by the Life Sciences Complex during a campus visit when she was in high school. It was 11 degrees outside, and it was an early morning tour, but she could clearly envision her future at Syracuse University's headquarters for the study of biology, chemistry and biochemistry. "After taking that tour, I didn't even consider going to any other university," she says.
I really enjoyed the lab research work, and I became increasingly interested in the policy connection, where we look at what the science is showing us, and then, what we can do about it.—Sophie Hernandez ’22
With grants from the Louis Stokes Minority Leadership Program, Women in Science and Engineering, and the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement, Hernandez has engaged in research since her first year. She has taken on as many projects as she can, including the study of fish at the Lewis Lab, where Professor Kate Lewis and her team use zebrafish as a model system to understand how researchers can artificially regulate genes that affect neurons to treat neural diseases, strokes, and spinal cord injuries. "We were essentially turning on and off the fishes’ genes to understand what proteins regulate specific genes,” Hernandez explains. “I really enjoyed the lab research work, and I became increasingly interested in the policy connection, where we look at what the science is showing us, and then, what we can do about it."
In Pursuit of Policy Study
With this burgeoning interest in mind, Hernandez discovered that the ILM in biology and environment, sustainability and policy was the perfect academic program to transition to in her second year. Offered through a partnership of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, the interdisciplinary major covers topics that build understanding of a rapidly changing planet Earth, preparing students to contribute solutions that advance sustainability while becoming engaged global citizens.
One of the first ILM courses Hernandez took was on the special topic of environmental racism and collective action. Taught virtually from the Syracuse Abroad Center in London, it included live presentations and regular guest speakers. "My special topics course on environmental justice was completely interactive and integrated with current issues in our world," Hernandez says.
The sea-level rise project is a great complement to my previous lab work, and I get to be involved in this niche of NASA and space policy.—Sophie Hernandez ’22
Having completed two summer internships with NASA—at Goddard Space Center in 2018 and in the Ecological Forecasting Program in 2020—Hernandez is a natural fit for her current independent study with a renowned Maxwell School researcher. There's also a sort of cosmic connection. Hernandez's favorite NASA ball cap was casually noted by her professor during class, and, from that introduction, she got involved as a research assistant for Professor W. Henry Lambright’s NASA-funded work. Lambright teaches political science and public administration and is director of the Science and Technology Policy Program of the Center for Environmental Policy and Administration at Syracuse. He has authored scores of articles and has written or edited eight books on NASA and space policy.
Hernandez is part of a research group including graduate students and teaching assistants that’s conducting a review of sea-level rise policy history within NASA and its partners. "The sea-level rise project is a great complement to my previous lab work, and I get to be involved in this niche of NASA and space policy,” Hernandez says. “It's exactly where I want to be." Hernandez says the researchers are looking at how climate policy has evolved to where it is today. And, she hopes, how it can influence the future. The effects of climate change hit home for Hernandez. Her father's family in Puerto Rico is still living with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. "I'm especially interested in environmental justice and the way climate change affects people, especially minorities," she says. "A lot of important voices are being left out."
A Talent for the U100 Tour
Hernandez was selected as a WellsLink Minority Leadership Scholar her first year and remains actively involved in mentoring minority students through the Office of Multicultural Affairs. It’s just part of an integrated learning experience that goes beyond her academic studies. Among her lab partners, club tennis teammates and fellow volunteers with the OttoTHON fundraising dance marathon, many of Hernandez's closest friendships were forged through common interests and academic goals. "I still do campus tours every week with friends I first met in the lab my first year," she says. For three years, Hernandez has been a University 100 (U100) tour guide, showcasing the Syracuse University campus to prospective students and their families.
Syracuse felt like home to me when I first visited, and it always does. This is where I am my very best.—Sophie Hernandez ’22
The U100 is a select group of student ambassadors who represent the diverse University community and share their love of all things Orange with campus visitors. "I knew from the beginning of my first year I wanted to give tours, and I've been very honored to have the position throughout my time here," she says.
Hernandez knows firsthand how important this job can be. A third-generation Syracuse student (following her parents and grandfather), it may have seemed a forgone conclusion that she would want to study at Syracuse. But it was the campus tour on that cold winter day that opened her eyes to her future at Syracuse. "Syracuse felt like home to me when I first visited, and it always does," Hernandez says. "This is where I am my very best."