Laterality has intrigued Fall 2021 PhD grad throughout her academic career

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Fall 2021 PhD graduate Vânia Filipa Lima Fernandes traveled nearly 8,000 miles from Barcelos, a small town in the north of Portugal, to Honolulu, Hawaiʻi just to pursue her PhD.

“I always knew that I would like to pursue a PhD in developmental and evolutionary biology and the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) was the only department/institution at the University of Hawaiʻi that offered the most fitting program, in developmental and reproductive biology,” said Fernandes.

Her current research focuses on the evolutionary origin of laterality, the development of specialized functioning in each hemisphere of the brain or in the side of the body which each controls. A classic example of this is handedness, or the tendency for humans to use either the right or left hand more naturally than the other. Her project addresses the asymmetrical use of the sensory system towards foraging behavior in Astyanax mexicanus, a blindfish species from Mexico.

“We were able to employ a new analysis method that allowed us to address a more complex layer to this foraging behavior, which I hope will promote further research not only in the laterality field but also within the cavefish community,” said Fernandes.

She says she unintentionally ended up working on several different projects throughout both her undergraduate and graduate studies that addressed laterality in different animal systems.

“Laterality is widely distributed across animals in many different forms, with such distinct roles and advantages– this immediately captured my interest,” said Fernandes.

Her research has allowed her to travel around the world, to unexpected places and to connect with other scientists from different cultural backgrounds. Outside of academia, she enjoys reading all sorts of books from Japanese manga to poetry. She also likes dancing and eating, particularly with family and friends.

In 2011, Fernandes received her Bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of Minhoand her Master’s Degree from the University of Lisbon in Portugal in 2013. Fernandes will receive her PhD in the JABSOM Department of Developmental and Reproductive Biology in Fall 2021.

“JABSOM is a well-known institution with national and international visibility, but it never lost the sense of community and close contact with its students. I truly enjoyed the support I received over the last few years,” said Fernandes.

After graduation she plans to take a break for 1-2 months to recharge and hope to be involved in scientific research but in an industrial setting rather than academia.

She also shared some advice for fellow graduate students: Value your time. Work hard but never let work overcome your personal life.