Student Spotlight: Julianne Fernandez

Julianne Fernandez

Julianne Fernandez
Major: Oceanography

For as long as she can remember, Julianne Fernandez was always curious about the environment and how things worked.

“Creating anything with my hands came with ease,” she said. “During elementary school, I became fully immersed in art class. As new art projects complemented my creativity in middle school, I realized the great detail of this planet, from galaxies to the deep trenches of the ocean. Learning to apply my creativity through a camera in high school granted me the ability to capture what I saw to be extraordinary. But focusing on the physical appearance of nature left me looking for a challenge.”

Barely passing high school, Fernandez didn’t have many options for college and wasn’t sure what her future goals were. So she chose College of DuPage as it was close to home and affordable.

For a time, she was on academic probation and was forced to take the College Success Skills class, which really helped her sort out her priorities.

“Many of the COD professors I had in my math and sciences classes were very passionate about their subjects, which made me want to engage in the material,” she said. “The vast number of different subjects offered at COD allowed me to explore a huge range of them. This is how I explored and discovered my interests, from art to oceanography and environmental sciences.

“Not until I reached specific interest science courses during my last years did I become fully engaged in the subject matter. When ethnobotany took a hold of me, I gained the knowledge of different plant life, various cultural uses, and the impact a plant has on world economy. Oceanography revealed fascinating processes hidden in earth’s oceans, winds and atmosphere. Finding an interest in the sciences and gaining a reason to appreciate education is responsible for my academic success.”

Fernandez earned her Associate in Arts degree at College of DuPage and decided to pursue a bachelor’s in oceanography, as it combined her interests in math, physics and earth science. With access to the ocean limited in the Midwest, she enrolled at Humboldt State University in California.  

After her first year at HSU, she participated in a graduate preview program at the University of California in Santa Barbara, which exposed her to potential graduate studies. But she didn’t feel prepared to continue, especially after struggling to maintain a strong GPA. At HSU she received advice through academic programs like the Indian Natural Resource, Science and Engineering Program; the NSF Louis Stoke Alliance for Minority Participation program (LSAMP); and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences (SACNAS). They provided academic resources that helped her improve her study skills.

Starting her Master of Science in Geology at the University of Cincinnati, Fernandez is focusing on carbon cycling and methane emissions in Lake Erie. She embarked on her first research cruise of Lake Erie in August 2015 and currently interns at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering in Rock Island, working as a physical science technician within the hydrology and water quality section.

But in 2016, she was selected for a two-week National Science Foundation expedition for early career marine scientists to learn about research using submarines. As part of this project, she was trained using Alvin, a deep submergence vehicle (DSV) owned by the U.S. Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. The famed vehicle, first deployed in 1964, has been used for a variety of research projects and special missions, including a 1986 exploration of the Titanic wreckage.

The culmination of the expedition for Fernandez was diving approximately 1.1 kilometers (more than two-thirds of a mile) into the ocean in Alvin.

“Diving in Alvin was amazing,” she said. “It’s the size of a two-door car, with three front windows, one on the port side and one on starboard. It contains computers, oxygen tanks, cameras and other research equipment. While it was compact, it was also comfortable.”

Fernandez initially discovered the opportunity on a listserv post and thought the experience fit perfectly into her career goals. Months before the dive, she and the other scientists, who were selected from 21 different universities, were split into teams to coordinate research goals. The individual teams then were split further, with one group staying on land the first week while the second traveled to their ocean destinations and used the DSVs for research. During the second week, their roles were reversed. This scenario allowed the scientists to learn how to use Telepresence technology and communicate between the DSVs and the land-based laboratories at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, which Fernandez said is comparable to NASA’s Mission Control Center but on a smaller scale.

The scientists met Cindy Van Dover, the first female pilot of Alvin, who helped make the cruise possible and taught them how to effectively incorporate DSVs into future proposals. Fernandez and her team were researching the amount of methane in Atlantic seeps to determine whether levels are acceptable, which meant gathering water samples at many depths.

Fernandez spent her first week on land and the second on a ship. Only a certain number of scientists were chosen to dive in Alvin, and she was one of the select few, embarking on her journey on one of the last days of her cruise.

Diving with pilot Bob Waters and diving partner Robinson “Wally” Fulweiler, an associate professor in the departments of Earth and Environment and Biology as well as director of the Boston University Marine Program, Fernandez soon discovered a new world below the ocean’s surface that took her breath away.

“We began to sink slowly, and the light starts to disappear gradually as the temperature gets colder,” she said. “Once the light is gone, you see all of the organisms light up. It’s as if there are more animals in the water than water itself. The whole time we descended, the water column we were studying was glowing, like fireflies but more concentrated and fluid. It was like something out of a fairy tale.”

Fernandez has scuba-dived before but had never been in a submarine. She said the hard part was remembering the research that needed to be done.

“It was like a whole new environment, an unlimited one that goes on forever,” she said. “I saw so many creatures, such as a giant sea urchin that looked like a porcupine and crossed the arms of Alvin. It seemed like I was down there for only 20 minutes.”

Fernandez’s dive lasted four hours instead of eight to accommodate an additional dive that was missed the previous day due to bad weather. It was a successful mission, as she was able to collect water samples, rocks and sediment.

“It was really cool to see Alvin reach its arm out and push a tube into the ground to collect a sample,” she said.

After receiving her master’s, she is determined to pursue a Ph.D. in related studies and then continue on to a career in academia.

“I’m keeping all of my options open. I’d love to stay in research because it’s exciting,” she said. “But I could also work with the Corps of Engineers or for a government agency. Whatever I do, I want to show people that you can grow up in a land-locked area and go into oceanography.

Fernandez believes College of DuPage is a great place to explore interests that could then lead to achieving career goals.

“The courses are well-developed and the professors are just as good as at a four-year college,” she said. “COD’s satellite locations were also convenient when traveling between school, work and home. The dramatic remodel and development of the school has also aided in creating an inviting atmosphere for studying, so breaks between classes can be easily used to be productive. 

“The Earth Science courses have great resources and are very hands-on. When I took oceanography, I thought it was fun when I got to create sand beaches in storage bins, like the ones someone would keep under their bed, and used spatulas to observe the effects waves have on a coast. But now, I can only imagine how exciting it is to use the huge custom-made wave tank to see these same concepts.

“When I was at COD, I never thought I’d reach this point. I just followed what interested me. I was studying with Professor Strode and didn’t think that one day I would be at grad school in a STEM field. But everything I’m doing now I first learned about at College of DuPage.”

More about the Earth Sciences program