October 2011

Research spotlight

Navigating the unexpected:
an interview with Hector Hernandez


Hispanic_Heritage_Hernandez_HectorTell us about your current career position.  

I am an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. Research at MIST focuses on developing technologies that will provide real-world solutions on sustainability and clean energy. 

My laboratory focuses on studying the role soil microbes play in the global cycling of carbon dioxide (CO2). Soils store a significant pool of CO2. Understanding (1) which specific microbial communities, (2) what metabolic pathways are involved, and (3) how these communities respond over spatial and temporal scales are crucial for the development of management strategies and technologies aimed at the capture and long-term storage of CO2

Prior to coming to Masdar, I worked as a postdoctoral associate in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I led a team of graduate and undergraduate students in the characterization of microbial communities isolated from a carbon sequestration injection site. 

I started my education at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla. I received my bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of South Florida and my Ph.D. in chemistry from the MIT. During my graduate work, I studied redox regulation pathways in microbes living in extreme environments. 

What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?  

I returned to school at age 29. This was the single most important decision I have made. When I started at Valencia Community College, I did not know how it would all end, but I knew the importance of obtaining a degree to better my life and myself. I decided from the beginning I would explore as many opportunities available to me and approach my education with an open mind. 

For example, I started out focusing on a mechanical engineering track. I then found out I not only liked chemistry but excelled at organic chemistry. The (National Institutes of Health) Bridges to the Baccalaureate program exposed me to biochemistry and undergraduate laboratory research. This led me to a position as an undergraduate researcher at the University of South Florida. I found my passion for science and research and pursued graduate school. While presenting my work at the 1999 ASBMB Conference in the Undergraduate Poster Competition, I met professor Cathy Drennan. Two extraordinary events happened during the poster competition: My poster was selected as session winner and professor Drennan recruited me to MIT.  

Looking back, I am a long way from mechanical engineering, but those skills help me in my research, as I have to design and build most of my experimental setups. 

How did you first become interested in science?  

I remember growing up and visiting Kennedy Space Center with my family. Between those visits and watching Jacques Cousteau on television, I knew that liked science, but, growing up, there was little opportunity to explore science. It was not until I returned to school that I revisited science as an interest. I remember two eureka moments that hooked me into science. The first one happened while taking my first organic chemistry class. I realized that molecules have three dimensions and that you can take advantage of these molecular structures to guide and design chemical reactions. The second one was when I ran my first PCR reaction. I had three water baths and a hand timer. I was holding my breath when I ran the DNA gel. The elation I felt when I saw the positive DNA band under the UV light changed my career path forever. 

Were there times when you failed at something you felt was critical to your path?  If so, how did you regroup and get back on track?  

Before I returned to school at the age of 29, I faced a number of failures: I dropped out of school at an early age; I had a failed marriage, and several unsuccessful business ventures. There were many times early on when I wanted to quit and do something else. The support from mother and sister helped me stay on course and finish my undergraduate degree. I cannot express enough how important my family, friends and mentors have been to me. I could not have reached my goals had it not been for their support and belief in my capabilities as a person and as a scientist.  

In failure are lessons -- hard lessons, but important lessons. Each failure forced me to examine my choices that led to the failures. This type of introspective thinking allowed me to learn and grow from each experience. It taught me not to be afraid to take chances. It also taught me to study and prepare myself as best as possible for decision that I made in life. 

What advice would you give to young persons from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?  

That is a hard question. We each have our own starting point that differs from everyone else. One thing I have to say is to be very picky and smart with whom you choose as mentors. Make sure that science is a passion for you. Doing science is really hard and sometimes a very lonesome endeavor. Don’t let what others say or do get to you. And when it does, get over it. Fast. Find out what works for you and make sure you stay the course.  

What are your hobbies?  

I love all things about food. Making pasta, cheese or bread. Doing things with my wife in the kitchen is fun and rewarding. The best is that you get to eat the results, most of the time. I also like building things. I like miniature models of any sort. There is a challenge when you build something at that scale to make it look realistic. This means that you have to think about translating textures and visual cues to work at a different scale. 

What was the last book you read?  

I usually am reading between five and seven books at a time. You can blame that on a short attention span. Some of last books I read were (1) "Holding the Center" by Howard Wesley Johnson, (2) "Kitchen Confidential" by Anthony Bourdain and (3) "The City in Mind" by James Howard Kunsler. 

Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?  

I have several individuals that I have looked up to over the years. The microbiologist Luis Pasteur and the chemist Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz were early inspirations to me. The way they looked at life and at science resonated with my personality. 

At MIT, I met some incredible people that were both heroes and role models to me. Professors Dan Kemp, Catherine Drennan and John Essigmann had a strong influence on me regarding what it means to be a scientist and to stand for what you believe is right.  

My friend, and now MIT professor Amos Winter, has been an incredible role model. Amos has used his mechanical and engineering skills to bring relief and mobility to injured and handicapped people in Africa and India. Another strong influence is my friend Alia Whitney-Johnson. As an undergraduate student at MIT, she took it upon herself to help women in Sri Lanka who survived abuse and sexual violence and started Emerge Global.  

These are just some of the individuals who I consider role models and have influenced me in my scientific and humanitarian endeavors. They have shown me through their lives how scientists can have an immediate effect on global humanity. 

What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?  

I want to understand how things work, both in my research or in general life and recognize the underlying processes that are used to construct and maintain a system. This thirst for information is what gets me going and keeps me excited about both my research and life around me.  

To contact Hernandez, email hectorh@mit.edu.  

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