Chemists in the Real World

Hector Hernandez


Hector Hernandez,
 Assistant Professor

Masdar Institute of Science and Technology
Ph.D., Chemistry/Biochemistry/Molecular Biology/Crystallography


Hector Hernandez has done it all. He was born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, son to two college professors—one in math and English, the other in history. In his early life, the family moved and traveled frequently, also living in Guatemala before moving to the United States when he was six.

“One difference between my family experience and others, such as the armed forces, was that we integrated ourselves into the community, so we were part of the everyday life where we lived,” he says. “These early experiences had a strong influence on my development and on my view of the world as a whole. I have always felt that I was a citizen of the world, not belonging to one particular place, country, or culture.

After trying his hand at horse training, car repair, and various other pursuits, Hernandez enrolled at Valencia Community College in Orlando, FL, focusing on a mechanical engineering track, when he was 29.

“An instructor there recommended that I take some chemistry courses so that I could understand scientists and design and make the equipment they needed. I then found out I not only liked chemistry but excelled at organic chemistry. I was selected to participate in an NIH Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, and this 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 at MIT.”

After switching from mechanical engineering as an undergrad to biological chemistry as a grad student, Hernandez once again changed trajectory and took a largely-unrelated postdoc in environmental engineering and microbiology, using his chemical training to understand how microbes could survive at high pressure and super critical CO2 and his mechanical engineering background to design the equipment needed to study them. That experience ushered him into his current position running a lab and teaching at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in the United Arab Emirates, where he continues to study the unique chemistry of microorganisms that survive in conditions of extreme heat, salinity, and dryness.

“It is never too late to start,” Hernandez challenges, and continues by encouraging others, “not to lock yourself into a box. I started out in mechanical engineering and ended up in biochemistry in my academic trajectory. Then when I graduated I went into environmental engineering and had to make my own equipment. That early start into mechanical engineering helped out a lot in the design and construction of my equipment.”

When not in the lab, Hernandez works with local institutions to do community outreach and promote science research in the UAE. He is an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering.

What's a typical day on the job like?

I usually get up early (5-6 am), go to work and get some coffee and read / respond to emails. Around 8 am I will go down to lab and get experiments started. I usually meet with my students or teach in the morning and then I try to spend the rest of the afternoon in lab. Sometimes I give tours to visitors and go to departmental and other meetings. I usually go home between 4 - 5 pm and then spend time with my baby girl and my wife. Usually I will try to do some reading or emails after they all go to bed.

Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?    

My iPad is indispensable. Also, my smartphone. I am an information junkie, and so I am always looking for stuff: news, science papers, architecture, design, etc. I also use a couple of news aggregators, such as Flipboard and Zite. I need music around so I always have some sort of music player nearby.

Describe your work environment.

I have my own office and it is good for when I need to read papers and have private meetings, but being in lab is what I really like. I also have a lot of fun going out and running field experiments.

Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?

I probably work more than the average person. I usually work between 12-14 hours a day. It is a mixture of fast-paced days with in-between relaxing times waiting for experiments to work. I like the fast pace though.

What's your best productivity trick?

I wish I had one. Some days I am good at it, some days I talk too much. I guess deadlines and just grinding through things is what gets it done.

I usually have lists of things to do, but they are hard to follow, and if you are not careful, they can make you feel bad about all the things that you did not do that day. But if you can realize that they are there as a reminder of things to do, and in no particular order, they do help a lot.

What's the best career advice you've received?   

Slow down and think before speaking. Making sure that you don't blurt out things, listening to others and letting them have their say will allow you to make more informed comments, and people will listen if you are not going off at the mouth all the time.

Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?

Curiosity. Needing to know. Drive. Stubbornness. But also the ability to admit when I am wrong and to take criticism.

I am always being challenged and have to think hard about not messing up and getting to the next set of experiments. It is a combination of work and high level thinking / discussions with my students, other people where I work, and a lot of my international friends.

Traveling to conferences and to work with collaborators is a lot of fun too. That is one of the nice things about academics.

I think that scientific research is perfect for me. I like the ability to ask questions and then design a way in which to get answers through the results that are obtained from your research. The best thing is to be as objective as possible and to not get into a rut and discount observations just because they do not fit an expected path.

Hector with bird

What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?

One of the best things that I have started to do is to reflect on my work, experimental design, my results, and on where the field that I am in is going. Early on I thought that just doing experiments was the way science was done. I wasted a lot of time and effort that would have been better used in other ways because I just worked and did not analyze and reflect. This is what I try to instill into my students. Understand the why, what, how of science.

What is your favorite ACS resource?

I love C&E News. It covers a wide range of chemical topics, from policy to novel results. I always get ideas and new papers to read.

Going to an ACS conference as an undergraduate was an inspiring experience to me. Later, as a graduate student it was good to present and get feedback, no matter how painful at times, on your work. The camaraderie and the friends that I have made in chemistry over the years will always provide personal and professional satisfaction and joy.

With your unique perspective, can you tell us more about how you found your position in the UAE? Do you need special language skills, a VISA, knowledge of customs? Can you give any advice to students who may be interested in working internationally?

I became aware of my current position because I am interested in green construction and saw the work that was being done at Masdar City. This led me to investigate the connection with MIT and the direction of the research being developed at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST). This led me to develop my research program and apply for a position at MIST.

When it came to apply for a position as a faculty and principal investigator, I was not afraid to look abroad for a place to start my career. There are extremely exciting places around the world that offer the opportunity to jumpstart your academic career. Recent interest from international countries in developing their educational and research capacity allow you to really get involved at the ground level and contribute to both the local development of academic curricula and research initiatives while nurturing strong international collaborative efforts.

One way to get involved in these international endeavors is to talk to graduate students or postdoctoral researchers that you interact with during your graduate career. Another way to get information is starting to try to develop international collaborations, both scientific and social, while in graduate school. This can be as simple as looking up the pedigree of a speaker you are impressed with that you meet at your institution. Attending international ACS conferences is another way to really explore possible international opportunities.

One thing that is crucial for anyone who is planning to move abroad is that you are a guest in their country and that there has been a history of development of social interactions. While these countries are looking for strong researchers to develop their academic and research programs, you need to be aware of the environment into which you are dropping. That does not mean that you should lower your standards or expectations, but that you should be aware of how to proceed and get results in your new surroundings by being aware and sensitive to local social environments.

I think that scientific research is perfect for me. I like the ability to ask questions and then design a way in which to get answers through the results that are obtained from your research"