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.