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 9 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 and smartphone are indispensable to. 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. Like any other place, you develop strong relationships, both at the personal and professions leves that make it fun and exciting to sit and discuss science, life, and other things of interest (like food and art).

I am always being challenged and have to think hard about not making careless mistakes and getting to the next set of experiments. It is a combination of work and high level thinking and discussions with my students and other researchers where I work, and a lot of time on Google hangouts and Skype with my international friends.

Traveling to conferences and working with collaborators is a lot of fun too. It allows me to spend time with other labs and look at what is happening, not just in my field of research, but other fields as well. That is one of the nice thing about working in academia.

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.

I also have a lot of fun going out to the desert to run field experiments. Being out in the desert makes me realize how little we actually know about this ecosystem. I live next to the fourth largest desert ecosystem in the world. It is humbling to go out and spend time there.

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 the lists usually contain more things to do than what can be done in one day. If you are not careful, the list can make you feel bad about all the things that you did not do that day. But if you can realize that they are on there as a reminder of things to do and are written in no particular order, keep a list does 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. 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. As hard as it is to hear, being able to hear and accept constructive criticism is one of the best ways to grow.

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 your expected results. Also, I like to talk to researchers in many other fields. Their approach to addressing problems will be different from mine and may provide valuable insight into how to address an experimental road block I am facing.

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. Because I just worked and did not take time to analyze and reflect, I wasted a lot of time and effort in grad schol that would have been better used to move my science forward. This is what I try to instill into my students -- understand the why, what, and how of the research that you are doing.

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. I have come up with some pretty cool research ideas by reading about other's progress in their individual fields of research. Also, I subscribe to a lot of the ACS journal abstracts lists. The pictures that are now available on the abstract lists are really nice because they help capture the essence of the paper being presented. I am a very visual person, and often, these images attract me to papers I would not otherwise notice.

Definitely conferences. 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 academic 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 between Masdar Institute (MI) and MIT and the direction of the research being developed at MI. I developed a research proposal and applied for a position at MI. It has been an extremely challenging, but exciting trip.

When it came to applying 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 by developing 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 scientific conferences is another way to really explore possible international opportunities.

It is crucial to remember for anyone who is planning to move abroad that you are a guest in the country to which you relocate. While these countries are looking for strong researchers to develop their academic and research programs, you need to be aware of the social environment into which you are dropping into and sensitive to their social constructs. That does not mean that you should lower your standards.

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"