An Interview with Marcela Hernandez, PhD, Molecular Biologist and Biochemist
Image courtesy of OSU College of Arts and Sciences
Marcela Hernandez, PhD is the Graduate/STEM Diversity Director at Ohio State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. She is a molecular biologist/biochemist dedicated to making graduate education and careers in STEM fields a successful experience for a new generation of scientists. She is particularly interested in recruiting and retaining individuals from groups underrepresented in these fields. Dr. Hernandez became involved with NRMN after meeting NRMN staff at the ABRCMS and SACNAS annual conferences in 2015, and has since signed up as a mentor on NRMN’s virtual mentoring program, accessible through NRMNet. In this exclusive interview she speaks to NRMN about her pathway through science, the importance of mentorship to success, and what she has learned along the way.
Q1. Tell us a little about your career trajectory, and the impact that mentorship has had on you.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist since I was in high school. When I graduated I attended Ohio State University where I decided to major in Molecular Genetics and participated in research as an undergraduate, which solidified my decision to continue to a PhD. I got admitted to a biochemistry program and picked an advisor based on the things I was advised to seek out a tenured faculty member, well established, with plenty of funding. I found it all and joined a lab of twenty people, half of whom were postdocs. I received little to no direction from the PI, and I did not make much effort in seeking his input as I thought I was supposed to figure things out on my own.
Thankfully, one of the postdocs took me under her wing and trained me. She left at the end of my second year at the lab. Since we were a well-funded and self-sufficient lab, we were isolated and did not even interact with others on our floor, much less in the department, the university, or beyond.
When I was about to take the candidacy exam, I felt extremely unmotivated to embark on that. I started to examine the fate of the other graduate students in my lab who were ahead of me. Graduation was usually after 6 or more years with little interaction with the PI or other faculty. I decided I did not want that fate. I walked into my PI’s office and told him that I knew I would have to invest more time than I had budgeted for my PhD and I was not willing to do this, in part because I wanted to have children at a reasonable age and did not want to be a graduate student while becoming a mother for the first time. I explained that my priorities had changed and that I would prefer to get a Masters degree and become a technician. That was exactly what I did, and I was fine with this because deep inside me, I felt I was not good enough to be a PhD scientist and my love for science was questionable at best.
My second technician job was with a recently hired assistant professor who was really enthusiastic about his research and who was hungry for tenure. He hired me as a lab technician/manager and at my request agreed to allow me to publish research as long as I contributed to the project intellectually in addition to performing experiments at the bench. Then he took the time to train me. He sat down with me and explained how to plan an experiment, what controls he wanted me to include and why, and how I could maximize my time by using methods and strategies he had found helpful. After six months of that, we moved on to having deep conversations about hypotheses and possible mechanisms. We would spend hours in front of a dry-erase board drawing models and thinking about ways we could test them.
In a year I was running the lab and preparing to attend my first scientific national conference where I would present my first poster, and years later I would deliver a talk in front of 400+ scientists. After four years, my PhD advisor decided that it was not fair that I was accumulating the experience and body of work that would earn me a PhD without actually earning it. He encouraged me to speak to the director of the biochemistry program I had graduated from and ask if they would take me back without requiring me to take the coursework again. The program took me back and four years later, I graduated with my PhD and a publication list of a dozen or so papers. It turns out that not only I was good enough to be a PhD scientist, but also that I loved science and research.
I then moved on to a postdoctoral position as my dream was to become a PI in industry. Unfortunately, about a year into my postdoc, I realized I had made a mistake choosing my advisor again. My postdoc advisor was not even close to being the scientist or mentor my PhD advisor had been. I thought that if I managed to learn some new techniques and publish a couple of papers I would still be able to get an industry position in two years. The papers never came because the drafts would never leave her desk. When the two years were up, the great recession hit and for the well-being of my family I decided to stay and try to rescue my research career, but my advisor simply could not focus and thus could not help me. At this point, I realized that I would have to change advisors or get out of research. I was so fearful of not finding someone like my PhD advisor that I gave up on research and decided instead to figure out how to identify a good mentor and help others reach their dream of becoming a scientist by showing them how to navigate avoiding the traps I was a victim of. This led me to my current position.
Q2. What kinds of advice do you give to your students at the Graduate and PostDoc levels?
When I talk to students thinking about graduate school or moving on to a postdoc, I borrow my colleague Dina Meyers-Stroud’s phrase: Mentorship first, science second. I explain how critical it is to work with someone who will train you and mentor you to become an independent thinker and researcher. Without that, the chances of succeeding are very low. I use the analogy of a marriage: choosing an advisor is like choosing a spouse; if you make your choice based on how much money they have and how attractive they are, the chances of a good match are not the best. This is what happens when that choice is based only on the research topic of the lab. Compatibility is very important. However, to know what mentorship/training style is best for a student, the student needs to know what works for them. This is a two-way street. I also recommend that if things are not going well, it is good to try to fix them, but realize that nobody is going to change. In some cases, just like a marriage, a divorce is needed. Prolonging that decision does more harm than good. I also tell them: “You want a mentor who inspires you, who becomes your champion. Someone who will open doors for you, and give you the tools and the opportunities that you need to be ready for the next step in your career.”
Q3. In your own words, describe the importance of diversity to the culture of scientific research: Why does it matter, and what should emerging scientists be paying attention to with regard to diversity?
To answer this I borrowed from two pieces I wrote on the subject, one for the NPA, and another one for ASBMB: Diversity is critical to tackling the 21st century scientific challenges. Our culture has shaped the way we choose who gets to be a scientist. We have created filters that create a fairly homogenous scientific workforce that lacks “neurodiversity” and is primarily composed of intellectual “Silver Spoons”, to borrow the metaphor employed by Regina Hartley in her TED talk Why the best hire might not have the perfect resume. She makes a clear and compelling argument for why people who have faced adversity develop the grit and resilience to persist. She calls these people “Scrappers” as opposed to the “Silver Spoons who clearly had advantages and were destined for success.” As Hartley points out, “When things don’t turn out well, Scrappers ask, “What can I do differently to create a better result?” Scrappers have a sense of purpose that prevents them from giving up on themselves.” In my opinion, this is exactly the kind of people we need to help us with the current challenges in science. However, our graduate admissions committees, faculty search committees, and other gate keepers in our field still select the Silver Spoons and discriminate against the Scrapper.
As future leaders, emerging scientists need to keep these concepts in mind as they continue their journey. Not only will this position them to make an impact on the diversity of the workforce, but also to become better leaders who can identify talent and assemble a productive team without overlooking the potential and the contributions that thinkers of all types have to offer. A diverse set of minds is necessary to find better solutions, in an effective and efficient manner, and to progressively face the challenges of the 21st century. Promoting and strengthening diversity is critical to achieving this goal.