Hispanic Heritage Month Spotlight: Dr. Patricia Hernandez

Dr. Hernandez
October 14, 2016

Hispanic Heritage Month Feature: Dr. Patricia Hernandez

In honor of Hispanic Heritage month, the Department of Biological Sciences is honored to spotlight the contributions of Dr. Patricia Hernandez at The George Washington University. Dr. Hernandez is an Associate Professor of Biology and specializes in the functional morphology and anatomy of vertebrates. Her research and inspirational story is an invaluable part of our university. Thank you, Dr. Hernandez!


Q: What led you to your career path? 

A: As a child I wanted to be a medical doctor. But in my sophomore year I had the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant for a freshman biology course. I absolutely fell in love with teaching. I had never conceived of a career in teaching and quite frankly I had no idea that one could even be a researcher as a career. But from my sophomore year on I started charting my course for a career as a professor.


Q:  Was there someone in your life who inspired you to become interested in biology? 

A: Not really. For some reason I was always very interested in biology and anatomy. I would volunteer to dissect other students’ frogs in junior high school biology. I also remember that as a tween I begged my mother for a microscope. She finally relented. I would happily run down to the channel behind our house to collect water samples to investigate under my new microscope.


Q:  What is an accomplishment that you are most proud of? 

A: I am probably most proud of my PhD from Harvard. When I was growing up it was completely within the realm of the patently impossible for me to even dream of one day attending such an institution. I remember that even after I applied my mother told me that I shouldn’t get my hopes up. You can imagine how incredibly proud she was the day I graduated. My mom is a tough woman and it was one of the first times that I saw her actually crying because of her emotion. Graduation day remains one of the best days of my life.


Q: What is the hardest part about working in this field? 

A: I have always been interested in how animals work, thus a career as a functional morphologist was sort of in the cards for me. However, there is less money available to support this research. The scarcity of funding and concerns about supporting your research between grants is the most difficult part of this career path. There is a freedom to investigating different species that I really enjoy.


Q: Why is it important for Latinos to be involved in the sciences? 

A: Any time that you have differing perspectives and approaches in science everyone benefits. Rich diversity of approaches and perspectives can add in unexpected ways. Growing up without a lot of money my mother was wildly inventive with low cost solutions to problems. In my own research I am now able to fashion tools that work best very cheap solutions. I credit my mother for this type of creativity in my work.


Q: How can GW inspire students of Hispanic background to become more interested in the sciences? 

A: Well, I think that a first step is to increase the number of Latinos that attend GW. Then having role models that are also Latino is important. I can’t even imagine what a difference it would have made in my career had I had a Latina scientist that I could have emulated. It is only very recently that I could even name another functional morphologist who was Latina. We still have a long way to go.


Q: Are there any additional inspirational words that you would like to that would encourage students to become more involved in the sciences? 

A: I have the profound luxury in my life to be able to follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. Having the life of a researcher/professor I am able to delve deeply into topics that interest me, while also being able to share my excitement with students. Early in college I really struggled. Eckerd College saved my life and taught me how to study and build the observational tools and critical thinking skills to become a biologist. I have a career where I get to think, learn new skills, and play a lot of the time. Work feels like play when you really enjoy what you are doing. I am on sabbatical now getting to do great work with a new group of colleagues. I am very lucky.


By Christina Sivulka '18