Eminent Scientist Rigoberto Hernandez Knows How the Tiniest Things Have Big Impact

Hernandez talks about his career journey, his work on modeling the macroscale effects of nanostructures, and the critical need for a diverse scientific community.
Rigoberto Hernandez photo
Rigoberto Hernandez

In the Twittersphere, people and organizations are keen on cementing their identity for the world to recognize and remember them. Sometimes Twitter handles are infused with cultural meaning or humor. For theoretical and computational chemist Rigoberto Hernandez, a deep passion for chemistry is a clear marker of his social media identity, @EveryWhereChem. Twitter is the outlet he uses to explain in plain language how chemistry is responsible for every facet of existence.

Hernandez, was born in Havana, Cuba. He moved to Spain as a small child, but his family later settled in Miami, FL, where he grew up. He went on to Princeton University, graduating with degrees in chemical engineering and mathematics in 1989. He earned his Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1993. Hernandez is the Gompf Family Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University. He is also the director of the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE) and codirector (and cofounder) of the Center for Computational Molecular Science and Technology. He also recently served on the Board of Directors of the American Chemical Society.

inChemistry had a chance to talk with Hernandez about his personal climb through the chemistry ranks, his work on modeling the macroscale effects of nanostructures, and the critical need for a diverse scientific community.

I noticed your handle on Twitter is @EveryWhereChem. Why did you decide to identify yourself on social media that way?

It is based on my blog, which is EveryWhereChemistry. My rationale for using it is the fact that everything you see is a result of chemistry. As I travel, as I teach, as I research, I find that science helps explain and predict everything I observe. When students come into my class, they expect chemistry to be foreign to them. But I do my best to help them understand that everything is a result of chemistry.  

You’ve posted online that reading science fiction helped develop your interest in science at a young age. But were there things beyond that which inspired you to pursue science as a career?

I know that everybody always looks for a ‘first spark’ that lights up an interest in a subject, but for me, it was much more multifaceted. When I was very young, I liked to know how things worked. There is a way to understand how mechanical things work, like how a bicycle or an engine works, in terms of their components. And then you realize that these things are made up of even smaller components, and eventually you learn the smallest components are atoms and molecules. To me, it was exciting to think that if we could learn about things on the smallest level, we could understand how they behave on the larger scales. There are only roughly 100 kinds of atoms that make up everything we see. I wanted to know how these simple building blocks could fit together and interact to explain how things in this world work. 


Rigoberto Hernandez
Rigoberto Hernandez is the Gompf Family Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University.

Who nurtured your scientific curiosity?

Oh, there have been so very many. I credit all of my successes to the many mentors and teachers I had as a kid and continue to have to this day. As a child, my parents were very important in motivating me. And, for whatever reason, in elementary school, I caught the attention of some of my teachers along the way, and they exposed me to materials from NASA and helped me accelerate in math. In sixth grade, I was already studying geometry, as I had already devoured all the other math available to me. In middle school, I had a teacher who helped me to think and to understand logic [principles and criteria for reasoning]. My high school chemistry teacher recognized my interest and allowed me to do experiments and explore things, and even let me help explain things to my fellow students so I could learn by teaching others.

You had the opportunity to attend a couple of elite universities, first at Princeton for undergraduate studies and then at the University of California, Berkeley, for graduate school. How did your experiences in college shape your career?

I lived and grew up in a low- to middle-income community and went to a local public high school that sent very few kids to elite colleges. I wanted to go to a school that would challenge me and allow me the freedom to choose any career I wanted and not be limited in any way. Once I was at Princeton, I never felt disadvantaged, and because of financial support from the university, I was able to pursue every educational opportunity available. I was like a kid in a candy store, but my candy was knowledge, and it came from the faculty and my peers. I learned something new every day. My English verbal skills improved dramatically as I was suddenly immersed in an English-only environment in which, for example, I learned the names of the foods they served in the cafeteria or we discussed the nuances of the romantic quest in my preceptorial classes.  

I was fortunate to have great mentors in college as well. I worked in undergraduate research in chemistry throughout my four years there. I double-majored in chemical engineering and mathematics, and as a result of mentoring and the exposure to different types of science and engineering technology, I continued on to Berkeley for graduate school. There, again, I was able to find great mentors who fostered and encouraged me to think beyond the boxes we are normally in.

You taught a freshman seminar at Johns Hopkins titled “The Making of a Chemist” that introduces new college students to the professional culture and practice in academic and industrial research labs. What was your main advice to students?

This was the first course I taught at Johns Hopkins, and it was challenging. It was not just for chemistry students, and many of the students were still struggling with what they wanted to study. My main advice to them was to not to just finish getting a degree; the goal is to learn and develop yourself, so when you earn that degree, you will be successful in your next stage, whatever that might be. You want to be able to use your degree to launch yourself into the next part of your life rather than viewing it as the finish line. I hoped that students learned the importance of being strategic and intentional in order to give themselves opportunities going forward. 

You’ve spent most of your career studying very complex chemical systems using theoretical and computational methods to understand them. Recently you’ve been involved in design on the nanoscale level. What is the most important part of your current research?

In chemistry, we always have a challenge because atoms are so very small that we can rarely see them or keep track of all of them. For example, if you take just over a tablespoon of water, it contains on the order of 1023 H2O molecules. It is impossible to use a computer to simulate what is going on with every single one of those atoms. But the interesting thing is that we can understand the behavior of pure water at the macro scale based on what we know about water at the angstrom scale, atom-to-atom and molecule-to-molecule. We can do this with great precision. But the problem gets even more difficult in systems that are not homogeneous like pure water is.

Think about complex types of matter like a piece of liver or your finger: They are made of a lot of atoms and many types of molecules, all behaving in different ways. If we introduce even a few extra molecules into something like liver, it can totally upset how it works. What we want is to be able to make the jump to understand the structure of heterogeneity at the atomic and molecular level completely and be able to predict how it will behave when subjected to different types of molecular conditions. Then we can use that to, say, make a better finger or provide some solution that will protect your finger from cancer. To be able to jump from atoms to what we can see with our eyes is the challenge of the century, and that is the major focus of our research group. 

Another large part of your career has been devoted to increasing the diversity of people doing science. You founded Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE), which works with colleges and universities to increase diversity with respect to gender, race-ethnicity, disabilities, and sexual orientation. Why is it important for chemistry to be more diverse? How can diversity improve how science gets done?

My own research group at Johns Hopkins is a perfect example. We have students from many different countries with many different backgrounds. If we don’t draw from a diverse talent pool, then we aren’t going to have as much talent. Diversity allows people to look at solving problems in different ways, using different perspectives. We don’t want people to leave their backgrounds behind when they come to our university; we want to have them add to our way of doing science. From a strategic point of view, the more different ways you have to think about a problem, the more problems you will be able to solve. 

For example, in my lab we were studying the energy involved in pulling apart protein molecules. But we were having a hard time doing the calculation because the sum of the forces became difficult to track as the proteins were pulled farther and farther apart. And so I began to think about each pull of the protein being like a fan. Not the typical type of fan that has rotating blades, but a folding, hand fan that is called un abanico in Spanish. As I’m pulling these proteins, the spread of sums of forces are opening up like the fan. The farther apart the protein, the larger the spread and the harder to do the sum. So, it became clear to me that what we needed to do was to open and close the protein in steps, with each allowing the fan to open only so much and then closing it back up before the next step. Suddenly, we could sum up the forces, and calculate the energy across the entire motion of the protein! Since the image of un abanico as a fan was part of my cultural heritage, it gave me a metaphor for thinking about the problem, which I would not have had otherwise. This is the kind of thing that can happen over and over again with a group that has diverse backgrounds.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working?

I enjoy reading and studying philosophy and other fields in the humanities. But my main hobbies include running, which I enjoy doing with my wife and my son. The other is Taekwondo, which I started doing with my son when he was five years old. We’ve done all the levels and testing together, and we are currently 4th degree black belts, certified by Kukkiwon. This means we are masters and could open our own dojang (school) and teach others. I wouldn’t have it without my son. He is the one who started it and got me interested!

In our discussion, Rigoberto Hernandez was quite passionate about the fact that leadership has to be intentional and that it is a skill that can be taught. He lives out that philosophy in his academic and research career, in promoting nanotechnology, in advocating for diversity, and as a leader in ACS. Learn more at @EveryWhereChem!

About the Author
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Michael Tinnesand is a science writer and education consultant who lives in Portland, OR.