Student Profile - Humberto Hernandez

Biology major Humberto Hernandez fascinated by unseen world

Beginning with his first high school biology class, Humberto Hernandez of Houston has been captivated by the possibilities offered through scientific research. Lamar University has been the perfect fit for the senior biology major because of the ample opportunities he has had to pursue significant research starting early in his undergraduate career.

Humberto Hernandez in labAlready, Hernandez is gaining experience and accolades with presentations at national conferences for his current work on the STD-causing parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. At the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science national conference in San Jose, Calif., in October, Hernandez received the Best Poster Award in Microbiology. Earlier this year, he presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans, for which he received a travel award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He also has presented his research at the Texas Academy of Science in Austin and on campus at the McNair Scholars Symposium.

For Hernandez, though, the most rewarding results of his research might be the moments of discovery in the lab. He still remembers his reaction when he discovered a haplotype, a unique DNA sequence, while researching the hybridization of three species of junipers, focusing on molecular work on their DNA.

“I was the happiest person for that second that I saw that. You have several experiments, and you fail, and you fail, then you see this result. Just for a second, your heart starts pumping all this adrenaline, and you feel like you’re the only person in the world who knows this – nobody else. The rush feels good. It’s like a scientific high,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez gained his first undergraduate research experience when he was accepted into the Lamar University Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program his sophomore year. The federally funded program is designed to prepare minority and first-generation college students to pursue doctoral degrees. He worked with Randall Terry, assistant professor of biology, on the project involving hybridization of junipers and learned a variety of techniques for molecular research.

Armed with that knowledge, Hernandez secured a place in the new lab of Ashwini Kucknoor, assistant professor of biology, whose biomedical research was more in line with his ultimate career goals. Kucknoor’s group is studying Trichomonas vaginalis, the protozoan parasite that causes a common sexually transmitted disease. Hernandez’s work centers on the role of rhomboid proteins in the progress of the disease, which weakens the immune system and can lead to other more serious health issues for women infected with Trichomonas.

“I give a lot of credit to my mentors here at Lamar for their support and input. They guide us and make us into who we are,” Hernandez said. “Dr. Kucknoor is the brains of the project, but she makes us think. She gives us the opportunity to explore and makes us analyze the data and asks, ‘How would you proceed?’ We give her ideas that maybe she hadn’t thought of. I get to find things nobody else can.”

Hernandez’s interest in exploring the world at the molecular level comes in part from personal challenges he has overcome. “I was always fascinated by things you couldn’t see because I couldn’t see a lot of things when I was little. I had two corneal transplants when I was in high school. The idea of things you couldn’t see but yet I could see them in my brain fascinated me,” Hernandez said.

In addition to his coursework and research, Hernandez has been active on campus as a community assistant in the Cardinal Village residence halls in the past two years and is involved in Lamar University’s Spanish Circle, which has worked with children in area elementary schools. Hernandez, whose primary language is Spanish, said group members try to serve as role models to the children who might not have family members who have attended college. As the first in his family to attend college, providing that type of positive influence is important to him.

In pushing himself to excel at Lamar, Hernandez has relied on the support not only of his professors but also of his wife and fellow Lamar University student Samantha Rodriguez. A psychology major, Rodriguez also has been involved in undergraduate research as a McNair Scholar. The two began dating while attending Dobie High School in Pasadena and came to Lamar together after graduation.

After graduating from LU, Hernandez hopes to obtain a summer or post-baccalaureate research position with the National Institutes of Health before beginning graduate school. Ultimately, he plans to pursue a career in biomedical research. His primary interest is infectious diseases because of his fascination with the science of how those organisms adapt and evolve. Because of his medical history with his corneal disease, research into genetic disorders also holds some appeal. In the meantime, Hernandez is completing his studies, continuing his research and working with his LU faculty mentors to prepare the research he has completed as an undergraduate for publication in scientific journals.