Issue Date: April 26, 2010
Bernadette A. Hernandez-Sanchez
From an early age, Bernadette A. Hernandez-Sanchez was drawn to science. “I would always try to repeat experiments shown on ‘Mr. Wizard’s World,’ ” she remembers, referring to a 1980s science program on the Nickelodeon children’s television network. Lots of science-related activities interested her, she recalls; at one point, she wanted to become an astronaut. During her senior year of high school, however, an internship in the Advanced Materials Laboratory at Sandia National Laboratories focused her general interest in science on chemistry.
Working at Sandia under the mentorship of Timothy J. Boyle, “I just had fun,” Hernandez-Sanchez says. “I liked chemistry because you got to work with your hands. I liked mixing solutions, seeing color changes, and growing crystals,” she recalls. In Boyle’s lab, she also witnessed how the basic chemistry she was doing—studying ferroelectric materials used in computer chips—could be “applied to something that everyone used,” she says.
Talking about her work, Hernandez-Sanchez exudes an infectious joy. The self-proclaimed “lab rat” is now a senior member of the technical staff at Sandia, working on projects including dielectric materials for capacitors and biofouling- and corrosion-proof devices for harnessing the ocean’s kinetic and thermal energy. Her research so far has yielded 20 publications and three patent applications. She credits her success to four scientists.
Those four scientists are Boyle, who introduced Hernandez-Sanchez to research and encouraged her to go to college and then to graduate school; Michael D. Heagy, her undergraduate thesis adviser; and Peter K. Dorhout and Ellen R. Fisher, her graduate advisers at Colorado State University, where Hernandez-Sanchez earned a Ph.D. in 2004. Boyle and Heagy brought the ACS Scholars Program to her attention and helped her apply. She received the ACS scholarship during her undergraduate years at the New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology.
“Bernie was fantastic and deserves all the credit for her success,” Dorhout says. Noting that Hernandez-Sanchez was selected to attend the 2002 Nobel Laureate meeting in Lindau, Germany, he adds, “She is certainly among an elite group and someone ACS can be very proud to have supported.”
Hernandez-Sanchez was born of Hispanic parents and is the oldest of seven siblings who grew up in the South Valley area of Albuquerque, N.M., an impoverished place where, she says, not a lot of people go to college. Her parents encouraged her interest in science “as best as they could,” she says, but they didn’t understand what a scientific education and career are about. “It was a culture shock for them, the scientific world,” she explains. “Tim and Mike Heagy guided me, showed me what it was like to be a chemist.”
“Burner” is Boyle’s nickname for Hernandez-Sanchez. The two met in 1993, when “Burner was randomly assigned to my lab” as one of the high school students in the Albuquerque Public School’s Career Enrichment Program, Boyle recalls. He expected the intern to mostly do grunt work, but “Burner was so enthusiastic, so interested and amazingly capable, that I put her on research work,” he says.
Hernandez-Sanchez gave up high school band and other extracurricular activities and just kept coming back, during weekends and vacations, to do research, Boyle says. In two years, she published her first paper (Mat. Res. Soc. Symp. Proc. 1995, 393, 101).
Not only is Hernandez-Sanchez passionate about research, but she is also committed to outreach—especially to rural communities with Native American and Hispanic populations. Back in Boyle’s lab as a postdoc, she helped design the CSI: Dognapping Workshop, which she continues to help coordinate. The two-hour workshop, held at Sandia every year since 2006, introduces elementary school children to science, engineering, and nanotechnology by engaging them as “junior scientists” and guiding them to pore over evidence at various analytical stations to help solve the mystery of a missing dog.
Without the ACS scholarship, “I would not have had the finances to finish school,” Hernandez-Sanchez says. The support, she adds, enabled her to focus on her undergraduate research and opened the doors to graduate school, exciting research, numerous accolades, and eventually to a position at Sandia.
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