A love of chemistry took grad a long way from home
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement.
Victoria Hernandez, a native of Plainsboro, New Jersey, had never heard of Arizona State University, or Barrett, the Honors College, when she was in high school. In fact, her mother nearly threw out a letter (she hadn’t put her contacts in that morning) offering her a New American University Scholarship, covering the entirety of her out-of-state tuition, and the offer of flying her out to tour ASU.
Hernandez, being a New Jersey native, hadn’t applied to ASU. With the scholarship in hand she visited ASU and really liked what she saw. She was accepted to all of the schools she applied to, but her parents only had enough money to pay for her to either go to ASU or her state school in New Jersey. Student loans seemed prohibitive.
ASU gave Victoria the opportunity to do something different, so she grabbed it.
“I honestly wasn’t expecting ASU to be as perfect a school as it was for me,” she explained. “I wasn’t expecting to meet faculty as invested in my success as those in the School of Molecular Sciences, and I wasn’t expecting the research experiences I had. These aspects of ASU made my homesickness less severe. They made my risk pay off.”
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
Answer: I don’t believe in “aha” moments. I think realizations, decisions and changes arise from gradual, sometimes grueling, processes. I entered ASU as a chemical engineering major because my peers and some family members made me feel like that was the field to study, despite the fact that my favorite subject in school was chemistry. My chemistry major started as a minor I added my second semester at ASU, a way for me to appease a restless part of my mind that was missing the subject I hadn’t studied since my junior year of high school.
While the engineering program at ASU is great, chemical engineering wasn’t fulfilling me; it wasn’t answering the questions I really wanted to answer. I was back and forth on the decision to change majors. I cried a lot. I had a lot of long phone calls with my mom. I tried to avoid acting on a decision that would cause too much of a rift in my academic career, but in many ways, I feel like I made the decision subconsciously. The moment I actually changed my major, the moment I marched over to the advising office and made my decision final, happened right after a chemical engineering class that I was upset during because I just didn’t like what I was studying. But why be upset? If I didn’t like it, why was I studying it? Who was forcing me? When I seriously asked those questions, I acted and never looked back.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A: Wow, there are a lot of things! There was one Barrett class I took the second semester of my third year, HON 394: What is college for? I think that class changed my perspective on a lot of things. We studied higher education in the U.S., specifically undergraduate education, and the problems and challenges that often plague college institutions. The class also explored the purpose of higher education, why we are all in college in the first place. We read a lot of books written by experts in higher education, yet in some ways I feel like we barely scratched the surface.
The best part of the class, however, had to be at the end when our class held a student panel where we discussed what we learned in the class with other Barrett students. So many people came! And what they had to say was really insightful.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Be flexible. Be just as open to experience change as you are to resist it. You may have started college with some idea of what it would be like, what you would study and what you might do once you graduate, but don’t be afraid to deviate from those plans. And if you choose to stay on a path, that’s OK too. The point is to be open to go with whatever feels right. The worst thing you can do is stay with a place, a major, a social circle or a plan that makes you unhappy or doesn’t seem right for you.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: There used to be a bench just inside the Barrett complex. It was straight ahead, past the bike racks when you walked in through the gate by the fountains. The bench isn’t there anymore, but I still remember it vividly. I spent a lot of time on that bench, thinking and changing for better and sometimes for worse (all part of the process). The bench was calm and peaceful without being isolating.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: Well, for my immediate plans I will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology program as a PhD student in biology. Yes, you read that right, biology, though I will be primarily studying biochemistry and the structures of macromolecules like proteins.
A part of my “discovering my major” story that I skipped over was that my initial interest in chemistry came when I encountered chemistry topics in my high school biology class, a year before I even took a chemistry class. Since then, I think at least subconsciously biological questions have been building in me. Over the past few years, I’ve investigated biological questions from a more biochemical question in both my laboratory research and history of science research. Those experiences slowly, but surely, pulled me closer and closer to pursuing fields relating to biology.
As for what I plan to do after graduate school? I’m not entirely sure. I enjoy the prospect of teaching; perhaps I will pursue a career as a professor. However, I’m not going to stress out about any plan. I’ll just go where the wind takes me, trying my best to do some good.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: This is typically a question I try to avoid because I don’t think I’m qualified to say how $40 million is best spent. If I must answer though, and I must choose one problem (I would likely try to choose more), I would probably put it toward sustainability efforts or combating climate change. That’s a little nod to the topics I focused my research on when I was an engineering major, and I think that unlike many other problems on our planet, those affect everyone.