Exercising Resilience: Spotlight on Diana Raquel Hernández 

Dec. 6, 2023

Diana Raquel Hernández
Diana Raquel Hernández
Source: Diana Raquel Hernández
As a child, Diana Raquel Hernández’s hero was Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. “She was so passionate about educating Helen. She never gave up on her, despite all her challenges. I wanted to be like her. In my case, I wanted to share with people how amazing science is." Hernández herself has faced numerous challenges in her personal and professional life, and noted that while one can sometimes solve a problem on their ownsometimes they need to call in reinforcements. Cultivating a cadre of trusted friends and colleagues, as well as her own self-reliance, has been key to Hernández's consistent ability to bounce back from adversity.

Hernández, a medical science liaison at Hologic, Inc., grew up in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. The youngest of 6 children, she lost her father when she was 7 years old, and her mother needed to work to support the family. Realizing that her family’s financial resources were limited, Hernández mobilized her academic proficiency in a bid to pursue higher education. A dedicated student, she obtained scholarships and worked her way through school.

In her youth, Hernández accurately answered many trivia questions on a local television show, “El Preguntón.” For 3 years, she regularly attended tapings of the show, which was broadcast on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. “I really enjoyed answering the questions,” she recalled. “I would bring my pocket encyclopedia with me for reference.” Prizes for winners ranged from coupons for complimentary food to toys, or even a backpack filled with school supplies. Hernández proudly recalled winning special prizes both for her individual performance and for her participation on a team. It was her love of answering complex questions and conducting research that sparked her interest in STEM.

She would eventually pursue her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Hermosillo, studying chemistry and biology at the Universidad de Sonora and microbiology and nutrition at the Centro de Investigación en Alimentación y Desarrollo. At the time, Hernández worked several jobs: clinical intern in local public health laboratories, laboratory research assistant, high school science teacher and pharmacy manager. While she studied for her master’s degree, an advisor recommended that she further her education outside of Mexico. The advisor also recommended that she consult with a professor at the University of Arizona (UA) who was looking for help in a lab studying gastrointestinal bacteria. That professor subsequently invited Hernández to work as a technician for a year while she applied to Ph.D. programs in the U.S. In her postgraduate work, Hernández studied pili in gastrointestinal bacteria, such as proinflammatory flagellin proteins in Vibrio choleraeO1.

Hernández enrolled in a Ph.D. program at UA in Tucson in 2006. The first person in her family in Mexico to emigrate to the U.S., she used captioning on television programs to learn English. She fondly remembers absorbing nuances of the language from a favorite television show,Gilmore Girls.

Her Ph.D. advisor became problematic for her over time. “He applied too much pressure to his subordinates, and he became the subject of a Title IX investigation,” Hernández said. “He was denied tenure and had to leave the university."

“The lowest point in my career was when I learned that my PI had removed my name from the byline of a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper (I was third author) after I told him that I was leaving his lab. I was already committed to joining another lab, but it would still be months until I made the transition,” she explained. “I still had to work in his lab for those months. I almost quit several times. The thought of going back home defeated, without having completed my degree, did not appeal to me. I knew that the only way I could help with the economic situation at home was to finish my degree and to have a career in the U.S. That’s what kept me going.” 

More obstacles fell in her path. Hernández reached out to another professor, one who was moving to UA. “She was initially helpful and understanding, but eventually the relationship soured, and I became frustrated,” she said. “My Ph.D. process dragged on for 6 years.” Not one to surrender, her drive to succeed and her ability to bounce back from adversity got her through.

She earned her Ph.D. in immunobiology, microbiology and molecular biology in 2012, having studied regulation of expression of a Neisseria gonorrhoeae tRNA modification enzyme. Hernández took a teaching job at Pima Community College in Tucson, taking advantage of the Optional Practical Training program (OPT). Through this program, an F-1 student can get a 1-year visa to work in the U.S. after earning a degree. Her first job teaching paid only $7,000 per semester ($14,000 per year). “Things were tight,” she said. “When you have a job under the OPT program, your employer is your sponsor. You are attached to that employer and that job; you can’t just switch jobs. You might find yourself in a difficult situation as a result,” Hernández explained.

Hernández also faced the obstacle of immigration status and the tension surrounding it. “Navigating the immigration process is challenging,” she explained. “You have to remain in good standing, academically and otherwise, or your immigration status can be challenged. The stress is draining.” She recalls feeling great anxiety anytime she approached the border between the U.S. and Mexico. And yet, she persisted.

While teaching, she looked for a better opportunity in her field. She remembers interviewing with a biotech company in the fall of 2012. Hernández believed that the interview process had been positive and productive, but months passed with no activity. She would have to leave the U.S. at the end of the year if she did not secure another job.

Working in a lab where she experienced challenges with a supervisor, as well as encountering obstacles in finding a new position, she reached out to Donna Wolk, Ph.D., a prominent clinical microbiologist at Geisinger Medical Laboratories in Danville, Pa. Wolk had been recommended to Hernández as a possible lead. They both had worked in the same building at UA in 2010 and 2011 and kept the same early morning hours (showing up to their respective labs at 6 a.m. some days). They would exchange greetings but did not know each other by name.

Wolk offered Hernández a job on the spot during the phone call; she needed someone to run her research lab, where she conducted clinical trials for industry partners, including companies that manufacture infectious disease diagnostics. Hernández recalled that Wolk saw her as “a rare bird”: someone trained as the equivalent of a medical technician, with a Ph.D. to boot. Hernández called Wolk early in 2013, traveled to Pennsylvania to officially interview for the job in April and moved there at the end of June that year.

Hernández’s professional relationship with Wolk evolved. Wolk admired her drive and ability to establish herself independently. “We were both Arizona Wildcats,” she said. Wolk had experienced her own challenges, such as being a single mother in graduate school. “Men have their ‘good old boy’ network,” Wolk said. “I decided to be a ‘good old girl’ and help other women whenever I could.” When asked about the professional recognition and awards that she has earned as a clinical microbiologist, Wolk acknowledged them but added, “Accolades are hollow. What we can do to help others is our most important achievement.” Since their initial collaboration, Hernández and Wolk have been coauthors on at least a dozen papers. Hernández has published 29 papers thus far.

Being independent does not mean going it alone. Hernández received encouragement and assistance several times in her career, as is evident from her friendship with Wolk. Hernández knows when it is time to ask someone for assistance. “Don’t ever be afraid to reach out to someone for help,” Hernández counseled.

Diana Raquel Hernández
Diana Raquel Hernández, with Hologic, Inc.
Source: Diana Raquel Hernández
Hernández currently serves as a medical science liaison at Hologic, Inc., in Texas.      
Hernández’s clinical lab work at Hologic involves work with infectious disease diagnostics. Her skills run the gamut of laboratory techniques, laboratory quality assurance, clinical laboratory improvement amendments (CLIA), emerging infectious disease surveillance, science communication and good laboratory practice, among others.

Hernández embraces everything about the discipline of microbiology, and her personal interests complement her professional life. Hernández loves science fiction in almost every type of medium: audiobooks, TV, movies and more. “I’m a big Doctor Who and Star Wars fan.” She also espouses science facts. “I could spend hours and hours looking at disgusting slides of samples that came out of people,” said Hernández. She maintains an array of whimsical “giant microbes” plushies on a shelf behind her desk and a “wall of art” next to it. She endeavors to turn adversity into artistry. “The COVID-19 pandemic of course pushed all of us to our limits. To cope, I got into paint-by-number during the pandemic and have completed quite a few paintings since."

It has been a long and curving road. What does Hernández consider her greatest accomplishment? She confided pride in being able to “retire” her mother from the need to work. Some of Hernández’s siblings and nephews still live with her mother, who worked in a medical dispensary to support them. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, her mother’s exposure to the virus would have increased considerably. Hernández stepped in and convinced her mother to withdraw from that situation by offering financial support. The risk was markedly reduced when her mother could afford to discontinue full-time work.

Another source of pride for Hernández is the reservoir of determination that she has been able to tap into throughout her career. Using education as a pathway to success, Hernández left her country of origin, mastered a new language, climbed the industry career ladder and participated in the creation and marketing of many beneficial infectious disease diagnostic devices.

After 18 years of navigating the immigration and naturalization maze, Hernández earned her American citizenship in the summer of 2023. She no longer feels anxiety at the U.S.-Mexico border. She very much enjoyed voting in her first election in the U.S. accompanied by her husband. A shining example of resilience and persistence, Hernández encourages others to pursue their dreams with equal fervor. “You have to summon the courage to just go and do it."

Author: John Bell

John Bell
John Bell moved to the ASM Science Communications team from ASM's Journals Department. He brings with him many years of experience in copyediting, proofreading and production.