Editor's Note:Dr. Milton J. Hernandez, a top official at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, describes how his career led from academic research to science policy and administration and urges more minorities to consider a career in the life sciences.
My name is Milton J. Hernandez and I am director of the Office of Special Populations and Research Training at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. My responsibilities include programs relating to minority and women's health, as well as overseeing the training and career development portfolio of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). In addition, I am in charge of NIAID's Research Supplements for Underrepresented Minorities program.
When I was young boy growing up in Texas, I thought I would eventually enter medical school and become a physician. It turned out that I was destined to follow an alternative career path. I was the first one in my family to attend college although my father had taken college courses sporadically in the late 1930s without completing his degree. After I finished high school, I attended a small Catholic college in Texas. I did enjoy "college life" and being away from home, but I did not receive academic guidance nor did I have any mentors. My family was supportive, but like many Chicano families, they had no idea of how to advise me on which courses to take, which societies to join, etc.
After a couple of years of undistinguished work, it was clear I would not make it into medical school, although by the time I was a junior, I became more interested in how biological systems worked. After graduation, I was accepted into the graduate program at Texas A&M University in College Station, where I immediately gravitated to courses in animal physiology at the school of veterinary medicine. Almost immediately, my GPA improved to a 3.85 in graduate school. Clearly, taking classes that I enjoyed and being a part of a supportive academic environment gave me the motivation to work hard and dream big.
Because there were better research opportunities at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in San Antonio, I went there to do my Ph.D. research in the area of cerebral circulation. I stayed there an additional 2 years as a postdoctoral fellow (that's all that was required in the early 1970s).
When I finished at San Antonio, I became an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. I was successful in obtaining research funding from NIH and spent a productive 8 years there. During this time, I became interested in medical school admissions and served on the admissions committee for 4 years. In retrospect, this was a mistake on my part. Young assistant professors should stay in the lab and get their careers established, not get distracted by administrative duties, no matter how worthy they may seem.
In 1981, I was offered a position of associate professor at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C., where I continued my research and taught medical, dental, and graduate students, but I still kept a strong interest for science policy and administration. I wasn't quite sure what being a health scientist administrator meant, but I was eager to help young investigators start their research careers. I earnestly began doing so in 1988 when I joined NIAID.
Without a doubt, the opportunity to advise young scientists (minority and nonminority) on how to direct their career efforts is the most satisfying aspect of my job, but the rest of the NIAID staff and I are gravely concerned about the small numbers of minority biomedical researchers in the United States. In the 3 decades that I have been a practicing scientist, the number of minorities in the life sciences has not grown to a satisfactory level--minorities make up less than 5% of life science Ph.D.s. Yes, it is up from the 1.5% of 3 decades ago, but it still remains abysmally low.
In closing, I've enjoyed the many occupational twists and turns in my career because they've steered me toward my passion--science administration. I love my job because I help make decisions that benefit others. I urge all young scientists to keep their minds open to alternative careers. Having "tunnel vision" will only stifle your creativity and maneuverability in science.
Milton J. Hernandez is the director of the Office of Special Populations and Research Training at NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. Please reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.