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Strong Pillars

The namesake of Joseph Hernandez Hall says chemistry and biology support the foundation of his career in science.

By Gigi Marino

Joe Hernandez ’96, MS’98, MBA’98 almost didn’t attend UF, although he is glad he did. He’d been accepted to Emory University and was planning to attend when his father’s health took a turn for the worse. The senior Hernandez had been a political prisoner in Cuba sentenced to seven years in jail, where he developed encephalitis. Of the eight inmates he was jailed with, he was the only one to leave prison alive, although he spent six months in a coma, and his motor skills were permanently affected. As Hernandez explains, his father was disabled and not seen as a value or threat to Cuban society. The family immigrated to the United States in the 1980s.

He remembers the day his family left. He was seven. “I had just gotten a new red bicycle, and I was trying to put it in the car,” he says. “My father told me I couldn’t take it. We lived in an old Spanish-style home surrounded by hedges. I remember hiding the bike there. My father said we would come back later to get it.”

Hernandez never returned to Cuba. “America is my country,” he says. “It gave me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Hernandez comes from a family of physicians. Though his own father was a businessman, he has many uncles and cousins who are doctors, which may explain why he gravitated so naturally to science and medicine. Early in his undergraduate career, Hernandez took a job as a dishwasher in the lab of David Muir, professor of pediatrics and neuroscience. “Dr. Muir noticed my analytical skills and really invested in me. He exposed me to research, and that’s when I had the drive and interest to focus on neuroscience.” He became an interdisciplinary studies major. By the year’s end, Hernandez went from being a bottle-washer to being a published co-author on a paper about the regeneration of axons in spinal cords.

This pattern of being interested in a subject, becoming completely immersed in it, then making a rapid rise within the discipline, business, or company culture is one Hernandez repeats over and over. After receiving two masters’ degrees — one in business and the other in microbiology and molecular genetics — the same year, Hernandez worked for Merck, learning everything he could about drug creation, production, and regulation. He then moved to Silicon Valley, where he got the “start-up bug” and became a marketer at Affymetrix, which was involved in sequencing the human genome. He returned to the East Coast to work for Digene, a molecular diagnostic company that developed the test for human papillomavirus, which Hernandez says, “changed the landscape for cervical cancer.” Self-described as being “attention deficit,” Hernandez has begun five biotech start-ups. His companies are involved with creating therapies for a number of conditions, including osteoarthritis and ovarian cancer. “We’re especially interested in the next generation of cancer drugs, immuno-oncology,” he says.

Even as an undergraduate, Hernandez was driven by the desire “to create something great.” As someone who is in constant motion, he is on a path that also is constantly changing as new technologies are created. Life extension, for instance, fascinates him. “Pioneers and researchers are constantly pushing the envelope of what’s possible,” he says, “and that wouldn’t be possible without chemistry and biology. Both are equally important pillars in what we do in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology world.”

In giving to UF Chemistry, Hernandez says he is grateful to the university. “I look forward to making an impact on students the way an impact was made on me by professors who believed in me and gave me the opportunity to go from being a dishwasher to doing experiments in the lab.”