From the time Dr. Rebecca Hernandez was in elementary school, she dreamed of going on adventurous scientific campaigns in wild places.
“I used to collect and identify invertebrate species in my backyard all summer and hold ‘campaigns’ in my local neighborhood to raise money to save threatened species,” she said. “As I got older, I realized that I lived in a biodiversity hotspot — the California Floristic Province — and my passion for understanding the relationship between humans and how we interact with the Earth system solidified.”
But, despite Rebecca’s intelligence and passion for science, she hit a financial roadblock.
“I received a scholarship to attend my first-choice university on the East Coast, but it would only cover my tuition for the first year, and my family couldn’t assume the financial risk for subsequent years,” she said. “So, I attended community college out of necessity.”
After enrolling at Saddleback College, Rebecca began to see firsthand the teaching excellence that exists in the community college system and demonstrated excellence as a student — earning her Phi Theta Kappa membership in 2002. And she hasn’t slowed down since on the road to achieving her dream.
Rebecca received her Ph.D. in Earth System Science at Stanford University in 2014, where she was an EPA STARS Fellow, Schneider Fellow, and Ford Fellow. She holds a Masters in Biological Sciences from California State University Fullerton and a Bachelor of Arts in geography from UCLA. She was a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley and the Climate and Carbon Sciences Program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
A first-generation college student, Rebecca is proud that she started her education in the California community college system.
Today she serves as Assistant Professor of Earth System Science in the Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources and a CAMPOS (Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science) Scholar at the University of California, Davis. Rebecca also directs Aridlab.org, which emphasizes the exploration of processes that elucidate the functioning of the Earth system and the solving of applied problems where human and natural systems interact in water-limited environments.
Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, NPR, Scientific American, and National Geographic.
“At Stanford University, my Ph.D. research focused on the relationship between energy and the environment; specifically, how the use of energy for human consumption uses land resources and the impact of this linkage on conservation and food production,” Rebecca said. “One of the questions I ask my students today is: how many of you used land today?
“Most folks don’t realize that by turning on a light or checking email on a computer, they are using land. Connecting these dots from electricity use to land to ecosystem services is what excites me today because we still have time to turn things around, but time is running out.”
Rebecca will be co-leading a new program on campus at UC Davis called the “Wild Energy Initiative” to support research on interactions between energy systems and the bio-geophysical components and systems of Earth, addressing contemporary sustainability issues across human and natural systems.
“I feel very blessed to wake up every day and feel an enormous amount of creative liberty and freedom to pursue the scientific questions that I feel are most impactful,” she said. “I do feel that I am making a difference, but that feeling is amplified when I collaborate with other people and organizations.
“I do feel strongly that the study of energy and the environment is the most exigent scientific pursuit in the 21st century.”
Does Rebecca have any advice for today’s members who might be interested in pursuing a similar career?
“If you are interested in becoming a scientist, you will have endless opportunities where this idea that you can be a great scientist is challenged and tested,” she said. “The road here was not easy, and the training involved in being a scientist is a lot less glossy.”
Rebecca added that she spent almost a decade and a half in training to become a scientist with little financial reward.
“I spent much of my 20s and early 30s working, including weekends,” she said. “But I also feel proud of that sacrifice because time is now of the essence.
“I want future generations to feel, touch, and experience the wild places that I had access to in my youth, and the possibility of this being maintained is all unfolding now.”