With Researcher Spotlights, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Alvaro G. Hernandez, Ph.D.
Director of DNA Services
Roy J. Carver Biotechnology
Alvaro Hernandez serves as the Director of DNA Services at Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center, leading the next-generation sequencing division for both academic and corporate partners. After joining the Roy J. Carver Biotechnology Center in 2001 as a postdoctoral student, he became Assistant Director in 2005 and Director in 2008. Hernandez is an expert in next-generation sequencing, focusing on DNA and RNA sample preparation for NGS. The DNA Services lab provides advanced equipment and expertise to faculty, private, and academic collaborators.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
When I graduated with a Ph.D. in Animal Sciences from the UIUC, I was curious about the recently founded Biotechnology Center located at ERML. I asked the director, Harris Lewin, if I could do a postdoc there for a year to learn about Biotechnology. I started working in the Center a week after graduating. That year, 2001, the first draft of the human genome was released, and immediately hundreds of researchers from all over the country wanted to sequence the genomes of cows, pigs, soybeans, rice, watermelon, corn, horses, songbirds, honeybees, and many more. At that time, sequencing a genome was still extremely expensive, but we created a robust workflow to sequence expressed mRNAs with Sanger (Expressed Sequence Tags, ESTs), which were subsequently printed on microarrays. With the advent of next-generation sequencing technologies in 2004, the amount of sequencing done in the DNA Services lab has continued to grow logarithmically every year. Twenty-three years later, I can say I was in the right place at the right time and was able to recognize the opportunity.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
My mission is to provide faculty with the latest next-generation sequencing instrumentation and the best possible service. Faculty members are tasked with addressing problems in their field of research, formulating models to solve them, applying for grants, securing approval, hiring and training students, supervising the research and collecting samples for sequencing. Then they have to analyze the data, give it biological meaning, write and publish papers, get more funds, etc. The part where the DNA services team enters that pipeline, which is sample QC, library construction, sequencing and data delivery, should seamlessly progress with no issues.
What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing current local, national, and/or global challenges?
The researchers that use our lab are involved in solving major issues in the world, from understanding basic biological processes, making plants and animals grow better and resistant to pests, making plants more resistant to drought, and solving the link between microbes and health, among many other critical challenges.
Part of MSI’s mission is to support high-quality education and professional development experiences for trainees. How do you support this mission through your teaching and mentorship?
I routinely meet with our lab users to go over options and workflows to accomplish their work and process their data. Whereas my position does not involve teaching, I routinely give or sponsor seminars to let the campus know of the instrumentation and capabilities available in the DNA Services lab, and I am sometimes invited to participate in classes in different courses. I provide tours of the lab to faculty and students who want to learn more about instrumentation and workflows. I am always happy to participate in any way that campus members think I can be of help.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
All the research from our faculty members contributes to the understanding of biological processes that impact health, food and the environment. I am glad I get to facilitate some of it. One project, led by Professor Olgica Milenkovic from CEE, aims to use DNA as a storage media. This work has been done with E. coli DNA. This is very exciting because we biologists see DNA as the molecule that holds instructions for life, but computational engineers see it as a tiny molecule that contains a trove of information and they want to use it to encode and read digital information. Hopefully one day instead of having massive heat-generating and energy-consuming server farms that hold all the information in “the cloud”, we could put all that information in a tiny device made of DNA.