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Postdoc Spotlight – Preparing Future Faculty Cohort 3

Drs. Hernandez, Fejzula, and Goyes Vallejos Talk About Their Research and the Preparing Future Faculty Program.

The Preparing Future Faculty Faculty Diversity (PFFFD) program is designed to promote and develop scholars for tenure-track faculty positions at the University of Missouri or elsewhere, in any discipline. The third cohort since the program began in 2017 will run from 2019-2021, and consists of three postdocs: Rachael Hernadez, communication; Merve Fejzula, history; and Johana Goyes Vallejos, ecology and evolutionary biology.

Rachel Hernandez, Ph.D., Communication

Rachel Hernandez, a native Texan, earned her Ph.D. in Health Communication from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, a Master’s in Communication from Texas A&M University, and a Bachelor’s in Communication from the University of Texas. How professors thought about the world and looked at communication helped shape the way she thought about communication.

Sports also helped shape her interest in the field. In college, Hernandez played sports and she would often ponder after the games how they would win them when they were communicating well and lose them when they were not communicating so well.

Later, when she worked at the Indiana University School of Medicine and Baylor College of Medicine, she discovered a passion for researching medical education. Her research focus is on how people communicate about sensitive health topics when they feel uncomfortable talking about their health. She specializes in doctor-patient communication and interpersonal communication regarding health with a focus on patient perceptions of doctor-patient communication.

“We don’t necessarily think about it all the time. But then there are people like me who do think about it all the time and do try to kind of bring those things to the surface so that we can communicate in a way that improves our health,” Hernandez said.

Her research explores why some individuals are able to open up about certain topics, and why others find it so difficult to have those conversations. “How can opening up or being able to manage that information make us feel better and get the support that we need for our health conditions,” she said. “This is what guides my work.”

She was interested in the PFFFD opportunity when she learned it helped postdocs to become tenure-track faculty members by helping them develop their research program and focus on professional development. “I was really excited because MU has excellent researchers.”

Postdoctoral opportunities in the communication field are unique so this opportunity “caught her eye.” MU’s presence and reputation in communication were also a draw. “When I saw an opportunity to have a postdoctoral position in such a great department. I thought, well, you know, I have to take this chance. So that’s how I ended up here,” she said.

Nine months into the program, Hernandez said the camaraderie between the faculty members and the department is strong. “I think folks really want each other to succeed and support each other and that has been a really nice experience to have.” The PFFFD program has given her a support system and the cohort has helped her with the transition to Mizzou.

Merve Fejzula, Ph.D., History

Merve Fejzula earned a Ph.D. degree in History and a Master’s in Historical Studies from the University of Cambridge, and her Bachelor’s in History and English from Rutgers University. She was born in what used to be Yugoslavia, now known as the Republic of North Macedonia, and moved to New Jersey as an infant.

Her research focuses on African intellectual history, the history of ideas, and how they circulated and are perceived by people. Her current writing concentrates on West Africa, in the unexplored realm of the English-speaking circulation of negritude, a theory of race which originated among French-speaking black intellectuals. More specifically, Fejzula explores race and the francophone-speaking world through the lenses of how the English-speaking world translated it, she said. Her research has taken her to Senegal, Nigeria, and Europe. She is currently transforming her dissertation into a book manuscript.

“The PFFFD is a great program, it’s extraordinarily unusual to have support in the early stages of your academic career. Postdocs usually have to choose between teaching or research, but this program is a mix of both. They help scholars get the professional development skills that are needed, so this is unique, I really haven’t seen anything else like it,” she said.

She arrived in January a few weeks before the Coronavirus quarantine started and managed to meet some of her colleagues in person. The history department is “lovely,” she said. “They have all been enormously supportive and welcoming. It’s rare to find such a collegial environment. I am grateful for it. It’s wonderful.” Even though the university is closed, the PFFFD program is still interactive with the postdocs through workshops presented via Zoom and providing information to advance their careers.

“Part of what’s nice about the program is that they explain how to succeed and break it down step by step into what you should be doing at any given point of your career,” she said. “It’s kind of a unique mentorship.”

Her advice for future postdocs is to explore every program they are interested in. It is best to speak with the person who runs the program and find out what kind of candidate they are looking for, show your excitement for the program, and tell them how you are a good fit for it. “Many people don’t apply to these opportunities because they think the program is looking for someone else, but you never know until you apply.”

Johana Goyes Vallejos, Ph.D., Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Johanna Goyes Vallejos was born and raised in Colombia, the country, not Columbia, Missouri. She earned her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, and her Bachelor’s in Biology from the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia.  She also spent a year at the University of Kansas as a Postdoctoral Research Associate.

She studies behavioral ecology, specifically, how animals communicate and how they find a mate. For her dissertation work, she focused on elucidating the behavior of the smooth guardian frog of Borneo (Limnonectes palavanensis), an unusual species about which very little was known when she began her work, she said.

Goyes Vallejos also is interested in the aftermath of mating behavior, that is, parental care behavior. In frogs, she studies how parents take care of their babies, and what kind of behaviors and strategies they use to ensure their survival. She has always thought it is fascinating how sexual selection promotes the evolution of elaborate structures and behaviors.

Goyes Vallejos enjoys teaching and mentoring students, with a focus on underrepresented and minority groups. Case in point, she is part of a National Science Foundation program for undergraduate students who belong to underrepresented minorities. In this program, Goyes Vallejos serves as a mentor where students live at a field station in Costa Rica and she and other mentors teach students how to research in the field.

She has been at Mizzou since last September. She’s enjoyed her interaction with colleagues in the biological sciences department. “I am very excited to be a part of this department because there are many more people doing research on animal behavior or animal communication, compared to other places in the United States,” she said.

 The PFFFD program is an interesting initiative and “I’m pretty excited about the efforts that the University of Missouri is taking towards increasing diversity and inclusion campus-wide. I believe they are doing a very good job trying to provide the fellows with skills and qualifications, to not only get the position that each of us want, but also to succeed. You just don’t want to survive. You want to thrive,” she said.

Other universities are following Mizzou’s example with the PFFFD fellowship, “it should be an alternative model for recruiting promising early career researchers if we want to increase diversity and inclusion in STEM and in academia in general,” Goyes Vallejos said.