Howard Garrison Advocacy Fellow

Joyce Fernandes

Joyce Fernandes is Professor of Biology and Director of Undergraduate Research at Miami University.

Describe your interest in participating in the program.

Fernandes: I became interested in the communication of science and research with general audiences during my postdoctoral years at Yale University. I was mentoring an undergraduate researcher from my mentor’s alma mater, and at the end of a meticulously planned 10-week experience, as we were at the microscope capturing some stunning images, the student asked me what the point of the work was. I quickly gathered my thoughts and explained the chemistry behind the biology research project since the student was a chemistry major. This experience significantly impacted how I have communicated my research and teaching in the last 24 years as a faculty member at my current institution. I fortuitously became involved with alumni engagement at my institution and found that I had a knack for translating research and science for the public. I spent two years at the National Science Foundation as a Rotating Program Officer and observed at close quarters the importance of sustaining funding levels across programs that made a difference for many institutions as they worked toward preparing the next generation of the workforce. Through my association with the Council on Undergraduate Research, I was able to engage in efforts to raise awareness about the importance of the research experience, including working with a lobbying group as part of an Advocacy committee. As Director of Undergraduate Research Director at Miami University, I am in a position to train colleagues and students in the communication of research. At the heart of advocacy is the ability to communicate an issue by providing supporting evidence and the use of multiple modalities for engagement. This is reliant on a thorough understanding of the issue at hand. As a researcher and teacher, I am constantly developing these skills, but advocacy allows you to take this outside the disciplinary box we normally operate in. My goal for participating in this program is to become proficient in the tools of advocacy to use them effectively and to move seamlessly across multidisciplinary and non-disciplinary areas.

How do you plan to use the knowledge and experience gained through your participation in the Howard Garrison Advocacy Program? 

Fernandes: As Director of Undergraduate Research at Miami University, I wish to provide opportunities for faculty and graduate student mentors and undergraduate researchers to develop skills in communicating their research to broader audiences. Each year, approximately 200 undergraduates are funded by the institution to conduct academic year or summer research. There is potential to train these students and their mentors to intentionally think through applications of their work and the value of the research experience for education, professional development, and entry into the workforce. The resulting narratives can then be pitched to legislators and their aides at the state and federal levels. I have developed relationships with the Government Relations team at my institution and wish to collaborate with them to train students and their mentors in communicating the relevance of their research fields and the overall experience. Student representatives and their faculty mentors can then participate in meetings with legislative staff at the local/regional, state, and federal levels. I also wish to channel research groups working in STEM disciplines to leverage their memberships in professional societies for advocacy purposes. My institution is a mid-sized liberal arts institution, and I can engage faculty in disciplines such as Media and Journalism and Political Science to provide the rigor and context for training workshops. Ohio has a chapter of the Scholar’s Strategy Network (SSN), which works to engage academicians to use their research to improve policy and would serve as another partner.

Using no more than 250 words, describe your research as you would to a non-scientist.

Fernandes: It's a wrap! Unraveling the role of glia in nervous system development: Glia are cells of the nervous system that provide structural support and insulate the electrical activity that passes through neural circuits. My lab studies the development of this insulation in a genetic model organism, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, focusing on the longest nerves found in the abdomen. These studies have a direct bearing on understanding the ensheathment of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function in human brains, a process that marks the end of the period of adolescence and signals that the brain is now mature. Our studies are also relevant for advancing an understanding of recovery from conditions such as spinal cord injury, where mature glial insulation creates barriers to subsequent nerve growth and repair. In the particular case of abdominal nerves, we study in Drosophila, the glia undergoes a normal unraveling process to allow new nerve pathway arrangements. Being a genetic model, Drosophila allows the interrogation of molecular mechanisms that underlie these important developmental processes. Drosophila genes have counterparts in humans and have been successfully shown to model diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and alcoholism. Graduate students and undergraduate researchers in my lab learn to conduct genetic manipulations, handle fine instruments for tissue dissections, become proficient in immunohistochemistry techniques, and master the working of large footprint instruments such as confocal, scanning, and electron microscopes.

Briefly describe any past or present participation in additional career exploration activities, experiences, and/or programs.

Fernandes: From 1998 to 1999, I worked on a NASA project during my postdoctoral tenure, which involved the preparation of a payload for a space shuttle project. This experience helped me to adapt routine protocols used in basic research for the mission. From 2004 to 2006, I served as Science Education Consultant/Director for the Graduate Teaching Center at Yale University, where I conducted workshops for graduate students and postdocs to explore, develop, and execute current instructional pedagogies. From 2008 to 2012, as lead PI for an NSF award to improve retention in the biological sciences, I worked with faculty across four departments to manage the recruitment, placement, and professional development of cohorts of undergraduate students. I helped to institutionalize two components of the award activities. By supervising working groups drawn from offices across the institution, we created the First Year Research Experience (FYRE) program to provide an early pathway into research. I also involved graduate student TAs in my department to develop a course that taught study skills to navigate introductory biology courses. A paper was published in CBE-Life Science Education based on this work. From 2012 to 2014, I served as program director for the National Science Foundation and opted to take that position in lieu of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship opportunity I qualified for that year. This position allowed me to learn about the selection and administration of awards and to understand how directorates in the agency worked collaboratively to identify promising and potentially transformative projects.

Joyce Fernandes is a member of Genetics Society of America, a FASEB member society.