Focus On Faculty

Sonia Hernandez

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?

I obtained a D.V.M. from LSU in 1996 and a Ph.D. in ecology from UGA in 2008. I became a diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine in 2002. I am currently an associate professor with a joint appointment in Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, a unit in the department of population health in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?

I moved to Athens in 2001. I worked in private practice, I worked at the Teaching Hospital, wrote books and did relief work for nearby zoos for approximately three years, during which time I solidified my desire to change the course of my career to solely focus on population-level wildlife research. I began a Ph.D. in ecology at what was then UGA’s Institute of Ecology (now the Odum School of Ecology) in 2004.

What are your favorite courses and why?

By far and away my favorite courses involve those that allow me to take students into the field. I co-teach ornithology, and every Friday we are in the field learning about birds, how to identify them and how they make a living. I teach a First-Year Odyssey Seminar to teach freshmen how to appreciate birds, and I devote most of the class to being “out there.” I teach a conservation medicine and biology course in Costa Rica, where we spend a month learning about the intersection of human, animal and ecosystem health through working with wildlife.

I am a “doer” and I teach best by “doing” and demonstrating. In my opinion, students thrive when they can put knowledge into action! It is my hope that I will partner with my husband, Dr. Michael Yabsley, in the near future to create a laboratory version of our courses (wildlife disease investigation and wildlife diseases respectively) because I am most passionate about the content of those courses.

What interests you about your field?

In some respects, it is unfortunate that there are so many factors that have translated to the increase in the emergence of both human and wildlife diseases. On the other hand, because I am fascinated with the investigation of these events, this is a very exciting (and busy) time for someone who loves disease investigation. I am also passionate about advancing the study of wildlife diseases, not just because wildlife may be reservoirs of human diseases, but because these diseases affect wildlife populations, sometimes with devastating effects. Thus, in most of what I do, I get to mix my love for conservation with my intellectual affinity for disease investigation.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?

I feel most proud of my graduate students and the rest of the folks who make up my lab—they are all exceptional people, with wonderful aspirations and heart. Every time I start a lab meeting, I feel lucky to be surrounded by such a great group. Similarly, I think the opportunity to help undergraduates achieve their career goals and follow them through their degree and on to professional or graduate school is extremely rewarding. I have now had the pleasure to be part of the lives of some folks from their high school/undergraduate years to their professional lives, and it’s wonderful to know I helped them in some small way. I recently learned that I will receive a Richard B. Russell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching—I couldn’t feel more honored and humbled by this award.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?

One does not exist without the other. As I said, I am a doer, thus experiential teaching is my best format. The stories and experience I gather through my research always end up in my classroom!

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?

I hope students know that teachers care. We are busy cramming content in, and it may not always show, but we want to know who you are and what you are about. Knowing that helps us teach you. I hope students see me as someone who cares, someone who I hope can give them more than content!  I specifically hope that female and Hispanic students—who aspire to careers where your curiosity for the natural world drives you—realize that if I can do it, so can they!

Describe your ideal student.

Students who take responsibility and ownership for their education tend to do better in their courses, are most enthusiastic and enjoy them, ultimately know why they are here, and understand where courses and experiences are going to take them. Most students mature into this and need patience and encouragement until they get there.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…

I love to walk from South Campus through North Campus, past the fountains of the North Campus quad, to go downtown on a spring evening to eat dinner and walk back. I love the UGA campus and I like to walk it when I’m not in a hurry to get to a meeting! I also have spent a lot of time at Lake Herrick/the intramural fields—years past as a runner and now as a fan of the Redcoats. My husband and I take the kids there to watch the band, flag dancers and majorettes practice on weekday evenings.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…

My favorite thing is to go hiking at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and we go as a family at least twice a month—whether for a picnic or to hike. It’s a great place. Right now most of what I do is geared toward the kids, but soon I’ll return to my other loves, like dancing and painting.

Community/civic involvement includes….

Before the kids, I was involved in helping minority children and minority families. At the moment I have no time, but as soon as they get older we’ll return to that.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?

I hate these questions because I read dozens of non-work books every year and I love reading … and there are sooooo many! I’m currently reading “Lab Girl,” and although the author (Hope Jahren) is a botanist (I am not a plant person!), she’s a Georgia-grown scientist whose enthusiasm for science is infectious! Currently I am very impressed with “Moana” (remember, my life revolves around my kids) because the “Disney princess” has come so far to empower little girls, and it’s a beautiful story!

Proudest moment at UGA?

My proudest moment was getting a Warnell Faculty Teaching Award in 2013—it was such a surprise and such an honor, from a school that has supported me so much. The other that I will never forget was getting a National Science Foundation grant to work on how urbanization affects the health and ecology of the white ibis. This took a very dedicated team more than three years, and it is a project near and dear to my heart because it was an idea, like so many, that was born when I was out for a walk but quickly grew into a fantastic discovery endeavor.
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