Amazing Students Profiles

Johanna Mejia-Fava

Johanna Mejia-Fava

Johanna Mejia-Fava is finishing her final year of residency at the College of Veterinary Medicine in her quest to fulfill her dream of a career in aquatic medicine, and despite the hectic schedule, she feels the experience has made her feel complete and balanced.


Tarrytown, N.Y.

High School:

School of the Holy Child, Rye, N.Y.

Degree objective:

American College of Zoological Medicine Residency through the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Other degrees:

– Bachelor’s degree in Spanish with a pre-veterinarian concentration from Barrett, the Honors College of Arizona State University.
– Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Mississippi State University, College of Veterinary Medicine.
– Ph.D. candidate from Mississippi State University, College of Veterinary Medicine.

Expected graduation:

July 2013

University highlights, achievements, awards and scholarships:

I am truly honored to receive this student recognition from UGA and I dedicate it to my parents and grandparents. My parents and my sister and our husbands have created Animal Necessity and Natural Necessity, a family business that encompasses both animal and human natural medicine. Being a part of a family business has allowed us all to remain close, even though we are distances apart, and has enabled us to help bring natural alternative medicine to Western science.

My passion for animals and nutrition crosses paths in many ways at UGA, including one ongoing project studying the nutritional analysis of a piscivorous diet for which we have received grants from the Pamela de Journo Fund and McRoberts Co. I look forward to following in the footsteps of the doctors and scientific researchers from UGA and the Georgia Aquarium Institute to come before me and I hope to be an example for the many scientists to be.

Family Ties to UGA:

I am the first from my family to attend UGA. Many UGA students have also left their families for the best education possible. I know it can be lonely, but it is possible to find friends that you can call family on campus. UGA has a special place for my family and me since this is the place my husband, Joe, and I had our son, Joseph Clemente … that’s right, we are the three Joes!

I chose to attend UGA because…

Each year, there are only a few zoo and aquatic residency programs and I chose to attend UGA because it incorporated all of the areas of medicine that I was passionate about, including gaining zoological experience working at Bear Hollow, Sandy Creek and Zoo Atlanta and aquatic experience working one full year at the Georgia Aquarium. Pursuing a career in aquatic medicine has always been my dream and being the first resident to graduate from the UGA program not only makes me proud but also will hopefully lead the way for others who can now realize this amazing opportunity. Being a role model to other female students in my career that have asked me how I balance life with a child and a residency, the first thing I say is we are very lucky to have a team of family members who help us, and my in-laws moving to the Athens area was another reason I chose to attend here.

My favorite things to do on campus are…

One of my favorite things to do on campus is go for a walk during lunch with my friend and UGA zoological technician, Ashley. Recently, I was referred for physical therapy at the UGA Health Center, and these therapy sessions have been one of my favorite things to do because they have made me become more aware of myself and reminded me how exercise and movement is extremely important. As part of that therapy, I try to go for a 20-minute walk daily, which is right about the time it takes to visit my second favorite place around campus, Cali N Tito’s.

When I have free time, I like…

Any free time that I can travel to New York and Miami to visit my family I try to. I think it is very important that my son grows up around his cousins. Being a mom is the best thing that could have happened to me. I love to find new and exciting things to teach my son such as swimming, reading, singing and dancing. With the hustle and bustle of school, work, life, being a wife and a mom, we forget to have “me” time.  Sometimes, I just like to sit with my husband in a quiet room, think about nothing, relax and rest.

The craziest thing I’ve done is…

After graduating from Mississippi State, I was accepted into a master’s program at Marine Life in Biloxi, Miss., measuring the first intraocular pressures in sea lions. Three months into the program, Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Mississippi, destroying the facility that I was working at. One of my craziest mornings was waking up, walking to the marine facility and finding out that a 40-foot storm surge had swept the dolphins and sea lions into the Gulf of Mexico. The animals managed to stay together and heroic efforts saved their lives.

At this time, my study was halted, but through perseverance and determination, my master’s study has grown and now has been qualified for a Ph.D. Many people have called me “crazy” to be in a zoological residency program, be finishing a Ph.D. and raising a 2 1/2-year-old son, but for me I have never felt so complete, balanced and normal.

My favorite place to study is…

Starbucks is my favorite place. If anybody knows me, they will tell you that I have a Starbucks chai tea latte in my hand every morning. I am a creature of habit. At the Georgia Aquarium, my favorite place to study about my cases was in front of the huge ocean voyager viewing window, watching the whale sharks. For me, being around water, a trickling fountain or soft conversations allows for better focus on the material being studied. Everyone studies in different ways. The best advice I can give is that when you find something that works, stick with it.

My favorite professor is…

I have been very fortunate to have many wonderful professors throughout my student career. My professors and mentors at UGA, Dr. Steve Divers and Dr. Joerg Mayer, are internationally recognized specialists in reptilian and small mammal medicine, and although they have different ways at approaching a case, they ultimately end up with same diagnosis. I am so blessed to be learning from two doctors who complement each other.

All of the doctors at the Georgia Aquarium have had a significant impact in teaching me both clinical skills and understanding of aquatic medicine. If I had to chose one professor, Dr. Greg Bossart encompasses some qualities that I find fascinating as he combines his expertise of pathology with immunology to really dive deeper and understand underlying causes of disease states in marine mammals.

If I could share an afternoon with anyone, I would love to share it with…

I could not pick one person because I love spending time with all my friends, family and colleagues. I would love to have an afternoon with all of the veterinary staff, residents and intern mates, technicians, curators and trainers at facilities I have worked at and have been involved with in my residency and Ph.D. program. We would share this evening on New Year’s in Grand Cayman as I feel this is the day of new beginnings. After completing my veterinary internship at Boatswain’s Beach Turtle Farm, Grand Cayman, I learned of my residency match with UGA. At that time, my mentor, Dr. Heather Barron, a former faculty member at UGA and the first UGA small animal exotic intern, introduced me to my current director, Dr. Steve Divers. I think it is amazing that the UGA spirit lives all the way from Athens to Grand Cayman.

If I knew I could not fail, I would…

I’ve been told that by the age of 7, I was already volunteering at my uncle’s veterinary clinic in Miami, and from then we all knew that my passion in life would be caring for animals. Both of my parents studied human medicine in the Dominican Republic and I believe that growing up on an island until the age of 5 had nurtured my interest in aquatic medicine.

If I knew I could not fail, my husband and I would live on a tropical island where we would invite all of our family and friends to join us, and our collective daily responsibilities would be dedicated to the rehabilitation of both aquatic and zoo species. I feel one should dream big because you never know what can happen when you put your mind and spirit to it.

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be…

I think the experiences that I will never forget on a daily basis are the clients and patients that I’ve worked with in the UGA zoological department. These clients love their animals so much and see their pets as extended versions of their human family. The tears of joy when saving a life or the tears of sadness when we need to euthanize an animal are experiences that I will never forget. Other unforgettable experiences include cases that I’ve seen though the zoological department wildlife program in which we accept injured wild animals in the hopes to diagnose and treat them to ultimately send them to a rehabber to be released back into the wild. I have also had the amazing experience to be involved in ongoing field projects including a robust redhorse research study in which sonic transmitters were surgically placed into these animals in the field in order to better track this endangered species.