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Q&A with Dr. Jessica Matyas

by Taylor Vranish

Staff Writer

Dr. Jessica Matyas became chair of Rochester University's Department of Psychology in January 2020.

What brought you to RU and why do you choose to work here?

“I came to RU after returning home after being away for 10 years. I met and caught up with a good friend of mine, Dr. Matchynski-Franks (whom I went to grad school with) at a local conference, and she told me that RU (which had only recently been upgraded from Rochester College) was looking for new instructors. I happily jumped on board, and even signed on as the department chair. I've had absolutely no regrets on either line, either. This campus has been wonderful, and is such a kind and warm environment to work in. I'm looking forward to spending many fun and happy years here!”

What's the easiest and hardest part of your job and why?

“I think the easiest part has to be actually going to class because my favorite part of being in academia is to actually speak with students and talk about fun stuff. Right now, I’m teaching the history of psychology class. I have so much fun with that! And just last week my first book came out. It’s a history of case studies and trauma. Just being in the classroom feels like home to me so that’s hands down the easiest part of the job!” 

“The hardest is probably just keeping everything organized and coordinated. Being in charge of a department now, I have to coordinate the faculty, the policies, the student body as well as the extracurricular stuff. My whiteboard has three different lists on it. I like making neat and tidy little lists.”

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

“The most fun part is the ‘aha’ moment” when you’re explaining something really difficult in a class and all of a sudden you can almost hear an audible ‘click’ when somebody finally gets the concept. I know I had those moments as a student myself when it comes to brain and behavior and the action potential. I studied it three or four times, and I wasn’t getting it. Suddenly, boom, there it goes! Now being on the other side of the classroom and actually watch that happen--it’s like ‘I did it. I helped somebody find the click!’ It’s really, really rewarding.”

What do you do outside your job to stay sane and relieve stress, etc.?

“I have a ridiculous number of hobbies. I am a painter. I did my own illustrations for my book that just came out. The title is “Famous Case Histories of Trauma,” so I’ve got a gun, a dynamite, a heroin needle and a football. The second-to-last chapter goes from most ancient to most recent, and so the most recent is all the football players. On top of painting, I also sew, so I’m making all my own masks. I most recently started doing needle felting, and needle felting is really fun, especially if you’re stressed out because you get to jab at something with a needle a thousand times. Then, of course, there are the standard video games because I have been a giant nerd my entire life. My sister and I still send each other Mario jokes all the time.”

Where did you grow up?

“My high school was in Royal Oak. I went to Kimball, back when Kimball still existed. I grew up there, and then I went to Oakland University for my bachelor’s degree. Then I moved to Mt. Pleasant for Central [Michigan University]. I was gone for about 10 years. I finished my doctorate, did a post-doc out on the East Coast, and did a teacher training internship at Purdue. Then, I came back home to Michigan because I wanted to be back by my family.”

What is your favorite thing to do in the Rochester area? Or in Michigan?

“Hiking on the Yates Cider Mill trail. Back when I was a college student as soon as the weather turned remotely nice, my friends and I would go to the Yates trail and walk next to the Clinton River. Now being right here on campus with a trail is a huge perk. I’m not usually an outdoorsy person, but when it comes to Rochester, there's so many nice places to take a good walk outside.”

What is your most prized possession?

“My cats. I’ve got two--a sibling pair. I’ve got a gray cabbie and a little tuxedo cat. Previously, I had a big grumpy tuxedo cat but he passed away last year. I still miss him. When he got sick, I got the other two. I saw this little gray cabbie. She was so cute and I went to pick her up, and this little tuxedo launched himself at my face, and I’m like ‘I’m taking you home!’ "

What is your most embarrassing moment?

“Oh goodness. It’s got to be one embarrassing enough to share, but not too much! I’m not really that easy to embarrass. I was always raised with the mentality of ‘Oh well, it happened, let it roll off.’ It’s probably related to giving a presentation at a conference and forgetting a simple answer. One of those things like, wait a minute I should know that. My parents each have their own quotes. If I start getting too anxious or stressed out, my mother tells me ‘Tell your brain to shut-up!’ Then my dad’s is when something is ridiculous: ’Well, that was kind of stupid wasn’t it?’ ”

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

“Probably the most frustrating obstacle has been combating anti-science attitudes. Especially with the political environment being what it is and even just the recent impasse when we could not actually agree on scientific fact. I totally believe that it’s possible to have strong faith and a solid base in science. I spent a good number of years trying to convince people that, 'Yes, you can be Christian and a scientist at the same time.' Just getting people to understand: this is really strong evidence for a scientific basis and just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

Who was your biggest influence?

“When I was a teenager, my grandmother passed away and I always felt like since I lost her, I started channeling her into my own attitudes. As I like to tell people, I come from a long line of very stubborn women. No woman on either side of my family has ever just rolled over and dealt with things as they were. We always decided to step up and change things for the way that they needed to change. My grandmother was the big driving stubborn force behind that.

"When I was in my senior year of college and it came time to start pursuing my career, my mother was in a car accident and sustained a CVC6 spinal cord injury. I was the first one there in the ER. I had to call all our family to come to the ER, and from the moment that the doctor came in after an X-ray and told her that she had a spinal cord injury and she may never walk again, the first word out of her mouth was a piece of profanity. I took that upon myself and said 'I agree with her!'

"We need to change the attitude about this, so that’s why I ended up going into grad school to study brain injuries and neurotrauma because we had to make a change. For some reason, the medical community wasn’t listening to the scientific community and saying, 'There is absolutely every chance that you can stand up and walk again.' It’s been about 13 years now since her injury and she can use a walker around the house. She’s still got limited mobility. She’s one of my acknowledgments on the first page of my book. She’s the one that encouraged me to keep on finding an answer because we can’t just take the answers we have. We have to find new ones. My dad always told us ‘Find something you love doing that means something to you,’ so it meant something to me to try to do this, to try to make a change.”

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