Meet The First Black Woman To Earn a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester

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November 2, 2020

She’s a whole scholar!

Dr. Monique Mendes just made history as the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Rochester, Diverse Education reports.

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Mendes is a native of Jamaica who had to make several adjustments to get used to the American culture and education system when moving to the United States. Nonetheless, she persisted, attending public schools and eventually pursuing her undergraduate education at the University of Florida, where she majored in biology. It was during that time, working in the lab, where she discovered her love for neuroscience.

“[The lab] is where I had real hands-on experiences working on a project from the beginning all the way to the end. I had to do all the experiments, and I helped with writing the paper. That was where I realized that it was really exciting to be a part of science,” Mendes told Diverse Education.

While at the University of Florida, she joined the McNair Scholars Program, which supports undergrad students with mentorship, financial assistance, and other resources in preparation for a doctoral degree. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she enrolled at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s (URMC) Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience to pursue her doctorate. As a first-generation college student, she depended on mentorship from faculty members and credited them with her success.

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“I definitely had no idea what was going on in the beginning. I was fortunate to have a number of mentors throughout my career that really put my success as a priority. Throughout the years, I gained the experience and the resources I needed to succeed,” Mendes told reporters.

She excelled during her time in graduate school. Mendes received several accolades, including “being appointed as a fellow of the Neuroscience Scholars Program by the Society for Neuroscience. She [became] the first URMC graduate student to receive the F99/K00 NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience fellowship from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders in Stroke, and receiving the Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence in Teaching by a graduate student.”

This past summer, Mendes defended her dissertation, “The Kinetics of Microglial Ontogeny and Maturation in the Adult Brain,” a study about how cells renew and mature in the brain. Upon graduation, she was surprised to discover that she was the first Black woman in the history of URMC to receive a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

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“I felt really incredibly empowered because I felt like I was setting the stage for more Black women to come to Rochester where they can feel like this is something they can do and something they can be successful at. Hopefully, I showed other women that this was possible,” she told Diverse Education.

Mendes said that in hindsight, she didn’t have one other person who looked like her in any of her classes during her time at the University. She found community elsewhere, finding other Black women in her field through social media campaigns like #BlackInNeuro. She hopes her journey can inspire other women to get into the field and says the burden is on schools and companies to create more opportunities for Black women in the sector.

“I would say create an environment that is not only diverse but inclusive and also paying attention to the cultures so that Black women can feel that this is a place for them. There is a seat at the table. I just think that’s probably the most important thing,” Mendes told reporters.

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The neuroscientist is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, where she plans to study how glia cells impact memory and learning. She hopes to transition to a faculty position in the future and become an advocate and mentor for other students.

When she’s not working in the lab, she plays violin and plans to join a community orchestra. Mendes began playing violin at the Immaculate Conception High School in Jamaica. She has played at weddings and the Florida Youth Orchestra, the Brighton Symphony Orchestra, and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra here in the United States.

“It is a sense of community,” Mendes told reporters. “It is nice to have something outside of science to relax. Surprisingly, orchestra is relaxing for me. People would think otherwise. But it feels good to have like a cohort of people that you can talk about something that you are all passionate about. I have had a lot of fun over the years.”

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Congratulations, Dr. Mendes!

Photo Courtesy of URMC Rochester

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