Monique Mendes, a Jamaican-born scientist, followed her passion for the sciences to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Now, she is the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in that field from the University of Rochester.
The Neuroscience program at the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Del Monte Institute was established in 1925 and Mendes, being the first Black woman Ph.D. graduate from the program, is worth celebrating. The only other Black was a man, Dr. Nathan Anthony Smith, in 2013.
“I feel empowered, I feel excited,” said Mendes. I’m just happy that I was able to get a Ph.D. and to show other Black women that it is possible, and they can succeed.”
The 27-year-old successfully defended her thesis in July and she started her post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford University in September, according to Democrat & Chronicle. For a post-doctoral fellowship at Stanford, Mendes conducts research using novel imaging techniques to better understand how learning and memory are impacted by specific cells called glia.
The journey in the laboratory began in her native country, Jamaica. Her sixth-grade teacher at St. Andrew Preparatory School in Kingston was the only Black woman teaching science at the time. She taught science with passion and always made the lessons fun and interesting. Little Mendes knew then that she wanted to know more.
Interestingly, Mendes realized that none of her professors or teachers as a child were women aside from her sixth-grade teacher. “One of the big things I wish I had had over the years was faculty that looked like me,” said Mendes. She however acknowledges that Rochester University has put measures in place since she has been there to retain Black women in the sciences.
Mendes earned her undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Florida where she was named a McNair Scholar. The award was named after Black physicist Dr. Ronald E. McNair, who died in the Challenger Space shuttle accident in 1986. It is conferred on students from underrepresented backgrounds to increase the number of graduate degrees awarded to people from such backgrounds. It also provides funding for two years of graduate school and four years of postdoctoral training.
“The thing that stands out most about Monique is her energy and enthusiasm,” said Ania Majewska, Ph.D., a neuroscience professor at the University of Rochester in whose lab Mendes worked for five years conducting research on brain development.
“She’s a dynamo. She’s very creative, independent and has incredible ideas. As a mentor, a lot of how you’re measured is how well you train your students and I’m super excited to see Monique go out in the world.”
There is no stopping Mendes. While at the University of Rochester, she became the first URMC graduate student to receive the coveted F99/K00 NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience fellowship from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders in Stroke.
Mendes is a decorated scientist and admired for her contributions to the sciences, however, she wanted to be a musician at a point in time. Her love for science tramped her music ambitions but she never left them behind entirely.
According to Mendes, during her studies, she played the violin and was part of the Florida Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. Also, while at School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD), she played in the Brighton Symphony Orchestra and even performed in two side-by-side concerts with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
Mendes hopes to become a mentor for young Black girls and people of color in and outside her field. While on campus at Rochester, she created a diverse and inclusive community to mentor new students from diverse backgrounds and occasionally held events to help them have much-needed discussions pertaining to them.
During her Ph.D. program, Mendes was awarded the Edward Curtis Peck Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate Student and the Outstanding Student Mentor award.
Her advice to her mentees is that they should “be fearless, be inquisitive” and follow their dreams. “Advocate for yourself; advocate for others,” she advised.