A few days after Monique Mendes defended her thesis to earn her doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, she asked her program director if any other Black woman had done what she just accomplished.
Mendes learned that, according to records, she was the first.
“I was surprised,” she said. “But I was excited. I made history with my PhD.”
Neuroscience has been part of the curriculum for nearly a century. In 2013, the first Black man – Nathan Smith – earned his doctorate. Dawling Dionisio-Santos, who is a medical doctor, earned his PhD in 2019.
Mendes started a dual master’s/PhD program in 2015. When she finished her master’s in 2017, she was the only Black woman in her group to begin doctoral studies. The neuroscience graduate program currently has five Black students.
“I feel empowered,” Mendes said. “I feel that I am setting the stage for other Black women to pursue a PhD in neurosicence at Rochester. I feel like this is the beginning.”
Mendes came to Rochester after earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida.
Mendes is from Kingston, Jamaica, and is the first in her immediate family to receive any college degree.
Family members were among about 75 people who watched on Zoom as Mendes defended her thesis on how the brain’s immune cells – called microglia – sustain themselves in development. Her work has implications for autism and schizophrenia.
Mendes said her parents knew that education was important for their only child. Her parents provided her with violin lessons and had other extracurricular activities to set her apart. “They pushed me to be my best and made sure I had opportunities that would make me succeed.”
“It was wonderful to look out in the gallery and see the number of people who supported me,” she said of the mentors and colleagues who also saw her 45-minute presentation.
“My mom said she got to tears, seeing me like that.”
Being a first and an only – in her family in college, as a Black woman in the neuroscience program – presented Mendes with challenges.
“I would have to say navigating this entire world of academia and figuring out the do’s and don’ts,” she said. “How to advocate for yourself. I had to figure that out.”
Over the past few years, Mendes has suggested ways that other graduate students from underrepresented groups – including those who are parents – can feel more welcome in the medical center programs.
Ania Majewska is a professor of neuroscience and served as Mendes’ thesis adviser and mentor.
“She has had to blaze trails,” Majewska said. “You think it’s how many years out, and she’s our first Black woman graduate. So she’s had to face all kinds of things that maybe she shouldn’t have to face.”
Mendes said her sixth grade science teacher – a woman – sparked her interest. “Her passion was infectious.”
When Mendes moved to the U.S. About 10 years later, she soaked up all the science classes in her high school. “I loved the idea of having a question and using the scientific process to identify the answer.”
Yet lack of gender diversity in the sciences has long been seen as a problem in this country. Majewska is among many women who’ve said they saw few females when they began their studies. Now, racial and ethnic diversity are getting attention.
“I think there’s a lot of people trying to think about what we’ve been doing wrong,” said Majewska.
She said the University of Rochester isn’t alone in its struggles, but that’s not an excuse. “I think it’s entirely clear to everybody at the University of Rochester that we should be doing better. … I think there’s a lot of awareness around this.”
Mendes said that because of the lack of women, particularly Black women, in science and technology, she felt a responsibility to other young females. In addition to teaching duties in the doctoral program, Mendes volunteered to go to area elementary schools during Brain Awareness Week.
“I wanted kids to see that this is what a scientist looks like,” she said. “I have curly, beautiful natural hair. I have beautiful dark skin. I’m intelligent and I’m well-spoken and I’m an immigrant. All of those things make me who I am.”
Majewska said Mendes has dedicated herself to outreach, even during the pressure-filled preparation of her thesis defense.
“Showcasing the people who are successful is really important,” she said. “But it also puts a huge burden on those people. Monique has spent a lot of her time … she has incredible capacity and has enthusiasm and energy probably more than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Mendes also is a role model in her own family. She said a young cousin is about to start college and eventually wants to earn a master’s in machine learning. “She said it was because of seeing me get a neuroscience PhD. That warmed my heart an made me feel like all the sacrifice and work and being away from my family is worth it. I want her to succeed.”
Mendes is scheduled to move to California in late August and egin her postdoctoral research at Stanford University in October.
“I think the sky is the limit for Monique,” Majewska said. “I think she has the intellect and technical ability and the creativity, which is really important in science. Most of all, she has the attitude – ‘I can do that, I will do that, I don’t care how difficult it is.’ I have no doubt she will be incredibly successful and do amazing things.”
Mendes lived for five years in Rochester, and said she will take memories along with her doctorate degree. Those who follow her, she advised:
“Be fearless, be confident. Advocate for yourself. Ask as many questions as you need and follow your dreams. Follow your goals. That’s what I did. I was fearless. … I did what I could to get my name out there and get my science out there.”