Monique Mendes ’18M (MS), ’20M (PhD)

Blazing new trails for Black women in science

Monique Mendes ’18M (MS), ’20M (PhD)

Monique Mendes ’18M (MS), ’20M (PhD)

Monique Mendes ’18M (MS), ’20M (PhD)

Monique Mendes ’18M (MS), ’20M (PhD) moved from Kingston, Jamaica to South Florida, when she was a teenager. Her parents came to the U.S. with the hope that Monique would live the American dream. And, because of her hard work, determination, and passion for science, she has.

Mendes recently earned her PhD in neuroscience from the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD). She’s among just a small percentage of Black students in the U.S. who earn a PhD each year and an even smaller percentage of Black women in the U.S. who pursue an advanced degree in neuroscience. Mendes is also among a small number of Black graduates from SMD’s doctoral program in neuroscience.

“My love for science began as a small child in Jamaica,” says Mendes. “I was always the one bringing in my science projects early.” Her interest grew during her undergraduate years at the University of Florida. Understanding the complexities of the brain was important work, and it was exciting. That’s when she started doing research on strokes in a neuroscience lab there. Mendes quickly discovered that a career in neuroscience was for her.

In her senior year of college, Mendes was awarded a Ronald E. McNair Scholarship, which provides resources to prepare eligible scholars from underrepresented backgrounds for graduate education. Mendes—an immigrant and first-generation Black student—was ready for her next step at the University of Rochester. And, today, she is a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University pursuing research on the brain, learning, and memory.

What recent achievements stand out for you?

A few things come to mind. During my PhD program, I was given the Edward Curtis Peck Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate Student and the Outstanding Student Mentor award. It’s inspiring to me to watch people learn, grow, and become better scientists.

I was also awarded a fellowship that provides young neuroscientists from diverse backgrounds a pathway to develop independent research careers. It’s different from many other fellowships in that it provides support over six years, so it has funded two years of my graduate study at SMD and will fund four years of my post-doctoral work at Stanford. Earning this has been such an honor. And, because it eases financial pressures, I can really focus on my research.

What community activities have meant the most to you?

As a graduate student, I organized an annual equity and inclusion breakfast for SMD students during Welcome Weekend. As a first-gen student, I knew first-hand how hard it was to successfully navigate the academic, social, and cultural aspects of higher education. So, at these events we hosted panels that featured women in science, international students and faculty, graduate students of color, and others. We wanted new students from underrepresented backgrounds to know that there would be a culture and community here for them.

What is the Black in Neuro initiative?

The Black in Neuro initiative is led by a group of Black neuroscientists from around the world who are dedicated to amplifying Black voices and celebrating Black excellence. This summer, the group hosted #BlackinNeuroWeek, an online effort to support one another. I participated on social media and got to know Jamaican American scientists and many others—it was eye opening, collaborative, and connecting. The website is powerful, too, and offers many resources. I’m featured there as are many others who are available to speak, offer advice, and build community.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome?

Moving to the U.S. from a small Caribbean island and shifting from a private, all girls, Catholic school to public school was hard, but it was also a huge growth experience. It was definitely challenging being an immigrant and a Black, first-gen student in college and graduate school. I worked hard to identify opportunities to grow, ask questions, and contribute ideas. And, because there aren’t many faculty members in this field who look like me, I sought mentors inside my doctoral program and outside of SMD. Having a strong community has been critical to my success.

What are your goals?

My goal is to be a principle investigator at a research-intensive institution, to have my own lab, and to be a mentor and inspire students. Mostly, I want to pursue great science.

What advice do you have for Black women in science?

Overall, be fearless. I mean that. Go out and pursue challenging questions. Be inquisitive. Reach out and collaborate. Advocate for yourself. Seek out mentors and remember that it takes a village to be successful, which was certainly the case for me.

What would surprise people to know about you?

I play the violin. During high school, I was part of the Florida Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. I thought about becoming a professional musician and attending a conservatory, too, but my love for science won out. While at SMD, I played in the Brighton Symphony Orchestra. I even performed in two side-by-side concerts with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

What are you reading?

I just finished Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming. For me, she is the definition of fearless.

What are you most proud of?

I told myself I’d have a career in science and I’m doing what I love and set out to do. I’m proud of my achievements, of the way I’m advocating for young scientists, and I enjoy being a mentor. I’m happy that so many important people in my life were there for my dissertation defense this summer. Because of COVID-19, it was a virtual defense, which made it possible for about 75 family members and friends to attend, each of whom has helped me get where I am today. It was exciting to look at the Zoom participants and see them all there, smiling and proud of me, too.

Learn more about Monique Mendes here and in this Democrat and Chronicle article.

— Kristine Thompson, October 2020