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J’can makes history - Immaculate alumna is first black woman to get a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Rochester

Published:Thursday | August 27, 2020 | 12:16 AM
Monique Mendes graduating from Rochester University in the United States.
Monique Mendes graduating from Rochester University in the United States.

As the first black woman to be awarded a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Rochester (UR), Monique Mendes crossed over into the less than three per cent of black women neuroscience PhDs in the United States.

On July 31, Mendes became only the second black person to graduate from UR with a PhD in neuroscience, following the first black awardee in 2013.

The Immaculate Conception High School past student fell in love with biology from her early high-school years. She migrated at 16, and her pursuit of neuroscience started at 19 years old when she decided to get a job in the second year of her biology degree at the University of Florida (UF).

“At that point, I just took any job that was available, honestly, and it was by luck that I got to work in a neuroscience stroke lab at UF,” said Mendes.

For three years she explored how strokes occur in the brain and therapeutics for strokes.

That was it.

“After working at that lab, I wanted to pursue a PhD. The brain is such a complex organ and it is in charge of so many things, but we really don’t understand the brain in its entirety, and I’m really drawn to these complex problems that need question and answers,” she said.

Mendes was also the first-ever graduate student at UR to receive a diversity award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders in Stroke in 2018. The F99/K00 Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience Award is specifically for outstanding graduate students from a diverse background.


The award provides funding for two years of graduate school and four years of postdoctoral training which she will begin in October at Stanford University, where she will be using novel imaging techniques to investigate the role of specific cells in learning and memory.

Up to grade nine, she did exceptionally well at swimming, tennis and playing the violin.

Parallel to her academic strides, the vibrations from her violin charted her journey from Immaculate Symphony Orchestra to Florida’s and were extended to Brighton Symphony Orchestra.

She expends a lot of effort in the promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion. UR, being a predominately white university, Mendes expressed that she wanted to create a space for people like her. “I want them to feel like they have a community that they can rely on,” she said.

As a result, she built a diverse and inclusive community on campus that hosts events to facilitate discussions and nurture new students from varied backgrounds.

Ultimately, the 27-year-old plans to bring neuroscience to Jamaica in the form of Brain Awareness Week, “where we go around to different elementary and primary schools and teach children about the brain and have really fun exercises. I have met a number of Jamaicans in neuroscience through the ‘black and neuro’ initiative on Twitter that I hope to work with to make this happen within the next couple of years,” said Mendes.

Her advice to the youth of Jamaica is “be fearless, be inquisitive, and follow your dreams”.

“I am proud to be Jamaican, and that is the first thing I say when I introduce myself,” she exclaimed.