ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — As she departs for Stanford University to purse a career as a principal investigator (more on that later), we caught up with Monique Mendes, a native of Jamaica, and the first Black woman to receive a PhD in neuroscience from University of Rochester, working with Dr. Anna Majewska.
Before receiving her PhD, she received in undergraduate degree from the University of Florida.
She’s also a classically trained violinist, and enjoyed playing with the Brighton Symphony Orchestra.
Here’s her 1-on-1, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
When someone majors in neuroscience, what does that mean?
So that’s a really good question. It can mean a lot of things. Neuroscience is really interdisciplinary and that means you can be an engineer and study neuroscience, but overall it’s the study of the brain and the central nervous system. It’s understanding how the brain works, how the brain functions, how it functions in normal circumstances, and also in disease.
What sparked this curiosity in neuroscience for you?
I started off loving science just in general, since I was a kid. I had the opportunity to work in a neuroscience lab at the University of Florida, where I was studying therapeutics for stroke. And I think there really sparked my curiosity in the world of neuroscience.
From that time on, I spent three years in that lab at The University of Florida, and I published three papers with that group. I decided after finishing my tenure in that lab, that I wanted to get a PhD in neuroscience. I really wanted to dive more into that world and tackle some of these difficult questions.
I’m really drawn to a challenge and I really loved how complex the brain is and how intricate the brain is. Like there’s specific things that need to work together for proper development, and if proper development doesn’t happen, then there’s issues down in adulthood. So I think a lot of my passion comes from wanting to be challenged and wanting to really dive into that world.
Why don’t you tell me about growing up in Jamaica and your upbringing.
Jamaica is a beautiful little island, and it is surrounded by beautiful waters and beautiful people. I lived the first 14 years of my life in Jamaica with my extended family and my parents. I loved it. I loved Jamaica, it was beautiful. And one of the things that I dearly miss about Jamaica is probably the food.
I went to Saint Andrew Preparatory School, um, in Kingston. I then went to Immaculate Conception High School, where I basically developed my science, and learned more about science. And that’s where I was introduced to the violin as well.
I had a really amazing teacher, Mrs. Ivy, at Saint Andrew Preparatory. I remember her giving us an assignment to create a solar system. And I was so excited. I used like little pipe cleaners and little foam balls. And I realized after that time, like, this is actually my calling, like my other colleagues, they loved writing and they loved, you know, learning about politics and geography, and I just really wanted to work on our science project. So I think that’s where my science love came from.
I know University of Rochester’s a very strong neuroscience program, but what was your time like there as a neuroscience student?
I’m a first generation student. No one in my family had in my immediate family has gone to college. So I started UR honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I knew I wanted to get a PhD. I knew it was going to be hard work, and I knew I wanted to do it in near in neuroscience.
But there was, I had no expectation of what to expect or what to do. So I just went in and I was excited. I knew I was passionate about neuroscience and I went in, I was excited. I had a lot of mentors along the way and advisors that were just very integral to my success… Dr. Majewska, who’s my advisor and mentor. She has just gone above and beyond to advocate for me to make sure that I succeed in the lab.
So many other people at neuroscience graduate program have just made, made my success a priority. So I think having those individuals in my corner, a part of my “mentor village,” as I like to call it really helped me to get to this point.
Moving so far away from family, I have never seen snow until I got to Rochester. I think the first time I saw snow was 2015 for the first time. It was a little anti-climatic the first time, because we didn’t actually have a snow storm, but I think two years, and we had the “official”… like I had to shovel my car and wear snow boots and all of that. So that was a little crazy. It was fun. I had a lot of fun.
Can you kind of compare, contrast the cultures of Jamaica to, to Rochester? How are they different and maybe how are they similar in any, any way?
In terms of similarities, I would say Rochester and Jamaica, the people are fantastic. I have just had a great time meeting new people, trying new experiences. Everyone has been really welcoming all of the circles that I’ve been in in Rochester. That’s the same way in Jamaica, very open to new people and new experiences.
In terms of differences, I would say the first time I came here, I went to an all girls school in Jamaica. So that kind of difference of going from an all girls school to an American public school in Florida was, was very different. You said to compare it to Rochester, that’s a big thing. I would say the food is very different. The cultures are a little bit different.
Have you had a garbage plate?
I have had a garbage plate. What’s the consensus. I think it’s good. I actually think it’s really great. I love that kind of stuff. It’s really fun.
What was your cultural experience like when you started your neuroscience program? You must’ve felt like in some ways a sore thumb. You talked about the supportive community, but who’s that like, going into this environment where no one looked like yet and the culture was different?
I would say it was a very lonely experience at first. Especially coming to Florida from that jump to high school. One of the things I’ve said before is that I wish I had people that looked like me that were actually going to pursue a PhD in neuroscience, not only women because I’m a woman, I’m a black woman, I’m also an immigrant. So having someone that has experienced all of my experiences would be fantastic. But I have found mentors along the way outside of Rochester at Rochester. So I’ve been able to navigate some of those challenges over the years.
Has it ever been in the back of your mind that you would be the first black woman to graduate with a neuroscience degree or did that like, did it happen?
I had a feeling there were only a couple of black students, but I had no idea that I was the first black woman until I actually sent a text message to my advisor actually. Cause I was going to post something on Twitter and just make a nice statement and I wanted to make sure, and I said, Oh yeah, am I the first black woman? And she’s like, “yeah, you are.”
And Nathan was the first black man to get a PhD. And I was, I was actually surprised, but I felt really excited at the same time because I made history and that’s like, like I can never, this can never be taken away. I’ll always have this as being the first black woman to get a PhD from U of R, in neuroscience.
What do you want to do with your neuroscience degree what’s of the career trajectory for you?
That’s a great question. So in a couple of weeks, I’ll be moving on to Stanford, to do my postdoc with Dr. Mark Schnitzer. I plan to work as a principal investigator. That’s my ultimate goal. I’d love to understand learning and memory. I’d love to use my knowledge for my PhD, looking at glials and understanding the role of glials in learning and memory processes. So that would be my ultimate goal in the next couple of years.
Glial are these really, really fun cells in the brain. They are immune cells, so they’re important for responding to injury and any sort of infarct or anything happening in the brain. That’s one of their main roles, but most recently they’ve been found to be critical in normal brain function and normal brain development. So they have kind of a dual purpose in the brain.
So a researcher, a principal investigator is like an advisor, and I’d also love to mentor students. That’s really important to me. I’ve spent a lot of my time in the PhD program, working with students in the lab. I love to teach, I love to help with them getting to their goals. So that is also why I’d like to be a principal investigator.
I always like to end on “The Big Three” (big picture) questions you have for it. What about your hometown in Jamaica was so important or allowed you to, or gave you something that allowed you to succeed?
That’s a great question. I would have to say the people, family, family, roots, culture, everything about family was what allowed me to be successful. They pushed me, they encouraged my inquisitive nature and most importantly, they told me to be fearless, which I think is important. And, jumping into such a big field, in which no one looks like me.
If you could accomplish any one thing in your career and have that be like the thing you’re known for or the thing you’d most like to accomplish, what would that be?
I’d have to give you two things. Um, I’d like to be known for doing rigorous science and exciting science and also being an advocate for underrepresented groups. Um, such as me like black women who want to pursue PhDs. I’ll give you a few.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to be a neuroscientist or do you have any advice for a black woman looking to get her PhD?
I would say first off be fearless and set goals and follow your dreams and don’t be scared to advocate for yourself and just start each new day, um, and be passionate about your fields.