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First Black woman to earn neuroscience Ph.D. from UR continues research through pandemic

Aug 31, 2020

Monique Mendes broke barriers as the first Black woman to earn her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Rochester.
Credit Provided by Monique Mendes

Monique Mendes wasn't aware that she was the first Black woman to receive her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Rochester until after she completed her dissertation. 

“It was pretty lonely to be, sometimes, the only Black woman in the conference room or at U of R,” said Mendes. 

In July, a Twitter campaign began with an account called @BlackinNeuro with a focus on highlighting Black excellence in neuroscience. 

“It actually brought tears to my eyes at one point because of some of the challenges of just being the only Black woman or Black person at your institution,” Mendes said. “I thought I was the only person dealing with that but seeing people talk about that around the world was comforting.”

Mendes, originally from Jamaica, is using imaging techniques, she has been studying certain cells in the brain called microglia, which act as an immune defense for the central nervous system and help with long-term memory and learning.

Studying these cells in healthy brains, Mendes said, can help with understanding how things can go awry with certain illnesses and disorders, like Alzheimer's. Her plan is to advance her research at Stanford University in California as a post-doctorate. 

According to the nonprofit research organization Catalyst, Black women make up 2.5 percent of the workforce in science, technology and engineering fields. 

With the coronavirus pandemic, an early analysis has shown that the gender impact has been harder for women in science as recent studies show that fewer women have submitted research to publishers since the pandemic began. The effect on researchers early in their careers is also greater, and can have long-lasting consequences.

Along with scientists around the world, Mendes will be dealing with additional challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While her work has not been greatly affected so far, she expects her research at Stanford will be.

“At the beginning of my post-doc, not being able to be in the lab as much when I get to Stanford because of restrictions, that’s going to be challenging,” she said.

And while her work is not focused on how COVID-19 affects the brain, she said when she has her own lab she would welcome students who are interested in that research.