Career & Education

Mendes makes her mark

Neuroscience grad student from Jamaica awarded diversity fellowship

Sunday, July 15, 2018

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At only 24, Jamaican PhD neuroscience student Monique Mendes has been awarded the prestigious diversity fellowship from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders in Stroke (NINDS).

The award, the F99/K00 NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience Fellowship, allows her two years of dissertation funding and four years of postdoctoral training. It is the first for the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) in New York, where Mendes is a student.

She works in the Ania Majewska lab and studies the role the brain's immune cells play in development, learning, and diseases like autism. Specifically, Mendes is investigating how some molecules, such as P2Y12 (a purinergic molecule that promotes blood clotting) and CX3CR1 (a protein that facilitates immune cell adhesion and migration), affect microglial development and maturation. Using sophisticated two-photon microscope imaging systems, she is studying how certain drugs impact the activity of microglia.

The university says results from Mendes' study will expand our understanding of how microglia regulates brain development in healthy individuals and people with neurological disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. It will also ultimately open new avenues of investigation for Mendes as she develops her career as an independent research scientist, URMC said.

Mendes moved to Florida after completing third form at Immaculate Conception High in St Andrew, Jamaica, and completed an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Florida. Eager to understand how the brain works, she continued her educational journey by enrolling in URMC's accelerated doctoral neuroscience programme.

She was automatically qualified for a master's degree after sitting her thesis proposal examination.

“I decided to study neuroscience due to observing those around me succumb to the effects of neurological disease,” Mendes says in a post on the university's website.

“Recent improvements in developing novel treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and the hope that these will favourably impact those affected are my main motivator,” she added.

She expects to graduate in May 2020, at the age of 26.

Upon completing her doctorate she plans to pursue an academic career which the NINDS fellowship will position her to do.

“My dream of becoming an academic professor is actually possible because of this scholarship,” she told the Jamaica Observer by telephone last week. She wishes to set up her own lab in the US and some day return to Jamaica to guide students interested in pursuing PhDs in neuroscience.

“I want to do workshops on neuroscience, and I would love to start a brain awareness week in Jamaica. I also dream of starting an organisation there called Society for Neuroscientists, ” she said.

The NINDS award isn't Mendes' first prize in her academic tenure. This year alone she received a travel award to attend the the national neuroscience conference, Neuroscience 2018, which will be staged November 3-7 at the San Diego Convention Center; as well as an award to study in France with experts in neuroscience for three weeks as part of the Cajal course: Advanced Imaging Methods for Cellular Neuroscience.

On her success to date, the 24-year-old told Career & Education that she set goals for her life from a very early age and promised herself that she would achieve everything she set out to, in spite of any adversity that came her way. She realised very early that she thrives in a challenging environment.

“My drive comes from wanting to answer challenging questions and helping those suffering,” she said.

“My foundation for hard work came from my training in Jamaica; it's what I am used to. You have to put in a lot of work to get what you want. From a young age, my mom always said to follow my dreams and keep going for what I want and that has stuck with me all my life.”

That mindset is also what helped her quickly adjust to moving from Florida to life in upstate New York.

“It was hard moving away from family and being in a completely new environment with no friendly faces, and I had to learn how to adjust to the weather conditions,” she said. “I had to learn how to stand out, because I was now around a lot of smart people ... I learnt how to think scientifically and adapt to results that I did not expect.”

Outside of her academic pursuits, Mendes spends her free time playing the violin. She believes finding healthy, productive hobbies helps one to excel.

Asked how she would advise students inspired by her journey to date, Mendes said the following:

“Follow your dreams despite the challenges you might face. My journey wasn't easy, but I never gave up, and I made sure my voice was heard.”

The NIH award is intended to support outstanding graduate neuroscience students and help to define career stages for students from diverse backgrounds who are underrepresented in neuroscience research.

— Jessica Timoll

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