IN the field of science, where women are under-represented and marginalised, two Jamaicans have distinguished themselves by blazing an impressive trail on the cutting edge of academic inquiry. Dr Monique Mendes and Dr Shanice Webster, postgraduate researchers at Stanford and Duke universities, respectively, were selected in the 2022 cohort of Hanna H Gray Fellows by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) — the largest private biomedical research institution in the United States.
The prestigious fellowship, which is awarded annually to 25 exceptional early career scientists in the United States, provides up to US$1.4 million each for postdoctoral training and early career assistance as independent faculty for up to eight years. According to a statement from HHMI, the fellows represent "a promising and more diverse future for biomedical science". Dr Mendes, a neuroscientist, and Dr Webster, a plant microbiologist, both expressed their elation at receiving the distinguished honour, and shared their remarkable stories of dedication and an unwavering passion for science with All Woman.
Scientific curiosity ignited
Both scientists unequivocally attributed their strong educational foundation to their formative years in Jamaica. A product of Kingston, Dr Mendes attended St Andrew Preparatory School and spent three years at Immaculate Conception High before migrating to the United States. She vividly recalled the moment she discovered her love for science in grade six, when she embarked on a class project to create a model of the solar system.
"I remember just really enjoying learning, not only about space or the planets, but also the scientific process of putting everything together and understanding why things are they way they are," Dr Mendes recounted.
The parish of Clarendon will always be home for Dr Webster, who attended Denbigh Primary for two years before transferring to Hayes Primary after relocating to live with her grandmother. She later attended Glenmuir High, where she also completed sixth form. Dr Webster traced the spark that ignited her passion for science to a distinct childhood memory that had a transformative impact on her life.
"When I was five years old my grandmother bought me a science textbook. She was at the market in May Pen…I remember just being very intrigued by the content, and wanting to learn and understand it," she recalled.
This early fascination with science served as the driving force behind their outstanding academic journeys, which were marked by exceptional achievements and resilience in the face of challenges. Dr Mendes completed her undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Florida in 2015 before continuing her studies at Rochester University, where she had the distinction of becoming the first black woman to earn a PhD in neuroscience in 2020. Coincidentally, Dr Webster also obtained her undergraduate degree in biological chemistry in 2015 from Grinnell College. In 2021, she completed her PhD in microbiology and immunology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.
Both women initially struggled with adjusting to the new environment in the United States. Dr Mendes admitted to feeling less than prepared and unsure about the specific things she needed to do early on to succeed.
"I constantly felt like I was fighting tiny battles and I honestly didn't know what I was doing. It was increasingly difficult to deal with the transition from college to grad school in terms of studying, managing rotations and figuring out new things. I was ultimately able to overcome these hurdles by being determined, relying on the guidance of my many mentors and leaning on my very supportive family," she explained.
For Dr Webster, the greatest challenge was being away from her family for almost 10 years. She credited her unshakeable faith and the support of mentors, family and friends for helping her to get over the line.
"I remember moments in my PhD when I felt as though I wouldn't be able to finish it, but my faith in God, my friends and the mentors He placed in my life helped me in those low moments," she reflected.
Their tireless perseverance and unwavering commitment to academic excellence propelled these two impressive scientists into coveted research positions in pre-eminent laboratories in the United States. Dr Mendes is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Mark Schnitzer Lab at Stanford, which is renowned for the development of the miniature fluorescence microscope and novel techniques of imaging the nervous system in behaving animals. Dr Webster is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sheng Yang He Lab at Duke, where the focus is pioneering work in the area of plant infectious diseases.
Both women envision a future where their scientific endeavours lead to groundbreaking discoveries and transformative progress in their respective fields. Dr Mendes aspires to unlock the mysteries of astrocytes, which are specific cells found in the central nervous system. Her investigations have the potential to illuminate fundamental questions about brain function, deepen our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, and pave the way for innovative therapeutic interventions.
Dr Webster, on the other hand, seeks to push the boundaries of knowledge as it relates to the intricate interactions between plants and microbes such as bacteria. In a world where the global population is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, understanding and preventing plant diseases caused by pathogens is of utmost importance. By understanding how plants select beneficial microbes and combat harmful pathogens, she aims to revolutionise plant disease prevention and contribute to a more sustainable and secure food production system.
Inspiring the next generation
As the scientific field continues to strive for greater ethnic and gender diversity, Dr Mendes and Dr Webster expressed the hope that their journeys will serve as inspiration for young Jamaicans. Speaking specifically to young girls with an interest in science, Dr Mendes imparted a message of fearlessness and determination.
"Being fearless is about taking that extra step and being inquisitive. It puts you in such a great position to be open to opportunities and it instills that drive to never give up on pursuing your dreams," Dr Mendes stated.
Dr Webster emphasised the importance of maintaining faith and seeking help when needed. She also urged the next generation to be resilient in the face of obstacles that can often seem insurmountable.
"Put God first and allow Him to guide you in every aspect of your life, including your career. Bumps and obstacles will come, but stay the course. Don't be afraid to reach out for help. The majority of people want to help. Dream big! Your crazy dreams can become a reality!"