Neuroscientist at Stanford University
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“Continue being inquisitive. Ask as many questions as you want. I don’t remember where I saw this quote, but I live by it: ‘be annoying, but be respectfully annoying.’ I constantly ask for help. If I need something, I will bug someone, but I’ll do it respectfully. [That] really helped me get to where I am.”
As a neuroscientist, Dr. Monique Mendes has dedicated her career to investigating the microscopic inner workings of the brain: how cells support learning and development, and how they are altered by disease. But her fascination with science began with exploring a structure of a much grander scale: the solar system.
Monique undertook this exploration of the universe during her fifth-grade science class in Kingston, Jamaica. “Our teacher asked us to make a solar system out of foam balls and little pipe cleaners,” she recalls fondly. “I remember thinking, ‘This is amazing! This is actually out there.’” In Jamaica, students in primary school are able to choose their coursework, and thus Monique focused her early education on scientific disciplines like biology, chemistry, and physics. This interest in science persisted throughout high school, even as Monique moved with her family from Jamaica to Florida during her sophomore year.
However, only after beginning her undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Florida did Monique cement her fascination with the brain. Such an interest was borne in part out of the opportunity to work in the lab of Dr. Sylvain Doré, where she used a mouse model to study the ability of catechin — a chemical found in grapes and green tea — to protect against neural damage caused by stroke.
Monique entered the University of Florida as a first generation college student, who before then had never met a neuroscientist or person with a PhD. Having the opportunity to join Dr. Doré’s lab and to conduct research first-hand was critical to her recognition of science as a viable career. “I didn’t know I could be successful until my junior year, when I presented my research for the first time at a conference and got feedback that people really liked it,” she recalls. Encouraged by her positive experiences in research as an undergrad, Monique next decided to pursue a PhD in neuroscience. In doing so, she would come to face challenges shared by many first generation students seeking graduate education, who often lack access to important “insider” knowledge about how best to prepare. “If you don’t have a spouse or a parent or a mentor who’s going to help you [through the process], it can be overwhelming” Monique explains.
As one way to combat this disadvantage, Monique was admitted into the McNair Scholars Program, which she had learned about through a university newsletter and applied to after encouragement from her mentor, Dr. Doré. The McNair Scholars Program is a federally-funded initiative meant to support underrepresented students interested in graduate school by providing mentorship, financial assistance, and access to research opportunities. “It was life-changing,” Monique recalls. “[The McNair Scholars Program] created a space for me to meet other individuals that were also first generation who were all motivated and excited about science.”
“It was life-changing. [The McNair Scholars Program] created a space for me to meet other individuals that were also first generation who were all motivated and excited about science.“
Monique’s experience studying stroke with Dr. Doré served to ignite her fascination with the brain’s resilience against neurological damage and disease. In pursuit of this interest, she ultimately chose to conduct her PhD in the lab of Dr. Ania Majewska at the University of Rochester. There, she investigated the function and lifecycle of microglia: immune cells in the brain that form a critical line of defense against infection and disease. Specifically, Monique studied the ability of microglia to undergo a process of “self-renewal,” whereby they rapidly recover and repopulate — including after neural damage, which can occur, for example, during a traumatic brain injury or stroke. In this work, Monique began by deliberately depleting the population of microglia in vivo in the visual cortex of mice, reducing cell concentration by 75%. She then used two-photon microscopy — a neuroimaging technique that makes it possible to observe and track cell populations in real time — to examine how microglia recovered in the ensuing days. Remarkably, Monique found that microglia “come back rapidly and acquire mature characteristics,” such that the number of microglia had returned to original levels only three days after depletion occurred.
Despite finding the University of Rochester to be a generally welcoming and enriching institution, Monique’s initial years there were marked by feelings of uncertainty and imposter syndrome. She fought to learn the so-called “hidden curriculum” of graduate school: that is, knowledge of the implicit and unspoken norms, expectations, and values of academic institutions. Monique remembers struggling to pick up bits of knowledge that her peers seemed to possess automatically, such as the value of networking, publishing in top-tier journals, or even calling professors by their first names.
“I asked a lot of questions about my progress and my productivity. [My mentors] never made me feel like they were stupid questions.”
Undeterred, she took a proactive approach to filling in these gaps in her knowledge, recruiting a “village of mentors” that included not only her advisor Dr. Majewska, but also her peers and other faculty from within and outside Rochester. Monique emphasizes that open, honest, and frequent conversations with those in one’s academic circle are vital to dismantling the barriers that exist between would-be scientists and a career in STEM. “One of the things I really valued from my mentors was their honesty and their patience. They were very patient in helping me navigate [graduate school],” she explains. “I asked a lot of questions about my progress and my productivity. [My mentors] never made me feel like they were stupid questions.”
Over time, opportunities to learn from mentors and engage with peers reaffirmed Monique’s belief in her aptitude as a scientist. This increasing confidence, moreover, was mirrored by an impressive string of accomplishments: Monique became the first Black woman to be awarded a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Rochester, and was awarded a prestigious Diversity-Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) F99/K00 grant to continue her research as a postdoctoral fellow. She chose to conduct this postdoctoral research in Dr. Mark Schnitzer’s lab at Stanford University.
At Stanford, Monique now focuses on understanding the role of astrocytes — which, like microglia, are glial cells in the brain involved in immune responses — in learning. To date, the majority of neuroscience research on learning and memory has focused predominantly on the role of neurons, even though glia have been estimated to take up at least 80% of the brain. Monique aims to take this work one step further by examining how learning might also crucially depend on interactions between neurons and glial cells.
In addition to her research, Monique dedicates her time to passing on the valuable mentorship and support she has received herself to future generations of scientists. Most recently, she has become involved with a program at Stanford called Women in STEM, in which undergraduates interested in pursuing research receive mentorship from more advanced scientists. “It really ignited that fire in me [for] helping women, first generation students — any groups that are underrepresented in science.”
Monique’s conviction in the importance of representation in STEM resonates strongly with her personal experience as a Black, female neuroscientist. “The biggest thing that I still don’t get over or understand is the shock that people have when I say I got my PhD in Neuroscience. I don’t know if it’s that a lot of people don’t meet PhDs, or it’s just shocking because I look the way that I look.”
“ I don’t know if it’s that a lot of people don’t meet PhDs, or it’s just shocking because I look the way that I look.”
Throughout her career in science, Monique has demonstrated a fierce resilience against the challenges of imposter syndrome and the hidden curriculum, as well as dedication to building mentorship networks that educate and uplift the scientists they comprise. All the while, she has also maintained an infectious joy for the research questions she pursues. Going forward, Monique hopes to spread her enthusiasm for science by running her own lab, where she will continue investigating how neurons and glial cells interact in the service of complex cognition. She also strives to increase access to neuroscience within her home country of Jamaica. “I think all the time about how I could bring something like Brain Awareness Week to Jamaica. Most students in Jamaica don’t even know that you can get a PhD in Neuroscience. There aren’t a lot of research opportunities,” she explains. “Opening up their minds to these experiences would be so worthwhile.”
Monique Mendes, PhD, is a Postdoc at Stanford University. Check out her personal website here
by Camille Gasser