NCCU Graduate Makes History as First Eagle to Pursue Neuroscience Ph.D. at Yale

Posted May 03, 2023, 3:48PM

When Netanya Dennis, a chemistry and psychology double major, walks across the commencement stage on Saturday, May 6, she will be the first Eagle to begin Yale University’s doctoral program in interdepartmental neuroscience in fall 2023.  

“I was intentional with my choices regarding my academic career since I knew I was going into neuroscience,” said Dennis. “Neuroscience is one of those fields where there isn’t a straight line to obtaining a doctoral degree.” 

Dennis initially believed her collegiate career would lead her towards a degree in biochemical engineering as her formative years were spent at Montessori schools and she attended an early college high school focused on engineering. 

“My mom, who is my biggest cheerleader, a public-school teacher and a graduate of NCCU, placed me in Montessori schools with the concept that ‘You pay now, or you pay later,’ which was very profound to me,” explained Dennis. “Within my Montessori programs, I experienced hands-on learning, and we did most of our learning outside, which sparked my love for the sciences and STEM programs. I ended up attending the early engineering college at UNC Charlotte.” 

However, Dennis realized that she wasn’t passionate about pursuing a career in engineering and upon arrival at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), she forged a new path, double majoring in biology and psychology. Yet the spark that she once had for STEM remained dim.  

Thanks to Tonya Gerald-Goins, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Dennis’ love for the sciences was renewed with encouragement to change her biology major to chemistry while retaining her psychology studies. 

“At the time, I was considering going to medical school, so I figured if I study chemistry, I will stand out amongst other applicants,” stated Dennis.  

By switching to chemistry, Dennis also received an opportunity from Fei Yan, Ph.D., NCCU professor of chemistry and biochemistry and Kizhanipuram Vinodgopal, Ph.D., retired NCCU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry chair, that would place her on a neuroscience trajectory.  

“He pulled me aside in class and said I should work in his lab,” Dennis explained. I genuinely loved being in her lab and liked finding things.” 

Her lab experience, coupled with her psychology classes and participation in a summer research program at Michigan State University, fostered a deep interest in behavioral neuroscience.  

Dennis is also thankful for the support she received from the Ronald E. McNair Scholars program, which prepares students prepare students from low-income, first-generation, and traditionally underrepresented groups for doctoral studies. 

“Being a Ronald E. McNair Scholar affords me the opportunity to go beyond my field of study to develop the skills necessary to pursue my Ph.D. and interact with other scholars from various walks of life,” stated Dennis. “Everyone's experience or their connection to the McNair space is a little different, but it is the same. Through this collaboration with others, I have been learning more about the fact that you all meet with other McNair Scholars to have conversations and build your network.” 

Dennis’ advice to current and future Eagles? 

“Talk to your peers and advisors. When you are a first-year student, it can be hard to reach out to professors and ask for help, or even say I am lost and need help. But you can. And advocate for yourself.” 

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