By Angelita Streeter
Mary Fernandes, doctoral candidate in clinical neuropsychology, grew up 8,500 miles away from Atlanta in densely-populated Mumbai, India. From an early age, she was intrigued by the animals, specifically the personalities, intelligence and resilience of the street dogs that populated Mumbai. So, at the age of 13 when she and her mother emigrated to the United States to join family who’d previously made the move, her insatiable curiosity and memories of the street dogs accompanied her.
As years passed and Fernandes contemplated her future, she focused on a career in veterinary medicine. Fernandes enrolled in the University of Maryland at College Park as a first-generation student, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology and animal science. While in school, she worked in a research lab, studying the physiological responses of people with mental disorders. The work helped her realize that her interest lay more with the neural basis of the behavior of animals – or neuroethology – and humans. She then began to research graduate programs that would prepare her to work with people and ultimately have a career in mental health policy where she can impact broad changes to improve people’s lives.
In 2016, Fernandes enrolled in Georgia State University’s clinical neuropsychology program. Graduates of the program earn a master’s degree en route to the doctoral degree. As part of her research, Fernandes uses behavioral eye-tracking and neuroimaging methods to study thought and behavior patterns associated with anxiety. She is taking full advantage of her academic experience and the support the metropolitan area offers. “The research done at GSU is at the cutting edge, and the opportunities in Atlanta, particularly for students interested in neuropsychology and community work, are overwhelming,” Fernandes stated.
Fernandes’ research has resulted in numerous speaking opportunities. She was selected for Georgia State’s Spring 2019 Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, which challenges participants to explain their research and scholarship to a general audience in a short amount of time. Fernandes took home first place. In the fall, she applied to participate in the 2019 Psych Science-in-3 Competition at the American Psychological Association’s (APA) annual conference. She was then invited to speak in Chicago where she won first place, having competed against more advanced doctoral students and post-doctoral contestants. Also this fall, Fernandes was nominated to present at TedxGeorgiaState, an independently-organized Tedx event. And on November 12, she presented her research about anxiety at the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents meeting.
Additionally, Fernandes is a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow and the recipient of Georgia State’s Brains and Behavior Fellowship. “This is the caliber of student we attract at Georgia State,” commented Lisa Armistead, Ph.D., dean of The Graduate School and Department of Psychology professor. “We are excited about the research Mary is doing and the passion she has to change the world. She is one of our shining stars.”
Fernandes says she feels privileged to have the opportunity to pursue her doctoral degree. She knows that for many immigrants, higher education is often out of reach. For Fernandes, the victory isn’t hers alone. “This is for my family, friends and mentors who continue to support me and for those who will come after me,” Fernandes explained. “My opportunity comes with a responsibility. As a brown, immigrant woman, I want to present myself in a way that makes my family proud and inspires others like me.”