Graduate student overcomes barriers to receive NIH award

Maggie Ward
January 15, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Many people may not think it takes resilience to become a scientist, but Penn State graduate student Berenice Anaya says otherwise.

Despite various barriers, Anaya, a psychology doctoral student at Penn State, has been awarded the F99/K00 - NIH Blueprint D-SPAN Award, a National Institutes of Health blueprint specialized pre- to post-doctoral advancement in neuroscience award that supports the pre- to post-doctoral transition of diverse graduate students.

Berenice Anaya

Berenice Anaya

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Anaya is advised by Koraly Pérez-Edgar, associate director and cofunded faculty member of Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute and McCourtney Professor of Child Studies and professor of psychology.

The highly competitive award will fund both Anaya’s dissertation research and her transition to a post-doctoral fellow.

Anaya immigrated to the United States from Cuba at 16 years old with only $100 to her name. She quickly learned English before graduating high school and then earning undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology from Western Kentucky University. Anaya is expected to graduate from Penn State with her doctorate in December 2022.

“Honestly, graduating high school and finishing my bachelor's degree was difficult,” Anaya said. “I had zero knowledge about the U.S. higher education system, and was not well-informed about all the extra activities, on top of getting straight A’s, that I needed to do in order to graduate and do something with my degree, like working in a lab and gaining research experience.”

However, Anaya said, during her junior year a Black female professor invited her to work in her lab, which gave Anaya the research experience she needed and opened the doors to more opportunities.

“Despite the barriers and difficulties navigating my undergraduate career, I am extremely thankful for the very strategic persons who said the right thing just in time, who pointed me to a funding opportunity and wrote letters of recommendation, all of which helped me get into a master's program and eventually a Ph.D. program,” Anaya said.

Anaya not only expressed gratitude to those that have helped her but also attributed a lot of her success to the people she has worked with throughout her academic journey.

“As a graduate student, I have been mentored by exceptional female professors, most of who know very well the barriers that minorities face in academia,” she said. “This has made the whole difference and is ultimately what has led me here today. They have taught me to be proactive, to seek every opportunity always, and to strive further and higher with every step.”

Anaya first submitted her F99/K00 application in December of 2019; however, after a misunderstanding regarding a letter of recommendation, she found out her application had been disqualified. Anaya said she had been devastated at the time, but it motivated her to work even harder for the award.

“I think this speaks to the resilience that is so crucial to be a scientist,” Anaya said. “I do believe that if my application had gone through the first time, it would have perhaps not been funded. The extra time that came because one door closed provided additional opportunities that ultimately led to a successful, funded proposal.” 

Her specific research interests include understanding how parents interact with their children and how these interactions impact brain development and emotion regulation in children. Her dissertation will examine infant developmental trajectories of two neural correlates that have been related to regulation in older populations.

Following her dissertation, Anaya will interview at multiple institutions to find a primary mentor and research team that best fits her goals for a post-doctoral fellowship.

“I am really excited about the freedom to focus on my dissertation research and then explore the opportunities from other institutions to find the best postdoc mentor fit, advance my science, and design a strong and interdisciplinary program of research that will help me secure an academic position,” Anaya said.

Additionally, Anaya is hoping her accomplishments will help other minority students too.

“I cannot wait to share this accomplishment with the younger Latinas in my life, who may not even be in the same field as I, but may find hope, motivation, and realization that it is possible to rise above the barriers and thrive,” she said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated January 27, 2021