In 2002, after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Rutgers University, Paulette McRae GRD ’07 applied to the neurobiology department at Yale, crossing her fingers that she would make it into the program. Little did she know that, when she did get in, she would make history.
McRae matriculated at Yale in the fall of 2002 and spent the next four years working diligently alongside her classmates and her professors, never once feeling out of place. But one day, while working in a lab class, McRae realized that she was the only black student in the room.
After asking peers and professors if there were other black students in their classes, McRae found that nobody could think of any others. It was then that she realized the significance of her enrollment.
On March 13, 2007, McRae became the first-ever black student to earn a doctorate in neurobiology at Yale.
“I’m definitely privileged with being the first,” she said.
Jill Gibson SOM ’03, who roomed with McRae and one other black graduate student at Yale, said they had all noticed that there were not many blacks in their respective departments. But McRae was the only one to be the lone black student in her program.
Gibson said McRae was so entrenched in her studies and so fascinated by her peers and professors that it took her a while to even notice that she was alone in the department.
“Nobody noticed for a few years. The refreshing and amazing thing is that nobody was consciously thinking about it when I entered or the couple of years I had been there,” McRae said. “They’re just looking at the scientist I am.”
But at this point in time, McRae said, the lack of blacks in academia is shocking.
“The fact that I’m making history for this is mind-blowing,” McRae said. “It makes you think, wait, what year is it again?”
McRae did not have a perfectly smooth path to the lab bench. Going to school in her hometown of Montclair, N.J., she said she was always an “average student” who simply blended in with everyone else. Her aspiration to a career in neurobiology did not start until well into her undergraduate career.
At Rutgers, McRae was planning to go to medical school and only changed her mind after a long conversation with her academic adviser and careful reflection on the pros and cons of medical school versus graduate school.
“Really, it was the lack of minority representation in academia that led me to my choice,” McRae said. “In school, I only ever had two African-American professors, and they were both in African-American studies.”
Amy Arnsten, director of graduate studies in the neurobiology department, said that, like McRae, most black students at Yale choose to attend medical school instead of graduate school because physicians are seen to have a more immediate effect on the community. McRae said that in Montclair, black doctors were seen as heroes.
For many who know McRae, her success at Yale has been empowering and impressive. Her friends say that her accomplishments show that anyone can do whatever they set their mind to, regardless of their background or history.
Amira Darby, McRae’s sister-in-law, said she finds McRae’s doctorate most impressive because of how hard she had to work to get it. Darby said that, unlike many scientists who have an easy aptitude for their disciplines, McRae has never had things come easily to her.
“Her background didn’t stop her from seeing something that she wanted and going for it,” Darby said. “It shows her community and her younger siblings that there’s no end to what you can do if you put your mind to it.”
But Gibson said that McRae’s work ethic, while admirable, was no different than that of her peers in the labs.
“Paulette was just like her classmates,” she said. “Her work was no different than any of her peers, than anybody else you would find at Yale.”
Professors in the neurobiology department, including Arnsten, said McRae is an important role model for underprivileged and minority children, particularly girls in black communities.
Now McRae, who will soon take a postdoctoral position at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia focusing on epilepsy, said she hopes her success will inspire other minorities to achieve similar goals. Last year, McRae taught seventh-grade science labs to predominantly black students in West Haven. She also goes home to Montclair, a very diverse community, to teach science lectures.
“I hope that younger minorities can look at me and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’” she said. “I’m a living example of what you can do.”