A Surprising First for Yale University
Dr. Paulette McRae
“The fact that I’m making history for this is mind-blowing. It makes you think, wait, what year is it again?” –Paulette McRae (as reported by Maggie Reid, Yale Daily News)
The year is, in fact, 2007, a full 306 years after Yale University was founded, and more than 130 years after Edward Bouchet became the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree from that institution (in 1874) and then the first African American in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. (also from Yale, in Physics, in 1876).
Although Yale was originally founded exclusively for the education of white Christian men, the institution has since opened its gates to students of all ethnicities, religions, classes, and genders. And yet progress in each of these areas has been uneven. At universities across the country, men outnumber women in many graduate programs in the sciences, and white students and faculty outnumber their Black counterparts by an even greater margin. These differences are more exaggerated at the nation’s most selective universities.
It is in the context of this set of realities that I extend congratulations to Paulette McRae, Yale’s first African American man or woman to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience. The Yale Daily News describes Dr. McRae’ achievement:
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.
While she and her fellow graduate students were aware of the low number of Black graduate students, it was a while before either McRae or her colleagues figured out that she was alone in her 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.”
Ironically, McRae’s singular status is an affirmation of her original motivation for pursuing doctoral study:
[For most of 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.”
Congratulations to Dr. Paulette McRae. May your career be challenging, fulfilling, and long. May you live and work long enough to experience that day when there will be no more first Black Ph.D.s in any field, the day when Black Ph.D.s in the sciences are no longer a rarity, no longer surprising, and no longer alone.
Posted by Ajuan Mance