At the age of 12, Anthaea-Grace Patricia Dennis of the Ottawa Valley will don her black graduation gown and walk onto the stage to receive an Honours Bachelors’s degree in biomedical science from the University of Ottawa (uOttawa).
“I worked so hard from when I was eight,” she says, thinking back to when she took her first university class four years ago. “I have earned these accomplishments. Age has not stopped me from being where I belong, where I deserve to be.”
Her academic journey is nothing short of remarkable, and was, in large part, steered by her mother Johanna Dennis, Ph.D who taught her precocious child to read at age 2.
Anthaea-Grace’s progress was so rapid that she started taking lessons from a distance learning school when she was 3 years-old, did kindergarten and grade one schoolwork simultaneously, and started grade 2 at a public school at age 4, while still finding time for ice skating, musical theater, dancing and swimming.
“She came home and had all that energy and said ‘can I do more school?’,” remembers her mother. “She came home and did schoolwork multiple grade levels ahead.”
By age 6, the family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas where Anthaea-Grace asked to be tested and placed at the grade level based on her abilities, not her age. She was assessed as learning at a grade-eight level.
“I remember this conversation. It was heart-breaking actually. The Little Rock School District suggested I homeschool Anthaea if I could afford it.”
“They told me that staying in the system would ruin the child, because she had so much energy. They wouldn’t put her in an inner-city 8th grade class at six.”
Later that year, Dr Dennis took a job in San Francisco and found a private school for her daughter where parents could play a bigger part in developing their child’s curriculum and could even sign them up for college and university-level classes, which Anthaea was doing by age 8.
The young college student attracted attention and some fellow students asked to take a photo together, but Anthaea-Grace was unfazed.
"Everybody goes to school. They go into a building. They learn the content and they go back home. This was just what school was for me. Everybody’s school is different. I wasn’t really thinking, 'Oh, I’m 8 and that’s different.' ”
When Dr Dennis’ job ended and the pandemic forced classes to go online, she decided it was time to move back home to Canada and applied to have Anthaea-Grace’s university credits transferred to uOttawa, where she could pursue her passion for scientific research. Science runs in the family; her grandmother is a retired math teacher, her uncle a physics professor and her mom a science graduate.
“When I was younger, I always loved science and so I wanted to go into biomedical science knowing that whatever I do will be able to make a difference toward people who have medical conditions. That research, it’s very important and integral for me.”
In her final year of study at uOttawa, she has researched the functional connectivity in the cerebellum – the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary movement. She was drawn to hand and wrist movements through playing the violin.
At uOttawa, she has worked with Professor Tuan Bui, a biologist who has supervised her Honour’s thesis.
“She is very resourceful,” he notes. “Many of the techniques she used in her project were not techniques that I knew, so she had to research and implement them.”
With her bachelor’s degree in hand, Anthaea-Grace and her mother are now weighing options to pursue Master’s and Ph.D. programs, looking ahead to a career in academia to combine teaching with her love of research.
She is convinced that her youth is more of an advantage than an obstacle on her remarkable journey.
“I don’t think I missed out on anything," she says. "Like if I was older, I could have more social interaction, I don’t really believe in that philosophy.”
“If I had been older maybe that would have been detrimental. Maybe I wouldn’t have had the same experiences. I think that because of my age, I work harder, because I feel sometimes, I must prove myself because otherwise people won’t feel I’m capable of anything.”
“I have to prove myself. I work harder and I get better results than I would have if I had been 18 in university.”