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Meet Patricia, the 12-year-old soon to be Canada’s youngest university graduate in history

Patricia Dennis will walk across the University of Ottawa stage and accept a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science
Anthaea-Grace Patricia Dennis poses for a portrait at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa on Friday, June 2, 2023. The 12-year-old is graduating from the University of Ottawa’s biomedical science program, and setting a record in the process. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Anthaea-Grace Patricia Dennis is not your typical 12-year-old.

She is a child prodigy who’s about to become the youngest Canadian to ever graduate from university.

On Saturday, Patricia Dennis will walk across the University of Ottawa stage and accept a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science.

She started the program when she was nine, at a time when most of her peers were playing games at recess.

So how is this wunderkind feeling about the big day?

“I’m going to be proud. I’m going to hope I don’t fall off the stage,” Patricia Dennis said in an interview.

“I’m going to be happy for myself too, not just for other people. I am proud of myself for getting to this point, despite all the hurdles and blocks that there have been for a person like me.”

Perhaps no one will be more proud or excited than her biggest supporter, her mom Johanna Dennis.

Dennis said she realized her daughter was special when she was around two-and-a-half years old. She has felt so ever since.

The pair have a close bond.

Dennis was a single mother while she built her own academic career. After obtaining a number of degrees, she’s now a law professor and has been instrumental in her daughter’s education.

“I feel like part of why I’m going to the convocation and walking across the stage is for her own benefit to say, ‘Thank you for being there for me.’ I think that’s really the main purpose of the graduation in the first place,” said Patricia Dennis.

“She’s always there for me whenever I need her to be there.”

Being a preteen in an intensive university program has come with a unique set of challenges. Patricia Dennis has had to deal with people’s preconceived notions and expectations about how she is going to look, talk and act based on her age.

“My advice for people who are also young, gifted, smart, talented — don’t let other people’s expectations bring you down,” she said.

“That’s been a major obstacle for me everywhere I go.”

She also wants to inspire other intelligent and ambitious children.

“I’m very motivated by the fact that I can be the first (to do) something. You know, being able to show other young, gifted and talented people that something like this is possible, that you can get through these roadblocks, has always been something that I’ve always wanted to do,” she said.

The highlight of her university career so far was completing a 40-page thesis on the relationship functional activity in the cerebellum — the part of the brain responsible for co-ordinating balance and movement — and handedness.

The paper concluded that connectivity between the brain and hand is significantly different for people who are right-handed versus those who are left-handed.

After researching the topic for around a year, Patricia Dennis presented her findings at the Ottawa-Carleton Institute of Biology Symposium.

“I can now call myself a researcher,” she said. “There are people showing interest in what I’m doing, and I feel like the master of the cerebellum.”

When she’s not researching or writing about the brain, Patricia Dennis is a “very good” violinist, her mom said.

She also loves playing with her cats and binge-watching TV shows with her family.

After a well-earned break from her studies over the summer, Patricia Dennis is pursuing postgraduate school.

Her top three candidates are McGill University, the University of Toronto and the Illinois Institute of Technology, and she’s interested in continuing her research on functional activity in the cerebellum.

“I’ll probably pick it back up when I have my own lab, and I can get people to also do it with me, because I’ll be in charge,” she said.

Liam Fox, The Canadian Press

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