Ottawa girl to become youngest university graduate in Canadian history

Anthaea-Grace Patricia Dennis, 12, will become the youngest Canadian to ever graduate from university Saturday when she accepts her bachelor's degree in biomedical science from the University of Ottawa.

Anthaea-Grace Patricia Dennis, 12, will accept her biomedical science degree Saturday

A girl speaks while gesturing with her hands.
Anthaea-Grace Patricia Dennis is about to become the youngest Canadian to ever graduate from university. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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

She's 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.

"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."

This 12-year-old is about to receive a bachelor's degree

4 months ago
Duration 0:58
Featured VideoPatricia Dennis started the biomedical science program at the University of Ottawa when she was nine years old. (Photo: Rachelle Elsiufi/CBC News)

Mom instrumental in her education

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 several degrees, she's now a law professor.

Patricia Dennis said her mom has been instrumental in her own 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," Patricia Dennis said.

"She's always there for me whenever I need her to be there."

A girl sits at a table while being interviewed by another person.
After completing her undergraduate thesis, Patricia Dennis says she can now call herself a researcher. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Being a preteen in an intensive university program has come with a unique set of challenges. Patricia Dennis has dealt with preconceived notions and expectations from others 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.

'Master of the cerebellum'

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

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 about 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.