UCR Ph.D. Juliet Beni is Always Early to the Academic Party

A Ph.D. as a teenager is a rare feat

Juliet Beni, 19, with a robe she borrowed from her mother, Susan Hackwood. Photo credit: Peter Phun

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — At 19, Juliet Beni is already a UCR veteran, with a corner office and a view.

Okay, so the office is a former storage closet. Beni has called the narrow strip of real estate her academic home ever since she was a senior in the psychology department, when she was 15.

The daughter of UCR engineering professors Gerardo Beni and Susan Hackwood, Juliet Beni is the youngest person ever to graduate with a Ph.D. from UC Riverside since graduate programs began on the campus, according to UCR Registrar Bracken Dailey.

“In my experience we have had no one who even approaches that age,” said Linda Scott, who has worked for 30 years in UCR’s Graduate Division.

Juliet Beni went to a Montessori preschool, then her father homeschooled her along with her sister Catherine, who graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a Ph.D. last year at the seasoned age of 20.

For both of them, community college classes provided the stepping stone to four-year schools. Catherine focused on applied math at UCLA. Juliet focused on psychology at UCR, working through her undergraduate assignments and moving on to graduate work that included time as an instructor of a large health psychology class. She said she does get comments about how young she looks.

“People who know are okay with it,” she said. “As long as I’m a good resource to them and a good teacher, I don’t think it really matters.”

Juliet Beni, 19, earned a Ph.D. in psychology at an age when others are just starting college. Photo credit: Peter Phun.

She said the most important thing to know is that hard work pays off. “I knew how to study and how to learn,” she said.

Juliet Beni’s childhood hero: UCR Professor of Psychology Robin DiMatteo, who earned her Ph.D. at the age of 24 from Harvard University. She researches doctor/patient communication and she is Beni’s faculty advisor. “I’ve known her since I was 13,” Beni said. “I have wanted to be a physician since I was a kid.”

In the DiMatteo lab, Beni remembers being moved by an audio recording of an older man trying to explain his symptoms to his physician. “The doctor was completely not listening to him,” said Beni.

“When I sit in front of a pile of organic chemistry notes, I think of that – the outcome and what I want to accomplish.”

DiMatteo said Beni has always shown the utmost diligence, responsibility, and creativity in her work. “No matter what obstacles she faces, Juliet works hard to solve problems and develop the necessary strategies to get things done. I have never once seen her get discouraged or fail to try to achieve a goal. She has amazing self-discipline,” DiMatteo said. “She also has a strong dedication to the delivery of excellent medical care to all, and a very strong commitment to the future of people in the Inland Empire.”

After some travel this summer, Beni will continue as a student in UCR’s Haider program in Biomedical Sciences, and she hopes that her next diploma will be an M.D. from UCLA.  Then she will be a doctor who listens carefully to her patients.

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