Fulbright Scholar to study the impact of virtual learning on children

Nicole Occidental is a pro when it comes to irritating mice. His job at Massachusetts General Hospital is to study what happens psychologically when mice steal snacks from each other.

“I absolutely loved designing this experience. It’s the first of its kind,” says Occidental, who recently received a full scholarship from the Fulbright American Student Program to start his Masters in Cognitive Neuroscience next year at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

But even though she’s passionate about her flying mice, Occidental really wants to study the effects of virtual learning on children, a research topic she plans to pursue further during her graduate studies in the Netherlands.

“I feel like this topic merges all the research I did as an undergraduate student in co-ops and in labs that I worked in,” says Occidental, who will graduate from Northeastern with a degree in behavioral neuroscience this spring.

Nicole Occidental, who studies neuroscience, received a Fulbright scholarship to study the long-term impacts of prolonged virtual interaction on the human brain. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Since his freshman year, Occidental has worked at Northeastern’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Health where she studies the neurological effects of exercise. She believes this work, coupled with her research at the MGH, set her apart from the group of other students who applied for the prestigious Fulbright scholarship.

portrait of Tyler Gogal

His area of ​​research, social neuroscience, is a relatively new discipline within the larger field of neuroscience. “Not many people do these kinds of experiments where they use animal subjects to model human cognition,” she says. “I think I stood out because I’m working on experiments that have never been done before.”

In Maastricht, Occidental hopes to acquire the technical skills she knows she will need to pursue a doctorate in medicine and philosophy, which she plans to start after completing her studies in the Netherlands.

“During some of my undergraduate research, I felt limited because I don’t have the computational skills I need to examine the structural connectivity behind some of the behaviors in the mice project, for example “, she says. “These are the skills I want to acquire during my higher education.”

Occidental, who has never traveled outside the United States for more than a week, is thrilled to live abroad, especially in a central country like the Netherlands, she says.

She says she chose Maastricht University because it offers one of the best neuroimaging programs of any graduate school. Moreover, being in the Netherlands will give him the opportunity to pursue his second greatest interest after neuroscience: longboarding.

“The Dutch have a totally different style than the Americans,” she says. “They do a lot of freestyle tricks that you don’t see here.”

When the pandemic started and Occidental returned home to Arkansas, she needed a new way to pass the time. She learned to ride a longboard from YouTube videos of Dutch skateboarders.

“I’m so excited to get my master’s while learning to longboard with these people,” she says. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

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