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Fulbright-funded research will have this student studying the impact of virtual learning on kids

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

Nicole Occidental is a professional when it comes to irritating mice. Her job at Massachusetts General Hospital is dedicated to studying what happens psychologically when mice steal snacks from each other. 

“I really loved designing this experiment. It’s the first of its kind,” says Occidental, who recently received a full scholarship from the U.S. Fulbright Students Program to begin her master’s degree in cognitive neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands next year. 

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

“I feel like this topic melds all of the research I’ve done as an undergrad at co-ops and in labs that I’ve 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 her freshman year, Occidental has been working 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 MGH made her stand out among the pool of other students who applied for the prestigious Fulbright scholarship. 

Her area of research—social neuroscience—is a relatively new discipline within the larger field of neuroscience. “Not many people are doing these types 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.” 

At Maastricht, Occidental hopes to gain the technical skills she knows she will need to pursue a doctorate of medicine and philosophy, which she plans to begin after completing her studies in the Netherlands. 

“During some of my undergrad research, I’ve felt limited because I don’t have the computational skills I need to look at the structural connectivity behind some of the behaviors in the mice project, for example,” she says. “Those are the skills I want to gain during my graduate studies.” 

Occidental, who has never traveled outside the United States for more than a week, is excited to live abroad, especially in a centrally located country such as the Netherlands, she says. 

She says she chose Maastricht University because it has one of the best neuroimaging programs of any graduate school. Plus, being in the Netherlands will give her the opportunity to pursue her second biggest interest after neuroscience—longboarding. 

“People in the Netherlands have a totally different style than people in the U.S.,” 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 how to longboard from YouTube videos of Dutch skateboarders. 

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

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