brain scan

Student Profile: Nicole Occidental, Behavioral Neuroscience Major

Tell us about your experience working at Northeastern University’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Health.

I’ve been working at Northeastern’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Health since Summer 1 of my freshman year. As a first year, I was drawn to the center because I was curious about the neuroprotective effects that exercise could have on cognition. It was my first time really getting involved in research and learning how you can apply the scientific methods I’ve learned in my classes to actual scientific studies. I’ve gotten the chance to work on several studies over the years using different exercise techniques and even virtual reality with all of the age groups we work with. As a first-time volunteer, I was looking to gain any hands-on experience. I assisted the graduate students in running the cognitive tests we give to our participants, filled EEG caps, and spotted VO2 tests. But as I stayed in the lab, I was entrusted with more responsibilities, such as helping train new undergraduate volunteers, leading exercise interventions, analyzing data, and writing a literature review. I’m currently working on a honors directed study as well this year at the center. Overall, it’s been an amazing experience that has helped me gain and develop my love of research and important lab skills that I can use in my future career as a physician and a scientist.  

The other undergraduates and graduate students that I work with also make the center such a special place to work in. I’ve made some of my best friends in college working at the center, and everyone’s always looking out for each other.

What has it been like working with Professor Charles Hillman?
Dr. Hillman has been an incredible mentor. He has been so supportive and encouraging about the many, many applications I’ve sent out this fall. He has an open-door policy, where undergraduates can come talk to him about anything, whether it be undertaking independent research projects or asking for advice in applying for graduate programs. He has also been really great to talk to about what I want to do in the future and how best to incorporate my passion for research with my want to go to medical school.  

Tell us about your co-op experience at the Bernardo Sabatini at Harvard Medical School.
My co-op at the Sabatini Lab at Harvard Medical School was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but I was able to learn so many things that I’ve been able to apply to my second co-op at the Ziv Williams Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital and to my senior honors thesis. The Sabatini lab was where I first got involved in neuroscience research that used mice, and I’m not going to lie, but it took some getting used to. Mice used to really scare me.  

At the Sabatini Lab, I was working one-on-one with an MD-PhD student on a project that investigated how dopamine modulates protein kinase A (PKA) activity in spiny projection neurons of the nucleus accumbens during a reinforcement learning model. During my co-op, I spent most of my time running behavioral trials and doing brain tissue histology, skills that I still use today at the Williams lab. 

My mentor was fantastic! He always found the time to answer any questions I had and was willing to teach me things I wanted to know. I remember telling him that I wanted to work on reading and presenting scientific papers, and he did a journal club every week with me where I could practice interpreting figures and presenting the main points of articles. He’s given me so much advice about the MCAT, applying to medical school, and finding a balance between school, work, and just enjoying life.  

My experiences at the Sabatini lab shifted my focus of what I wanted to pursue in the future. I think I truly fell in love with research with this co-op, and I realized that this was also a field I could pursue.  

Tell us about your experience working on your honor’s thesis.
I’m doing my senior honors thesis project at the Ziv Williams Lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, where I also did my second co-op this past spring. The project is called the Mouse Cheating Project, and it’s aimed to study rank hierarchies and inequality aversion using a novel reinforcement behavioral paradigm.  

I felt like I’ve experienced the middle and end of projects through my work at the Sabatini Lab and the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health. I wanted to understand how a project got started, and so that’s how this project came to be. This whole summer and fall, I’ve built the behavioral arena and wired the circuits that control it. I’ve never built or coded anything or wired an Arduino board before so there was a steep learning curve. It was fun though! I spent a lot of time by myself testing out runs of Arduino code, watching YouTube videos about circuits, and reading through Arduino forums to get the paradigm ready. I’ve started to run behavior for my thesis, so I can’t wait to see how it goes! 

How has your Northeastern experience enhanced your future career aspirations?
My Northeastern experience has enhanced my future professional career because it gave me a better understanding of what I want to do. I knew before I came to Northeastern that I wanted to go to medical school. But I’ve now realized the large role research will play in my future career. Through my two co-ops and my work at the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, I’ve learned that I love doing research and working in a lab. These experiences have given me the chance to practice the lab skills I’ve learned in my classes, acquire new ones, and work on projects of my own. 

The possibilities of what you can investigate are endless, and you’ll never know when you can discover something new. By doing research, I can investigate the neural mechanisms that underlie human social interactions, decision making, and neurological disorders and diseases. I can then apply what I’ve learned in the lab to treating patients and coming up with possible new treatments for them.  

Working towards my minor in health, humanities, and society has also given me the chance to gain new perspectives when looking at healthcare issues and medicine. It has driven me to think about the political, economic, historical, and social factors that have structured the healthcare system and that could influence a patient’s beliefs and access to healthcare. It’s helped me to understand the power of creative expression in people’s healing journeys, whether it be through writing, painting, or dancing, and to think about the ethical dilemmas that clinicians and healthcare workers face on a day-to-day basis.  

Overall, I believe that my experiences at Northeastern will make me a better doctor and researcher.  

What areas of research would you like to focus on in the future?
I think I definitely would like to stay within the social neuroscience realm. We as humans are innately social, and we naturally want to form communities and interact with others. Our social interactions influence everything we do, with the people we choose to surround ourselves with influencing every decision and every memory we make, whether we’re aware of their influence or not. I want to study the neural mechanisms behind our social interactions and behaviors to further our understanding of what makes us humans and why we think and act the way we do. We’ve only just begun to think of animal behavioral paradigms that can imitate complex human social phenomenon, such as my thesis and the other projects I’ve worked on in the Williams lab. What excites me the most about the social neuroscience field is the way it encompasses so much and the infinite possibilities of what I can do in the field in the future. I can continue investigating altruism and inequality aversion or investigate the neural mechanisms affected by the social influences of addiction, decision making, and reward learning.  

What is it like to find out you were nominated for the Churchill Scholarship?
I was in shock and in disbelief that I was nominated for the Churchill Scholarship. I never thought I would get nominated for one scholarship, let alone three. In the past, when I read about the nominees for these post-graduate fellowships, I was amazed by their accomplishments and the visions they had of improving the world. I looked up to them, and I’m still in disbelief that I’m standing in their shoes. I’m honored by the belief my mentors, the Undergraduate Research Office, and the university have in me and my ability to positively impact the world.  

Behavioral Neuroscience
College of Science