An unexpected turn to physics research

“Here at Mount Holyoke, my professors taught me that there’s a way to combine different academic disciplines to tackle complex, difficult problems. They offered me so much mentorship, inclusivity and communication.”

Taking college classes remotely during COVID-19 required dedication. Doing it on the other side of the world, in the early hours of the morning, required passion, resilience — and maybe industrial-strength coffee.

Yet Mao Yasueda ’24 persevered, beginning her first year from home in Japan with a 14-hour time difference. She’d dreamed of attending Mount Holyoke since high school.

“I appreciated how Mount Holyoke emphasized women’s education, especially in science. With the ambition of becoming a scientific researcher, I believed Mount Holyoke could provide the ideal environment for my academic pursuits,” she said.

Although she couldn’t visit the campus in person, she got a feel for the college through YouTube, Instagram and conversations with Japanese Mount Holyoke alums.

“I was told that Mount Holyoke has a brilliant, lifelong community that supports you not only in college but also after graduation,” she said.

She initially planned to study neuroscience and biology, but her academic trajectory took an unexpected turn when she discovered a profound interest in physics thanks to a Force, Motion and Energy course.

“Even though the class was held over Zoom, the professors tried to make the classroom very interactive. They created a safe space for us to discuss science,” she recalled. “Moreover, they introduced me to the novel concept of approaching neuroscience through quantitative frameworks, a field known as computational neuroscience.”

Her academic journey was further enriched by the mentorship and hands-on research opportunities provided by Professors Spencer Smith and Kerstin Nordstrom, who welcomed her into their labs.

“Working alongside these professors introduced me to scientific research, and I was able to improve computational modeling skills and scientific communication skills,” she said.

Beyond the classroom and lab, her thirst for knowledge extended to various disciplines within the humanities, including anthropology and philosophy.

“Mount Holyoke provided me with opportunities to explore the role of science in society and the ethics surrounding scientific endeavors,” she explained. “This holistic approach to education has been invaluable in shaping my perspective as a future researcher.”

And while she kept busy across campus, her friends quickly developed a running joke.

“If anyone needed to look for me, they’d always find me in the physics lounge studying,” she said.

Beginning this September, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physics, focusing on computational neuroscience.

“Here at Mount Holyoke, my professors taught me that there’s a way to combine different academic disciplines to tackle complex, difficult problems. They offered me so much mentorship, inclusivity and communication,” she said.

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