Chisom Obasih: Applying Study Abroad and Language Studies to Science

Many people have asked me how my two majors—neuroscience and Japanese—are connected, and when I first matriculated into Pitt, my answer was that they were simply two of my interests.

But, through my time at the Dietrich School, I have come across many overlaps in my own life. The class that I consider to have had the most impact on my life is called “Aspects of Japanese Language,” which focused specifically on the linguist aspects of Japanese. I was also taking “Introduction to Neuroscience” at the same time. Having both of these classes together—along with speaking to the professor of the Japanese class, Hiroshi Nara—I came to realize how the linguistic nature of a language can impact the brain, and of course how intricately the brain works in processing first and second (and beyond!) languages.

Studying a language also benefits me when working in a scientific environment: Sometimes I approach a problem as if it were a foreign language, and I go through the problem-solving process by breaking things down as if it were a word in Japanese whose parts I just needed to break down in the basic meanings.

Learning a language of course has also opened me up to an entirely new culture, with a complex history and society so very different from that of America. I spent a summer studying abroad in Japan, thanks to the Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State. Though I was only there for the summer, my Japanese improved an incredible amount. More than just my Japanese, however, my self-confidence grew, both in speaking the language and in myself. I learned to have the confidence to speak to strangers in Japanese, I learned to navigate the train systems by myself, and I learned to live with a family that was not my own. I even took some solo trips that I planned all by myself: I was impressed when I was able to check into a youth hostel completely in Japanese, and so was the check-in worker!

I also really enjoyed more or less being an ambassador as a US citizen. Some of my new Japanese friends told me I was their first-ever American friend, and I enjoyed relaying my experience as a black American and as well as first-generation American, the daughter of an immigrant.

I think it was incredibly beneficial studying abroad as an undergrad, because coming back to Pitt to continue my studies, I often think about how my experiences there affect how I live my life back home in America for the better. My experience abroad also helped shaped my career interests, and I know now more than ever that I'd like to go back to Japan again and again for years to come, hopefully to do research. Specifically, I'm really interested in cognitive neuroscience, and I would be glad if I could get involved with research that studies the neuroscience behind language acquisition, both native and non-native languages, and how one's native language can have an affect on brain structures and cognitive abilities.

When I came to Pitt, I planned to focus on the pre-med requirements, and while I am currently deciding between two different paths (medicine or academia), I have received very helpful guidance that has led me an undergraduate career that would prepare me for either. 

I also have found connections between my two areas of study and other disciplines, such as sociology, biology, history, and more, which has really grown my appreciation of the interdisciplinary nature that can arise in academia. I also have come to appreciate the extensive general education requirements of the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, which highlight courses that can be taken across a wide range of disciplines.

Finding connections in these vastly different subjects has changed my way of thinking and helped me learn that I cannot approach every topic with a narrow view. I can't think of a problem in just neuroscience terms, or just Japanese/language-learning terms; it's better to think about a problem broadly from many different angles and I may come to a solution I would not have thought of otherwise. This is especially why an interdisciplinary education is important to me, because it has bettered my problem solving skills immensely.

These experiences, which allow me to think objectively and more broadly will undoubtedly benefit my career, whatever I choose, because it's important to approach problems and situations from multiple viewpoints, and studying both a language and other humanity subjects has enabled me to change my way of thinking from purely scientific to so much more than that.