The Oberlin Stories Project

On finding her path

Qian Cheng ’13

“Oberlin opens up so many opportunities and challenges for students to explore life choices that even if you have absolutely no idea what you are heading for... you will always somehow find your destination.”

Qian extends her palms as if she's holding the sun.

My entire education before college was very typical Chinese style: following disciplines, studying so hard that I had no time to develop a specific set of interests. Therefore, I was quite grateful to discover that I could declare my major at the end of my sophomore year, which allowed me to find out where my passion lies before making a decision. Oberlin opens up so many opportunities and challenges for students to explore their life choices that even if you have absolutely no idea what you are heading for when embarking, you will always somehow find your destination.

I only had a vague picture of my future when I first came to Oberlin. I knew that I was more of a thinker, relying on rational reasoning, than an artist of any kind. I was always fascinated by life, so I started out by taking biology courses. The two introductory biology courses covered almost all topics from evolution to ecology, from cellular structures to macro-life systems. A unique thing about the introductory level courses in Oberlin is that they are just as challenging (if not more) as upper level classes. They are designed to prepare us for the skills and logics demanded in future studies. The materials we received from lectures, textbooks, journals, labs, and study groups were both down-to-the-ground and cutting-edge, launching on specific examples without losing the forest for the trees. The comprehensiveness allows students to identify their future areas of interests; yet makes sure that no students leave the class with doubt of how this subject is studied professionally. After completing two intro courses in biology, after looking at the big picture, I realized that I wanted to work on not the molecular or evolutionary perspectives of all life forms, but more on the individual and social aspects of human beings.

I began exploring the field of psychology, where I passionately delved into studies of complicated, subtle, and intriguing human relationships. However, from my lab experiences in research methods of psychology, and from my increasing knowledge of existing psychology researches in social, developmental, and personality psychology, I came to the realization that I could not be satisfied by the mere observation of human activities; I craved for the deeper explanations of the outer representations.

My biology training encouraged me to try out neuroscience. Oberlin was one of the first two colleges to offer a neuroscience major for undergraduates, and it continues to foster great minds in this area today. As students, we are able to participate in experiments that are normally inaccessible to undergraduates elsewhere. As my knowledge in this subject accumulates, I have become more confident that within the study of human brain lies the ultimate answers to the questions brought forward by psychologists. I declared a double major in psychology and neuroscience the end of my second year, as if it had been planned all along.

When I walked into psychology professor Patricia deWinstanley’s office, I had not taken her classes, nor did I know her personally. After a referral by another psychology professor, I found myself in Professor deWinstanley’s office with an offer for a cup of tea. Her area of specialty is exactly my interest: neurobiological application in psychology. By the end of our first meeting, I was signed up for a research opportunity with her, even though at that point I did not have much experience in the related fields.

We decided to investigate the modulatory effects of emotion and sleep on memory consolidation and recollection by examining cortisol level changes. This topic was not only interesting to both of us, but was also an applicable approach to studying this topic since we did not have a sleeping lab in Oberlin. Along with two other students, we are learning how to conduct cortisol analysis over this summer, and we look forward to making our contribution to the psychological and neurological understanding of the memory consolidation process in the next two semesters.

I cannot imagine which path would I have chosen if I wasn’t at Oberlin, where not knowing what I wanted granted me the right to search my way. It was both an exciting and rewarding experience. In the middle of this journey, I am not only able to see a path towards my passion, but I can examine myself closer than before. It is just the beginning of yet another journey.