A Fulbright scholar’s perspective
Studying and working abroad professionally and personally enriching
LUCIA MARGARET WAGNER
Fulbright research fellow, University of Bergen
Chemistry & Mathematics, St. Olaf College
I sat in a big, airy room, blocked off from the rest of the airport terminal by a dramatic roll of yellow tape. I had successfully made it past customs and a round of COVID-19 testing, and now I waited to be escorted by Securitas to the mandatory quarantine hotel for non-European travelers. The surge of intense adrenaline I had experienced after landing had started to dwindle. After months awaiting my residence permit to be approved, I had, at last, arrived at my new home for the year: Bergen, Norway.
In the spring of 2021, I had enthusiastically learned that I had been awarded a Fulbright fellowship to conduct leading psychiatric research with the Global ECT-MRI Research Collaboration (GEMRIC), headquartered at the University of Bergen (UiB). At the time, I was wrapping up my bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and mathematics from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., an institution founded by Norwegian immigrants in the 1870s. During my tenure as an “Ole,” I had studied the Norwegian language for three semesters, much to my mother’s delight. But as a fourth-generation Norwegian American (my mother’s birth name Seter is a geographical reference to the mountain meadows where my ancestors brought their animals to graze), I was eager to ground my studies of the language and culture in a concrete experience — by moving to Norway.
Conducting my research in Norway is an appropriate fit given the country’s societal customs and strengths. The U.S. population is aging, making it critical to look to more developed models of geriatric care. For the hundreds of millions of seniors diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease (ND), such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, more than half possess a comorbid diagnosis of clinical depression. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a brief electrical stimulation of the brain while the patient is under anesthesia and a muscle relaxant, may be a transformative tool in treating clinical depression, yet there is a dearth of studies concerning ECT’s longitudinal side effects on motor coordination. This is a major dilemma for patients suffering from both depression and an ND, as NDs are typically accompanied by crippling motor symptomatology, such as tremor, freezing, and rigidity. What if ECT catalyzes the depletion of motor control? Is this a risk worth taking to treat adverse mental health disease? At UiB, I am investigating this gap in knowledge under the mentorship of Jan Haavik (Department of Biomedicine) and Leif Oltedal (Department of Clinical Medicine). My results will help patients with both an ND and clinical depression make an informed decision regarding their treatment plans.
Fulbright fellowships, named after foreign relations specialist Sen. J. William Fulbright, fund individually designed study, teaching, and research projects in participating countries around the world. Typical Fulbright scholars include recent college graduates (like me), graduate students, and young professionals, all from a diverse range of fields. The overarching mission of the organization is to facilitate a cultural exchange via individualized interactions to promote mutual understanding between countries. Norwegian Fulbright Executive Director Petter Næss emphasizes that, compared with other public diplomacy programs, Fulbright scholars aim to understand the world around them from an outside perspective. I can testify that this opportunity has been life-changing and highly beneficial for my future career as a culturally aware scientist.
Outside my scientific endeavors, I have welcomed the Norwegian friluftsliv lifestyle, hiking all seven mountains here in Bergen, signing up for the local half-marathon race with a number of my colleagues, and learning how to langrenn (Nordic skiing) from a former Birkebeiner champion. I am in awe of the country’s exemplary relationship with nature, sustainability, and embracing the outdoors. Norwegians can be, in the words of my Norwegian grandfather, “cold fish” but on the trail or mountain, a wave and a declaration of hei, hei! is nearly always reciprocated.
Traveling to Norway during the pandemic is definitely difficult and presents a number of challenges. But for Norwegian Americans itching to visit the nation of their ancestors, rest assured that safety protocols are indeed accounted for, and new measures are actively easing restrictions. For example, unlike my experience entering Norway, there is now no travel quarantine for Americans! Further, there are a myriad of activities in the vast Nordic outdoors with hardly any risk of virus transmission, including hiking, skiing, sledding, and going on a fjord tour via boat.
I am so grateful for the Fulbright commission for supporting my project and me during this year. I would highly recommend that any interested person—particularly Norwegian Americans hoping to connect with their heritage—apply.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.