One on one with Nicole Dusang

As a research assistant with Brown’s BrainGate lab, Dusang's current focus is developing brain-computer interfaces (BCI) for the rehabilitation of upper limb movement in stroke patients. In addition, she is passionate about increasing diversity in STEM. Dusang has served as a mentor in the New York Academy of Sciences’ 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures program, and serves as a coordinator of Brown's Graduate Women in Science and Engineering student organization. Upon completion of her Ph.D. from Brown, she intends to continue to pursue the research and development of assistive and rehabilitative BCIs.

Q&A with Nicole:

It was a shock to my family and friends when I joined ROTC in college. I had family members who had served but, I didn’t come from a military family per se. More than that, my family didn’t think that my personality wouldn’t mesh well with military expectations. I was a self-described hippy and those closest to me would have described me as a free-spirit and nonconformist. At this point in my life, the only time I was up at 0500 was because I was still up from the night before. Regardless, I was intrigued by the teamwork and camaraderie present in military culture, and I understood that those ideals of freedom and individualism which I dearly cherished had to be defended. I joined ROTC right before 9/11 – I remember watching the second plane hit the tower on the television with my roommate in my dorm room before my Communications Systems class. Like many Americans, I was in a daze over what had just happened but, it strengthened my resolve to serve. I served in the U.S. Air Force for 11 years and in August 2014 I separated as a Major. 

I served most of my time at Andrews AFB, home of Air Force One. While there, I served as an EOD officer - it was a blast! (pun intended)

I was really excited to make Major! The Air Force was making personnel cuts the year of my selection board so the competition was pretty intense. Also, I was ranked in the top tier of selectees which guaranteed me spot at Air Command and Staff College. 

I've had the privilege of serving and working with so many incredible and inspiring people. All the individuals I met had unique and fascinating reasons why they decided to join the military and they all made the very tough decision to be a part of something greater than themselves. It takes a lot of discipline, resolve, and selflessness to serve in the military- it’s a great deal of time away from your home and your loved ones, your freedom of speech and expression is restricted, and your mission is to support or perform combat operations. 

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of combat is that some folks don’t make it back home. I have met too many Gold Star families while I served, and I think of them often. I was always amazed at how they knew that their loved ones died while doing something that they loved and they were proud to serve our country. When I think of their resilience and the sacrifice of Gold Star families, I reflect on a few things: tell people you love them, don’t take anything or anyone for granted, be humble, and be grateful.

I’m really grateful for my military experience- it was incredibly rich and varied. I had the opportunity to do things as a woman that I never imagined, and to be challenged in a variety of ways. Some of my experiences were terrifying, some nerve-wracking, some rewarding - but, all of them reinforced my resolve to stick to my values and all of them taught me something about myself. Some of those qualities I learned about myself I didn’t necessarily like, so I worked on them until I did like them. This method of constant reflection and self-improvement is something I still find useful.

My military service is also why I chose the research field that I did. I’m not a particularly savvy engineer or anything, I just love the topic and find substantial meaning and motivation in it. I had a lot a friends suffer from PTSD, TBI, amputations, and spinal cord injuries. The technologies for diagnosing, treating, and assisting patients with these injuries were non-existent. We have precision guided missiles that can pinpoint a target within feet, we can launch teams of people into space for months at a time but, downrange [in combat], if someone experienced a concussive blast they were just put on 48 hours of limited duty and no video games - it didn’t make sense to me. It still doesn’t. One thing the military did teach was self-sufficiency- this is sometimes a blessing and curse. I still have so much to learn and there is a wealth of excellent resources at Brown University in the form of faculty, researchers, and other students. I need to get better at asking for help, so I’m working on that! 

When asked to speak on Veteran’s Day, it was an opportunity for me to carefully consider what my country means to me and to reflect on my service to my country and hopefully to articulate those thoughts in a meaningful way. I am an Air Force veteran, but I am also a scientist and engineer. And so the comparison of our democracy to a grand experiment really resonates with me ...
In science, experiments are used to test hypotheses, develop theories, formulate laws, and increase our collective understanding of the natural world around us. Each iteration of an experiment provides new insight, resolves contradictions, and peels away a layer of obfuscation. A similar analogy can be made for the American experiment. The founders realized that they did not understand the sociological implications of this experiment, the truths it would reveal and that doctrine should be principle based. These principles include individual rights, laws of nature, recognition of human imperfection, checks and balances within the governmental framework, and importantly, power delegated from the people …
Veterans are comprised of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and religious beliefs, and yet we serve together - to take an objective, to complete a mission, and to defend the aforementioned principles. I wanted to convey what my country means to me. It means everything. When a veteran commits to serve, she does so with the understanding that she may have to make the ultimate sacrifice. I chose to serve my country because I believe in its principles, its values, and its potential. And when you love something so much, you get choked up when you talk about it. If you want to show gratitude to a veteran, sure, a sincere thank you for your service is always appreciated. But what’s more meaningful, what’s more powerful to me, is that you use your voice to shape our principled democracy. As we continue in this grand experiment, do something. Be a part of it. Engage with your local government. Write an editorial. Affect change. Power is derived from the people. Veterans have defended our principles, but it is every American’s responsibility to ensure that we are governed by reason and truth. Do something.

Nicole Dusang Excerpted from her Veteran's Day speech on November 11, 2019