What do Neuroscience and Deaf Studies Have in Common? Just Ask Victoria Mousley ’17

gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. She wants to be a cognitive neuroscientist.

And with an education from Holy Cross, she can.

It all started four years ago when Mousley signed up for her first semester of courses and decided American Sign Language (ASL) sounded like a cool class to take.

“I had no idea about deaf studies before Holy Cross,” says Mousley. “I had never taken a class in high school, or had any exposure to the Deaf community.”

Fast forward two semesters of ASL classes and Mousley found herself copying down the address of Sue Philip, president of a non-profit for Deaf victims of domestic violence, and the Deaf woman she would be working for as a part of the community-based learning (CBL) component of her ASL class.

“It was a day that probably changed my life, and I didn’t know it at the time,” says Mousley. “The language courses at Holy Cross were important because I needed to be able to communicate, but the CBL experience was what made me fall in love with what I was doing in deaf studies. The meaning came out of engaging with the community, the history, the culture.”

Mousley’s weekly meetings with Philip — doing administrative work like organizing, attending meetings and drafting minutes — turned to more frequent visits and involvement beyond what was required for CBL, as Philip quickly became a mentor and Mousley realized her passion for the Deaf community. Mousley began working as a teaching assistant at The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, Massachusetts, where she became particularly interested in exploring deaf education and the disparities in education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

While discovering new passions to bring back to Holy Cross, Mousley recalls, she was also stumbling upon new interests on the Hill — some more surprising than others.

This is where the science comes in.

“When I got to Holy Cross, I thought, ‘This neuroscience thing sounds really scary and it’s probably not for me,’” says Mousley. “Science was never really my thing in high school; I was fine at it, but I didn’t love it.”

But spring semester of her sophomore year, Mousley faced that fear head on in a class on the philosophy and neurobiology of the mind.

“I was pretty intimidated when I first realized I had to take this class, and I definitely had no idea that I was going to end up loving it,” says Mousley. “I like to think I plan my life out in a way that gets me where I want to go, but there are people you meet like Professors Lawrence Cahoone and Alo Basu teaching this class, who change all of that.”

Also enrolled in a psychology class on sensation and perception that same semester, all her different interests began to fit together.

“Taking these classes together made me realize that the human experience — as I was learning about the experiences of deaf people through my CBL — was actually tied to all this stuff I was learning about the brain,” she said. “As I became more interested in cognitive neuroscience, I realized that my specific interest in education wasn’t necessarily with teaching, but more with child development.”

Mousley’s interest in the intersection between deaf studies and neuroscience rose to a new level when she decided to spend a semester away at the world’s only liberal arts university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. A semester at Gallaudet University, located in Washington, D.C., would be a full immersion experience and a true test of her ASL skills.

“I was asking myself, ‘Do I want to leave Holy Cross for a semester? Can I handle this with my signing? Am I ready to go?’” she remembers.

The answer was yes. Mousley took on five classes conducted in sign language and communicated exclusively in ASL while on campus, from ordering food in the cafeteria to addressing ID card problems. Mousley also had the opportunity to work with Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, a famous cognitive neuroscientist and the Scientific Director of the Brain and Language Lab for Neuroimaging at Gallaudet University, which is dedicated to studying bilingualism, visual language, and reading.

It was here that her future goals — specifically, becoming a cognitive neuroscientist — began to crystalize.

“I want to be someone who uses science and scientific methods to inform policy and concrete things that affect deaf and hard-of-hearing people’s lives and potentially children’s lives more broadly,” she said.

In 2017 Mousley was selected as a Marshall Scholar, which will support her pursuit of master’s degrees in language sciences and cognitive neuroscience research at University College London after graduation. In 2016, she was also awarded the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, a national award given to approximately 50 students who plan to pursue careers in public service.

As a senior, writing an honors thesis on the direct effects of stigma on the Deaf community and preparing for life after Holy Cross, Mousley thinks back on how all the pieces came together.

“It was a lot of luck and great advising, combined with some amazing professors,” says Mousley. “I wouldn’t have even understood that these intersections were happening if I didn’t go to a liberal arts school where people were saying, ‘This is also tied to this subject and to that one.’”

If you had told Mousley that she would be working towards becoming a cognitive neuroscientist studying sign language and deaf studies as a first-year student, she probably would not have believed you.

But now, she wouldn’t doubt you for a second.