One minute, you’re studying brain waves in a Florida State University professor’s lab; the next, you’re presenting research about prefrontal cortex neurons to one of the world’s most famous couples.
That’s the story of FSU alumna Olivia Rose, who credits her FSU education and involvement in the Presidential Scholars Program for igniting her love of neuroscience and preparing her to compete in the field at the most elite levels. That includes recently being chosen by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan to demonstrate her research during a private showcase at a Harvard University event.
Rose’s experiences underscore what’s possible from an FSU Presidential Scholar and what could be possible for even more students like her.
“The Presidential Scholars are high-achieving students who will be the changemakers and leaders of tomorrow. Our investment in this program is a testament to our commitment to excellence as one of the nation’s Top 20 public universities and will provide opportunities for more ambitious and talented students to join this community of scholars.”
— FSU President Richard McCullough
The Presidential Scholars Program — and its accompanying merit scholarship — is now set to grow, with administrators prepared to accept more students than ever this year, eyeing a goal of doubling in size from 30 per class to 60.
“The Presidential Scholars are high-achieving students who will be the changemakers and leaders of tomorrow,” said President Richard McCullough. “Our investment in this program is a testament to our commitment to excellence as one of the nation’s Top 20 public universities and will provide opportunities for more ambitious and talented students to join this community of scholars.”
Presidential Scholars are chosen from among top students who have already been admitted into the competitive Honors Program, which itself has been doubled to 800 this year from a typical class of 400.
The Presidential Scholars Program is the premier undergraduate merit scholarship at FSU, with a total award package of $38,000, plus an out-of-state tuition waiver, but administrators emphasize that its benefits stretch far beyond the financial.
The program provides robust enrichment, community-building and research opportunities. Scholars live together their first year, enroll in a specially designed four-year sequence of classes, participate in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, or UROP, and receive peer mentorship and customized academic advising.
“Presidential Scholars learn to be critical, collaborative and innovative thinkers who use their talents to make meaningful contributions to society,” said Craig Filar, associate dean of Undergraduate Studies and director of the Presidential Scholars Program. “We take a holistic approach to reviewing candidates and are excited to welcome new scholars who have extraordinary potential to be the transformational leaders of their generation.”
Rose, who graduated FSU in 2018, is now a fifth-year doctoral candidate at Washington University, a visiting doctoral student at Harvard Medical School and a visiting research fellow in Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
Rose showed the big-name benefactors of the new Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence how her research uses cutting-edge machine learning to better understand the way non-human primates process vision. Her work demonstrates that the prefrontal cortex may play a larger role in basic sensory functions than previously believed.
Zuckerberg talked with her afterward and asked questions.
“Being able to impress somebody whose entire day is AI and the latest and greatest with technology was just amazing,” Rose said.
Her research — as complex and groundbreaking as it is — draws on her first experiences in electrophysiology at FSU.
Rose had chosen a psychology lab for her required UROP assignment through Presidential Scholars because she wanted to be a poet and thought studying the human condition would give her good material for her poetry. But once she started scientific research in the lab of psychology professor Brad Schmidt, she was hooked.
“Presidential Scholars opened up so many doors and so many opportunities,” said Rose, who grew up in Sarasota with two non-scientist parents. “Having that exposure changed everything for me.”
She said FSU guided her to travel now in elite academic circles — from Washington University to Harvard University — and prepared her to hold her own with Zuckerberg, Chan and other renowned innovators exploring the nexus of artificial intelligence and medicine.
She also gets together regularly for dinner and hiking with another FSU alumna and former Presidential Scholar now in the Ph.D. neuroscience program at Harvard, Jessica Dixon. They call themselves “neuro Noles.”
“FSU set me up to go on and achieve great things,” Rose said. “I’m at schools where there’s not a lot of state school kids. It’s all private and Ivies, and I’m right on par with them. The quality of the education, and the quality of the science — FSU is right up there with the best.”