Keeping her appetite for curiosity fed

“The Mount Holyoke riding team has completely changed my life. My time with the program gave me what I needed to melt into the rest of the campus culture and confirmed that I had made the right decision to come to Mount Holyoke.”

Lingdang Zhang is full of curiosity. A natural questioner of everything, she wants to understand why things work and how people think.

Her double majoring in neuroscience and computer science makes sense once you understand that she wants to keep opening new doors to see what is behind them — new paths ready to explore.

A native of China, Lingdang sought a small school in the United States with a strong academic profile and a supportive learning environment conducive to trying new things. Especially after dealing with an unpleasant experience in high school, an international school in her home country, related to her struggles with English, she placed increased emphasis on schools with a strong sense of community during her search.

Mount Holyoke stood out immediately among the crowd, not only for its robust academic offerings but also, funny enough, because of the hue of its logo.

“I love the color blue, and Mount Holyoke’s blue is my favorite,” she said. Mount Holyoke was the only school she applied to in the U.S.

While the colorful anecdote provides a unique backstory to Zhang’s passage to Mount Holyoke, it doesn’t define it. After taking a pandemic gap year, Zhang immersed herself in everything Mount Holyoke offers. She found that a liberal arts experience was precisely what she needed to keep her appetite for curiosity fed — a campus culture of balancing academics and the pursuit of exploring passions through cocurriculars.

One day early in the fall semester of her junior year, she walked by the Mount Holyoke College Equestrian Center and wondered what it would be like to ride a horse. She noted that her Chinese Zodiac is a horse, and as a believer in serendipity, she decided to give it a try. She would be so glad that she did.

Moving to another country can be an isolating experience, but Zhang’s sudden interest in riding gave her an outlet to calm her anxieties. A self-proclaimed introvert, Zhang was initially worried that she wouldn’t fit into the team’s culture, especially as someone with zero previous riding experience.

Lingdang Zhang ’24 with a horse at the Equestrian center field

Those nerves were soon calmed by C.J. Law, director of intercollegiate coaching and varsity hunt seat team coach, who welcomed Zhang with open arms. The initial language barrier proved to be easily overcome as Law worked extensively with Zhang during that first year and created an environment within the team where international students felt comfortable amid a big transition. Zhang was enamored by the way Law empowered the Mount Holyoke riders to be seen as competitors in a space that has been traditionally male dominated. The confidence drawn from the encouragement has been an important benchmark in this period of personal growth for Zhang.

“C.J. and the Mount Holyoke riding team have completely changed my life,” said Zhang. “My time with the program gave me what I needed to melt into the rest of the campus culture and confirmed that I had made the right decision to come to Mount Holyoke.”

After a few years with Mount Holyoke’s championship-caliber Intercollegiate Horse Show Association, Zhang is not shy about showing off her impressive progress in the sport with an armful of decorative ribbons from competitions. Each one, she noted, symbolizes how far she has come in such a short time with the help of the equestrian team.

Medical school is on the horizon for Zhang, and she acknowledges how much Mount Holyoke has prepared her for this moment. In a recent interview with a postgraduate program, an interviewer complimented how she presented herself during their time together. It might seem like a little thing, but Zhang credits the way she was coached in riding and the learning environment steeped in exploration within the neuroscience department for her budding belief in herself.

She recalls a time in Research Techniques in Neuroscience taught by Kenneth Colodner that led her to hone in on computational neuroscience.

“He allowed us to explore all kinds of lab techniques and let us figure things out,” said Zhang. “The ability to survey various topics really helped me to focus my career goals.”

While she traversed the intersection between two sciences, a marriage of concepts she found joy in studying over the last couple of years, she has also made the most of her time embracing the liberal arts. Zhang has dedicated ample time to both the piano and violin through class offerings and cocurriculars. She also likely earns the distinction of one of the most unique licenses earned among her peers: a private pilot license. Zhang earned the ability to fly light aircraft during a summer in Boston doing research.

Homesickness has been the only real battle for Zhang, who is ready to return home for a bit after spending three continuous years in the U.S. She aspires to eventually be back to pursue an MD-PhD degree within the neurosurgical discipline.

For whatever is next, Zhang knows the time at Mount Holyoke has set her up for a lifetime of success and confirmed for her that it’s important to never stop being curious.

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Christian Feuerstein
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