Sharing Knowledge and Culture in the Windy City

Tamaya Van Criekinge was a Belgian 2022-2023 Fulbright Research Scholar in Medical Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Tamaya Van Criekinge is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Rehabilitation Sciences at KU Leuven, Campus Bruges. She holds a Master in Rehabilitation Sciences and Physiotherapy (KU Leuven). In 2020, she obtained her PhD at the University in Antwerp concerning the neuromechanical control during walking in aging adults and stroke survivors, with a specific emphasis on trunk control.

Q: “Can you please describe your grant project?”

After two years of being a doctor-assistant at KU Leuven Campus Bruges, I was in search of an experience to fully commit to research without any educational distractions. Thanks to a postdoctoral Fulbright scholarship of six months I’ve been able to conduct research at the University of Illinois at Chicago from January 2023 to July 2023. As my previous research was mainly focused on movement analysis during functional activities and natural walking, I wanted to expand my knowledge to perturbed walking such as slips and trips. As you all know, falls are the leading cause of fractures and are experienced by one in three older adults. During this project, I aim to understand the role of the proprioceptive system in motor adaptation to unexpected slips and trips.

Q: “How did you hear about the Fulbright Program? What motivated you to apply, and what do you remember from the selection process?”

I heard about the Fulbright Program through our grant office at KU Leuven. I was in search of a short post-doctoral research experience abroad to expand my research skills. I liked the Fulbright Program immediately as it focused on both knowledge and cultural exchange. Therefore, I would be able to not only advance my research career but also immerse myself in a new culture. The selection procedure for this program is very transparent and is well supported which meant that I was able to prepare myself as best I could.

Q: “What have you accomplished during your time in the USA? What can you tell us about the initial outcomes of your program?”

One of the benefits of being a Fulbright scholar is that both knowledge and cultural exchange are key. I have enjoyed teaching and mentoring PhD and master students here at UIC. I was able to share my knowledge and experience with them while learning from their perspectives. We managed to collect a substantial amount of pilot data which will be used to continue future collaborations between KU Leuven and UIC. Additionally, I had the time to explore the culture lifestyle of Chicago, one of the most vibrant and diverse cities in the United States. Together with my new colleagues, husband and dog, I was able to get a taste of Chicago and all things the city is known for, such as its architecture, music, food, amazing sports teams and freezing winters.

Q: “Can you describe a typical day in your life in the USA?”

Every morning, I cycled to work, which took me about an hour. Cycling was my favorite way of commuting, as it helped me stay fit and avoid traffic jams while enjoying Chicago city scenery. However, cycling in Chicago was difficult sometimes, especially in winter, when the weather was cold and windy. I had to wear a lot of layers of clothing to protect myself from the cold.

At work, I spend most of my time in the lab, either optimizing the protocol for data processing or by collecting data. I also had regular meetings with my supervisor and other PhD students, where we discussed the progress and challenges of our project. Sometimes, I also helped with reviewing papers or grant applications from colleagues so that they got a fresh perspective on their work. On special occasions, we had a potluck with our colleagues to celebrate a birthday or an important achievement. We shared food, drinks, and stories, and had a lot of fun.

Q: “Has the United States been what you expected? In what ways has life in the USA surprised you, either for its similarities to or differences from your own culture?”

I know that the USA is a diverse and multicultural country, but I was still surprised by how many different cultures and backgrounds I encountered in Chicago. The city is a melting pot of people from all over the world, and I learned a lot from them. Another way that life in the USA surprised me was the work culture of my colleagues. Most of them were originally from India, and they had a very strong work ethic. They worked long hours, sometimes even on weekends, and they rarely took vacations. They were also very competitive and ambitious, always striving for excellence and recognition. I would like to believe I helped reshape their mindset a bit by teaching them that having a good work-life balance is important for their well-being and happiness.

Q: “What advice would you give to someone who is considering applying to the Fulbright Program?”

My advice for anyone who is considering applying for the Fulbright Program is: just do it! The Fulbright Program is a very supportive program that allows you to grow both professionally and personally, whether this growth is focused on research or teaching. You will have the opportunity to work with experts in your field and interact with colleagues from all over the world as the USA is such a multicultural country. It kinda feels like you traveled around the world just by exploring one city which means you will learn a lot about different cultures, languages, and traditions, and you will be exposed to new ideas and perspectives. Although the Fulbright Program is a life-changing experience that will broaden your horizons and enrich your life, it also requires hard work and commitment. If you are passionate about your research or teaching goals, then the Fulbright Program is definitely worth considering.

Fulbright Grantee 2022-23

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.