WVPU Graduate Student Researches the Psychological Effects of Space Travel
September 13, 2022
As a graduate student at Webster Vienna Private University, Nikol Koleva is combining her studies in psychology with another passion: space travel. Koleva is in the final year of her program, the Master of Arts in Psychology with an emphasis in Counseling Psychology, and has already completed a research project on the "overview effect," a phenomenon that astronauts experience when they see Earth from outer space. Her goal is to find ways to apply the "overview effect" in therapy.
Koleva said studying at WVPU helped her formulate her research and gave her the skills and knowledge to reach her goals. She is already planning to complete her next research project and will soon attend World Space Week, a celebration of science and technology.
The Road to Vienna
After completing her bachelor’s degree at City University of London, with a specialization in counseling and health psychology, Koleva said she wanted to expand her knowledge and expertise in topics related to the human mind, particularly those not covered by textbooks or in lectures.
While she was drawn to the excitement of living in Vienna - the birthplace of psychoanalysis and home to many famous psychologists - the dual diploma (U.S. and Austrian) and scale of Webster University's global network are what stood out.
“Unlike City, where I recall my lectures were with approximately 300 other students, I have much smaller classes here at WVPU, making the learning process much easier and comprehensible; it almost feels like private lessons,” Koleva explained.
Koleva knew she wanted to continue her studies, and the graduate degree in Psychology at WPVU offered the chance to dive even deeper into the field.
“Perhaps, one of the most compelling things about the Psychology program at WVPU is that it involves a lot of practical work,” Koleva said. “Not only do we get a lot of experience by working with clients, but also the majority of lecturers are practicing psychologists, which enables us to apply for amazing internships.”
Researching the Psychological Effects of Space Travel
Students in the MA in Psychology program at WVPU are active producers of social science and psychological research. They view research and practice as interdependent. For Koleva, research is a way to make real contributions to the field of counseling psychology.
“The research which I conducted was a qualitative study which aimed to explore astronauts lived experiences of a phenomenon called the ‘overview effect,’ Koleva explained. “Essentially, the overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness as a result of seeing Earth from outer space. My aim was to explore exactly what that ‘shift’ was and how it changed the astronauts when they came back to Earth.”
Based on the findings of the study, Koleva concluded that “such a unique experience seemed to be due to the elicitation of a powerful positive emotion called awe, which was found to be mainly evoked during Earth-gazing experiences.”
“Findings as such can contribute greatly to the field of counseling psychology as they indicate that some powerful experiences can elicit a significant shift in one’s awareness, values and beliefs, which can ultimately have potential therapeutic applications,” she said.
In researching this niche, one of the hardest challenges was finding active astronauts for the study. After getting in touch with the crew medical team at NASA, Koleva was able to conduct the study with retired astronauts.
“In fact, this turned out to be beneficial for me as, collectively, they had more experience and time spent in space,” she said.
With a program that encourages students to create an appropriate research design, collect data and implement the necessary statistical techniques, students can continue to pose new research questions that add to the discipline.
Advice for New Students
For those considering a psychology degree at WVPU, Koleva’s advice is to take the initiative to go beyond the course material and find your own interests in the field.
“If we think about it, psychology is everywhere," she said. Anything that involves humans will also involve psychology … the opportunities are really endless. In my case, it was space psychology, but there are so many other niche domains in psychology such as sports, diving, Formula One and even dance psychology."
What’s in Store for the Future?
Koleva is continuing her research in space travel. She is currently working with the World Space Week Association (WSWA), where she has been working on a communication campaign that focuses on space and sustainability, as well as the use of space developments for sustainability on Earth.
“During September, we will be attending the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris, so I am extremely excited to meet more people in the space industry and talk about the work that the association has been doing,” she said.
Koleva will be attending the World Space Week in Paris in October 2022
Beyond her work, Koleva plans to conduct a second research project that aims to replicate the "overview effect" using virtual reality.
“Currently, there is little research trying to replicate this phenomenon," she said. "Since this is somewhat of a new research topic in psychology, it remains unclear if the powerful elicitation of positive emotions can be used in a therapeutic setting and thus, the potential of such studies is endless.
“Hopefully, with the help and guidance of my supervisor, Professor Luca Ticini, Ph.D., and my other professors, I will be able to answer some of these questions and design a virtual experience of this extraordinary phenomenon.”