The sincerest form of flattery

Dollars, posters, planes

By Friederike Schüür

I grew up between church steeples in a city that peaked in the Middle Ages. The Hanseatic League. If you came from where I come from, you would know what it meant. I had been on planes to hop from European city to European city, ascend-descend-there-you-are without movie entertainment. Congratulations, your abstract has been accepted for presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC. I had just moved to London and was one month into my PhD. I had never been to America.

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? I clawed the arm-rests I had monopolized. Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind. A poem from my childhood that does not end well. A child dies. I said the words over and over. Stripped of meaning, their shells comfort me. Stop cramping up! This will be fun this will be fun this will be fun.

It was my first time in America and my first time at a scientific conference. I had made a poster, had stuffed it into an unwieldy tube handed to me by a compassionate colleague, and had argued with the guy at check in to let me take it on board. Oversized items get lost more often, someone had told me, and I could see myself pantomiming a bar graph.

When I got off the plane, I got myself some dollars. Dollars, the currency of on-screen gangsters. Never had I held dollars in my own hands before. Three out of four notes are tainted by cocaine or other illegal substances, so I had read. Perhaps it wasn’t all on-screen. As I journeyed to my youth hostel with a metro fare that my dollars had bought me, I thought about my American colleague who, knowing my nature, he had warned me about rough neighborhoods. Thirty-fourth Street and 2nd Avenue, glorious grid now I know you. Tomorrow, America, tomorrow, Science, we will meet.

I slept. I woke up. It hit me. I had learned to ask people who came from overseas how they felt up to three days after their arrival. A convenient topic of conversation when a person’s track record – publications, fancy universities, awards – made me scared to talk about the stuff we were supposed to talk about. Jet lag. It was fascinating. Tiredness you can see from a distance. You can prepare for it, splash water on your face, get coffee. Jet lag is like a wall of sleep that you had not seen coming until you crash into it at full speed. Tomorrow.

I got my name tag, my book of abstracts and names and threw myself into the meeting. Full speed ahead, I learned about wayfinding cells in rats and what happens when you play scrambled up zebra finch songs to zebra finch babies. Highly fascinating and completely not the topic of my research. I stood next to my poster, repeated the same set of words every twenty minutes for four hours straight and lost my voice. I handed out paper copies and noted down email addresses. I answered questions, smiled and smiled. When it was all over, my adviser shook my hand. Well done! I had not yet learned to read the British. Now I know he had been very pleased with my performance. And I had loved it.

[Hemingway imitation, 2014]

A Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience, Friederike Schüür is a data scientist and researcher at Fast Forward Labs, an applied machine learning research and advising company. Alternating between code and prose, she munges data, unties algorithmic knots, and muses as much as she worries about the world we are building with the newest tech tools.