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Sami Friedrich, former Polymathic Scholar, designed a  certificate curriculum, “Consciousness Studies,” that complemented her major in neurobiology. She’s now working in the Mauk Lab at UT’s Center for Learning and Memory and enjoying the life of a recent graduate for awhile before setting off for Portland to begin her doctoral work in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at Oregon Health and Science University. Sami contributed to both Polymathic Scholars and the university as a whole in myriad ways, and was the undergraduate speaker for the CNS graduation ceremony in December 2012.


Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Sami Friedrich. I was born in Boston and lived in Virginia and Oregon as a kid but did most of my growing up right here in Austin, TX. I recently graduated from UT where I majored in neurobiology. I’m currently working in the Mauk Lab at UT’s Center for Learning and Memory with the intention to apply to graduate school in a year or two, but only after exploring the better part of South America. A few things I love include brains, books, NPR, and music.

Tell us about your topic and why you chose it.
Through my topic “consciousness studies,” I aimed to evaluate the current state of our empirical understanding of subjective consciousness through the various fields of cognitive neuroscience, neurobiology, evolution, philosophy, and psychology. As I progressed in my research, the lines for “conscious” and “unconscious” really started to blur which only got me more hooked. Through my Capstone project titled “Sense and Subjectivity” I proposed a sensory physiology-based framework to conceptualize the course of conscious development through biological evolution. Ultimately, my goal was to show that consciousness, like life, is a complex and emergent process embodied by living systems and that it is not some magical “poof” event sacred to our human history.

I chose to study consciousness because although it’s painstakingly familiar to us, it remains an “age-old mystery” wrapped up in a lot of unanswered (and unasked) questions. In addition to wondering about the inner-workings of my own mind, books (both fiction and nonfiction) had a lot to do with why I developed the interest. Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass series got me thinking about consciousness when I read it in middle school and popular science books involving brains became a theme with me in high school. What excited me most about consciousness was that the rise of neuroscience in the last few decades seemed to have paved the way for its exploration, rediscovering the mind as something we could finally frame useful questions about within the scientific method in order to learn about our own conscious experience. I believe that our approaches to and interpretations of consciousness will require the culmination of an incredibly wide range of knowledge which, as a generalist and an informavore, only further draws me to the challenge of unraveling consciousness.

Tell us about the conference you attended this spring.
The conference I attended last April in Tucson is the “Towards a Science of Consciousness” Conference put on by the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona. It’s a cozier conference of a few thousand people and draws a very unique crowd of (mostly loveable) nerds enthusiastic about consciousness from a diverse range of disciplines. Of course it was an honor to meet in person those ground-breaking individuals whose books and theories I’d been pouring over, but the best part of the conference was the constant, open exchange of ideas. The open-mindedness of the attendees certainly fostered an invigorating fluidity in discussion. Indeed, I was surprised by how well the conference incorporated and merged Eastern and Western ideas on consciousness and found it both strange and wonderful to do yoga alongside fellow consciousness nerds at the mediation sessions offered each morning. I walked away from the conference more comfortable talking to others in the field as well as excited to delve into some of the theories and experimental methods I’d been inspired by in my time there.

Do you have any advice for other Polymaths on completing the capstone?
Stay intellectually hungry for your topic by seeking out new and diverse sources whether they be books, TED Talks, YouTube videos, podcasts, or people. Get familiar with the literature of your field – you will not only be able to process the content more efficiently, but you will be more comfortable formulating your own ideas when you approach your Capstone. Finally, after you write a draft of your Capstone paper, lock your paper away in a drawer for at least two weeks before you return to edit it. The goal is to put some space between yourself and the paper so that you can then approach it with a “fresh mind” and assess your own arguments objectively the way a good editor does.

What did you like most about the program?
What I value and enjoy most about Polymathic Scholars is the creative freedom to study whatever it is that interests, impassions, or inspires me. As an undergraduate immersed in a rigorous degree program, I found such creative freedom to be truly unique to PS and I cannot express in full how precious that freedom is given the public education system’s tendency to over-standardize knowledge at the cost of natural curiosity. This program absolutely caters to the curious and free-spirited.

What do you believe you have gained, personally or professionally, from being a part of Polymathic Scholars?
Personally and professionally, Polymathic Scholars has strengthened my conviction that interdisciplinary creativity underlies innovative and effective problem solving. It seems undeniable to me now that cross-pollination between disciplines leads to creative thought which then leads to new solutions for old problems. Thus, despite the push for specialization (in the sciences especially), I will never hesitate to draw from multiple fields as I pursue my academic endeavors. In this sense, Polymathic Scholars has helped me to develop an invaluable interdisciplinary attitude toward life, and for this I cannot thank my PS mentors and peers enough.