Eryn Newman is a PhD candidate in Psychology at the Victoria University of Wellington, who received a 2011 Fulbright-Ministry of Science and Innovation Graduate Award to research cognitive drivers of distortions and biases in human memory and decision-making, at the University of California, Irvine. Although she is still in the US, Eryn’s exchange has already produced fond memories, both personal and professional.
Many people would agree that we are the sum of our experiences, and that our memories make us who we are. I think so, especially as a student of the science of memory. This Fulbright experience has certainly left an imprint on who I am. When I leave the US in June 2012, I will return with more luggage (okay, if I am honest, probably more shoes) but my most cherished additions will be the experiences and memories that I will bring home with me.
When I boarded the plane at Auckland airport last August I did so with a tinge of fear, and a wealth of excitement at what might lie ahead of me. When I arrived at the University of California, Berkeley for an orientation, those feelings quickly morphed into curiosity and motivation. I spent just under a week with Fulbright scholars from all over the world: I shared a room with a Polish anthropologist, a Turkish law student and a computer scientist from Hong Kong. These people had big motivation, big passion and big ideas. That one week provided a springboard of inspiration for “what could be” of my time in the US.
For the last eight months I have studied human memory in a busy laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. I am particularly interested in the ways that memory can go awry and the consequence of these memory errors in applied settings such as the criminal justice system. During my time in this laboratory I have run experiments and co-authored publications with my advisor, Professor Elizabeth Loftus – an incredible scientist and extremely humble human being. Some of the highlights have been writing about policy reform for the collection of eyewitness memory evidence in the US, meeting a US federal judge to talk about memory issues in the courtroom, watching my advisor give expert testimony at a criminal trial in Los Angeles, and attending various scientific conferences to present and discuss research. The US academic community is a vast, tightly connected hive of activity and it has been a hugely motivating experience to be part of that community.
But my experience has been much more than sitting at my computer writing manuscripts and analysing data from experiments. Experiences outside the walls of the lab have included baking a kiwi pavlova to bring to a potluck, having dinner and discussing memory research with FBI agents, watching the Rugby World Cup while advising a room full of Americans about the rules, having my first Thanksgiving, presenting talks at various US universities, chatting to NASA scientists at a Fulbright dinner at UCLA, volunteering at a food bank with a group of Fulbrighters, learning how to salsa dance, paddle board and surf, and being a Republican candidate at a simulated US presidential election in Nashville. The Fulbright experience is much more than an opportunity to sharpen your thinking at some of the best universities in the world. It is an opportunity to connect with people.
Some of my favourite New Zealand-American moments have been managing to integrate Flight of the Conchords clips into my scientific presentations and learning that Marmite is not delicious as all of us Kiwis believe, but rather an “acquired taste.” A series of experiences have also led me to conclude that the New Zealand accent can be impenetrable at times. One moment springs to mind, when my advisor asked how I was feeling after I had been off sick, I responded “better,” she heard “bitter” and the conversation quickly got awkward. In fact, a number of phrases have not gone well for me here. “I’m going to make a move” (to leave the lab at the end of the day) produced a panicked response from a fellow labmate.
When we imagine ourselves in the future – our careers, our families, our goals and events we hope to experience – we use memory. In fact, recently scientists leading this field (some from New Zealand) have learned that similar areas in the brain are used to remember the past and imagine the future. The idea is that we use moments from the past (situations we have encountered, people we have met, knowledge we have acquired) to build future scenarios. When I imagine what it might be like to graduate from university, I use old memories of other graduation ceremonies to picture myself in a graduation gown, and I use memories of friends from Victoria University of Wellington to imagine who might be with me on that day. Fulbright is helping scholars experience moments – raw material – to imagine grand futures: giving us exposure to people, places, ideas and inspiration that we can craft into bold future scenarios that might shape, update and redirect the fields we are so passionate about.
Thank you for these moments Fulbright New Zealand. I look forward to using these memories to craft my own bold future scenario.