The first thing you notice about Fall Graduation student speaker Sami Friedrich is her hair, which is streaked with bright turquoise. The second thing is her energy, which is overflowing. The third is her academic record, which is impressive.
Friedrich graduated in August with a degree in neurobiology, a GPA of 3.9, and a long list of accomplishments, particularly in the realm of neuroscience. She was a founder of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Journal Club, a vice president of the neurobiology club Synapse, and a member of the BrainBowl team.
Since graduation she’s been working full-time as a research assistant in the lab of neurobiology professor Michael Mauk.
She was also very involved throughout her undergraduate career in the Texas Interdisciplinary Program (TIP) program—earning a certificate in “Consciousness Studies,” working as a mentor of younger students, and editing the TIP newsletter.
I sat down to chat with Friedrich, who’s a semi-native of Austin, a few days before her big speech.
So who are you?
I’ve always wanted to be the girl with the blue hair who could change people’s minds about appearances.
I’m told that it’s been a lot of different colors? Is that true?
I have gone through quite a few colors, but I’ve stuck with this shade of turquoise for two years now.
What are you going to talk about in your speech?
I don’t want to give too much away, but I would like the speech to be as unexpected as the hair.
It’s the most fascinating thing I have ever come across.
In high school I read This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin. It was fantastic. It linked two things I had come to love in a very intimate way, music and science. Then I did an independent research project on dreams for English class. By the time I arrived at UT I was set on neurobiology.
Why “Consciousness Studies”?
Consciousness is so familiar to us, but it’s also such a mystery. As I progressed in my research, the lines between “conscious” and “unconscious” really started to blur, which only got me more hooked. Ultimately, my goal was to show that consciousness, like life, is a complex and emergent process embodied by physical systems. It is not some magical “poof” event.
Tell me about an epiphanic moment in your own life?
When I was living in Portland, as a kid, we had this ginormous tree behind our house. The branches were really nicely spaced. You could climb it almost like a ladder, and the bark was very soft and forgiving, so you didn’t get scraped up. I would spend days in this tree. I remember one day I just decided to climb as high as I could, to see how high I could go. I remember getting up to where I was level with the top of two story house, or even above it. In that moment of peace, I thought to myself, I am alive. I am a living thing experiencing the world.
Do you still climb trees?
When I go hiking sometimes I can’t resist, but I don’t go for the possibly-fall-to-your-death trees anymore.
What comes next for you?
Eventually I would like to go to graduate school, but I need to take some time off first. I need to get some travel ya-yas out. I have a lot of of built-up wanderlust.
Where are you going to wander?
How will you wander?
In my travel fantasy I’ll get down there and buy a motorcycle and just go for it, but I realize that that is what my life would be in a movie. So it’ll probably be a mix of things. I’d like to go backpacking through at least some of the mountainous regions. It would be amazing if I could get to the Galapagos. but you have to know someone to do that.
Lighting round time: Favorite book?
The Master and Margarita, by Bulgakov. It’s the most beautiful Russian magical realism piece in existence. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murukami is a close second though.
Anything but country. When I was younger it was a lot of Incubus. But I think their sound has changed for the worse. When I listened to their latest album I actually cried because they had fallen so far away from their weird 90’s greatness. Right now I’m really into Gotan Project, which is an Argentinean electro-tango band. I like Beach House’s newest album. I love classic rock. That’s what my Dad raised me on.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I really like all of hitchcock. I love Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Recently I’ve enjoyed American Horror Story. My favorite of all time is Arrested Development. I like Fringe, which is sort of a modern day X-Files.
Favorite place to sit on campus?
On the wall by the [Littlefield] fountain on the South Mall, by the seahorses.
Advice to first-year students?
Don’t be afraid to talk to your professors. I waited far too long to start doing that. Give yourself breaks when you study. Do not try to study in four or eight hour chunks, because your brain stops listening after two hours. And get enough sleep!
Final thought on your speech?
I’m looking at it as one of the most important things I’ve done at the university. This university has done a lot for me. I would like to put as much effort into this as it has put into me.