After months of excited anticipation, the Fulbright Berlin Seminar is finally here! For the 62nd consecutive year, Fulbright has sponsored this seminar for grantees all over Europe, "bringing Fulbrighters together and providing a unique space for discource, project presentations, and networking" (as quoted in the Fulbright Berlin Seminar 2016 program notes from Dr. Rolf Hoffmann, Executive Director of the Fulbright Kommission).
So far, the Seminar has indeed proven to be a "unique space." It is a gathering of more than 500 Fulbrighters, including about 300 American research/student grantees (such as myself) and English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) carrying out their grants in Germany or one of 25 neighboring countries. The other approximately 200 grantees are German grantees preparing to embark on their grant to the U.S., using the Seminar as their pre-departure orientation.
In addition to the union of grantees, both American and German, from all over Europe, the Seminar is unique because it combines academic discourse with cultural aspects. This was immediately evident after registration, where grantees were invited to participate in one of four tours: a visit to the Reichstag (historical seat of the Reichstag and current meeting place of the German Bundestag), a street art walking tour, a visit to the Träsenpalast (the border crossing between East and West Berlin where loved ones would say good-bye), and a Berlin city tour by bus.
Alex and I opted for the bus tour and got an interesting (and fun) crash course in Berlin as a divided city reinvented into a unified one. Sites included churches (both in ruins and more modern ones),the Schloss Bellevue, die Siegessäule, and Unter den Linden from the Brandenburger Tor to the Museumsinsel. Several times we crossed between former West and East Berlin, the boundary of which was marked by a double-row of cobblestones marking where the Berlin Wall had once been. The pinnacle of the tour was a visit to the East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km section of the eastern side of the Berlin Wall which was turned into an art project in 1990 to celebrate freedom.
After tours and checking-in to the Motel One Berlin-Tiergarten (whose lounge is space themed... how perfect?), the Fulbrighters gathered together for the first time during the seminar at the Urania, a scientific society founded in 1888 committed to communicating recent scientific findings with to the general public (again, how perfect?). During remarks by Dr. Hoffmann, Florian Grigoleit (Vice President of Finances, German Fulbright Alumni Association), and Rolf-Dieter Schnelle (Association of Friends and Sponsors of the German-American Fulbright Program), we heard about Urania as not only a place, but an idea; the pride and global impact of the Fulbright program; and the importance of relationships, both transatlantic and among grantees, whether they be ETAs, students, or professors, Americans or Germans.
The following morning (Monday, March 21) was reserved for the panel "One Continent... Many Visions." Opening remarks were made by (very entertaining) Fulbright Alum David Patrician, a journalist who just couldn't leave Germany after falling in love (first with the country then with a German woman). The kick-off for the panel was then made by Fulbright alum Michael Scott More, who—amid the focus of several panel discussion groups on the refugee situation in Europe—called for a reframing of the refugee crisis in Europe as a crisis in Syria. He then proceeded to provide his own account as a hostage to Somalian pirates for two-and-a-half years, speaking about how his experiences were very similar to those of refugees who are often exploited by people looking to make a profit from Syrians' desperation. It was enlightening to think about the "refugee crisis" as a problem for the refugees rather than as a problem for European nations, which is how it is often framed in the media.
My discussion group focused on "American as 'other'" and the perception of grantees (Americans in Europe or Germans in the States) by the local population. Grantees shared their experiences in things like etiquette and education, and perhaps the most interesting idea was that of individual versus collective identity. One way in which a difference had been observed by American grantees was through German versus American clothing styles (darker colors and solid patterns versus possibilities for brightness and loud individual advertisements). Other comments during the discussion included remarks about a more trade-oriented higher education in Germany whereas liberal arts (and changing your career path even late in life) are more common in the U.S.
That evening was the Opening Ceremony, attended by about 600 people, at the Universität des Künste. Attendees included the approximately 500 grantees as well as members from the Fulbright Kommission and government, both American and German, such as Dr. Laura Skandera Trombley (Chair, J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board in Washington, D.C.) and State Secretary Cornelia Quennet-Thielen (of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research). The evening (before a reception) was concluded with musical performances by Fulbright alumni pianist Joseph Nykiel and soprano Désirée Brodka.
In the middle of opening remarks and the concluding musical numbers were presentations by four Fulbright grantees (one ETA and three researchers); I am very happy to say that I was one of them! Each of us had the opportunity to speak about our Fulbright experiences (for about five minutes) in front of our fellow grantees, friends of Fulbright, and esteemed guests.
During my talk (the transcript and slides to which are posted in a follow-up)—"Fingerprinting the invisible universe"—I gave a crash course in radio astronomy: the significance of astrochemistry and how we are able to identify molecules in space, as related to my work with the Cologne Database for Molecular Spectroscopy. It was a blast (or should I say it was out of this world?) being able to talk about interstellar space, complex organic molecules, and radio telescopes. Afterwards, I received very warm and encouraging comments, including "I will never look at the stars the same way again," and an account of two philosophers being inspired to discuss how radio waves functioned and whether they could be heard (I was able to answer that, in fact, the first radio waves from space were heard as static by Karl Jansky in the early 1930s). It was fun being able to talk in front of so many people about my passion, but it was even more rewarding to hear that my work interested people of different backgrounds. I felt stellar being able to do what I love, communicating science in the (most appropriate) spirit of Urania.