We had our second stop on the tour at Ataturk University in Erzurum, which has a beautiful campus tucked in the Palandokan Mountains. Erzurum is a popular ski town, though it was a little too early in the season for much snow.
When we arrived I was chatting with one of the event organizers. I told him that was really happy with how the first talk had gone and was very surprised at how big the crowd had been. He then informed me that the first university was a smallest one we would visit. After showing me the 800+ seats in the auditorium, we proceeded outside to the media vans, which would be broadcasting the event nationally on the radio. I wish the proper letters existed to communicate the squeak that came out of my mouth as my butt clenched tight with fear.
After pulling together a satisfying presentation at the first event, I wanted to keep the momentum going. I was texting back and forth with my mom before things got started, and she was surprised to hear how many students were showing up (as was I). So, when I got on stage I asked them all to wave to her while I took their picture.
The presentation itself went very well – better than the first one, actually. There were some very poignant questions on stage and in the greeting area afterward. I personally was never one to raise my hand in class or ask questions from the audience, so the enthusiasm students were showing was really impressive.
OH, I forgot to mention this last time – as if the Britney microphone wasn’t magical enough, every time I walked onto the stage they played that Coldplay song from Life of Pi. This is another feature I would like to adopt into my everyday life – I’ve never been a particularly devoted Coldplay fan, but from now on be prepared for a Coldplay soundtrack every time I enter a room, building, or conversation. I believe this will give my life the sense of whimsy it has been lacking. You’re welcome.
When I went back to my seat for the rest of the presentations I saw a kid trying to sneak a picture of me. I then tried to sneak a picture of him sneaking a picture of me, but I was too slow. Armed with a bodyguard and my wonderful translator Hasan, we went out into the foyer to answer student questions once the presentations were finished. The rolling desk nearly crushed me as students pushed forward, but it was really nice to have a chance to talk (very briefly) with a few of the students.
It has been hard to judge how many students are interested in applying for the program and how many just wanted to take pictures. The program is called Bugün Günlerden Yarin, which translates directly to “today is the day that is tomorrow.” The general message is something along the lines of “your future starts today,” but the Turkish title sounds more exciting. Plus look at all those umlauts!
The long-term goal of this whole project is to have a system in place to offer students from the more rural areas of Anatolia the opportunity to gain hands-on experience by applying for and carrying out a project, with the National Geographic Young Explorers program as a model. As I understand it, these kinds of opportunities are more difficult to come by in the universities outside of larger cities like Istanbul and Ankara.
We wrapped up the day with another amazing dinner at a restaurant that is over 300 years old. I had all the skewered meat, spicy soup, baklava, and rice pudding I could handle and flew home full and exhausted.
I have been searching for my fan base my entire life, wondering why people only ask me for directions and not my autograph. Well apparently they have all been waiting for me in Eastern Turkey!
I caught an early morning flight from Istanbul to Malatya, which is in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in Eastern Anatolia. Malatya is the apricot capital of the world. If you’ve had any significant number of apricots in your life, a good number have probably come from Malatya. They have a big apricot sculpture in the city center.
The moment I arrived on the campus I realized that this thing was much bigger than I thought. The auditorium was enormous – I still had suspicions that their 500-700 attendance estimate, but this place could definitely hold that many or more. Then they strapped a Britney Spears microphone to my face and asked me to rehearse. I’ll admit that it felt magical, but I was definitely not as prepared as I wanted to be at that point.
My rehearsal was HORRIBLE. I had been practicing my talk with notecards up until that point, assuming it would be like a normal science talk where notecards aren’t exactly encouraged, but are accepted. I was just terrible from the first slide, which literally consisted of me saying who I was and where I was from. Thankfully the real thing went much better – no notecards.
As the only non-Turkish speaker I had a translator on stage. I was nervous about this at first, but it actually worked in my favor and gave me time to think while on stage. I might start having all my talks translated from now on.
The whole event lasted about five hours and the line-up of speakers was really impressive. The whole event was meant to inspire Turkish students to pursue their interests, so they brought in leaders in a variety of fields. There was the CEO of a massive Turkish conglomerate and an author who had received support from the company that sponsored the event. There was also a high-profile fashion photographer – I don’t know how things are ranked among fashion photographers, but he had long hair and showed pictures he took of Paris Hilton, so he seemed pretty legit to me.
There was a short break after the first several I got a little bit confused because the program had listed one more speaker named Khave Monasi before me. They already had a giant National Geographic display up on stage and they were blasting jungle music, so it seemed like a logical (though ridiculous) set-up for me. The program didn’t have a bio for this guy and it was really getting close to the start time, so I did a quick Google Translate and found out that “Khave Monasi” actually just means coffee break. Thank you technology, for saving me from asking real people my stupid questions.
My talk ended up going really well despite my lackluster performance in rehearsal. Even though I didn’t understand what was going on, it was hard not to be excited after all the other speakers and everyone cheering. I went out on a limb and made a couple jokes that thankfully translated and landed, and then answered a few questions from the audience, the host, and from Twitter. That’s right, people TWEETED questions to me! Now that I think about it, those may have come from the conference organizers, but it still counts.
The whole thing was capped off with a speech and performance by Turkish pop star named Mustafa Sandal. Once again, I’m not sure how to judge these things, but he raced off stage and was never seen from again, which seems like a famous person thing to do. I realize that most of the students were probably there because of him, but I’m happy to profit off of his fame. Let’s just say they weren’t not there because of me.
Afterwards there was a lively crowd of students eager for pictures. A couple had questions about how they should get started in research – one had actually done an internship at Yale this past summer! Another girl shoved her program in front of me and, not really knowing what to do, I wrote down my email address. She looked back, confused and said “No! Sign!” So yeah, I’m the kind of person who signs things now. The fame has absolutely gone to my head; I’m going to be complete monster from now on.
We left the university and went out for an authentic Malatya-style dinner that was absolutely amazing. Most of the other people organizing the event were from Istanbul, so the dishes were even new to them. I also got to have some Turkish coffee, which was every bit as strong, delicious, and full of grounds as I had been told.
After dinner we flew back to Istanbul and I passed out in my hotel room. The whole day was such a blur of nerves and excitement; I can’t wait for the next one! For those of you who are feeling a little “bleh” about your day-to-day, I suggest becoming internationally famous – it’s fantastic.
Didn’t know I had a show, did you? That’s funny, because neither did I.
I got an email last Thursday asking if I might be willing to travel to Turkey to represent the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, which funded a portion of my research! A large Turkish company is starting up a similar granting program and they wanted someone to come speak about their project and encourage students to apply. Never one to miss out on an opportunity, I excitedly responded and four days later I was on a plane to Istanbul!
I’ll be speaking at universities in Malatya, Erzurum, and Trabzon over the next week and a half. It has been a while since I have traveled to a place that is totally unfamiliar to me – all the repeat trips to Panama really gave me a lot more comfort than I realized. I will certainly make a fool of myself in one way or another, but I’m hoping to do it while asking for directions on the street or ordering lunch rather than in front of the “500-700 students [that] are expected to attend each event.” Yikes!
I’ll keep you posted on how things go!