I have had a fascination with the people, languages and cultures of Spain since middle school, when I would watch Spanish professional soccer on television. These were my heroes, who dangled a ball before their opponents as though it was a matador’s cape. The rivalries between soccer teams was my window into the regional mosaic of Spanish culture. The most remarkable team, F.C. Barcelona, was the all consuming passion of proud and prosperous Catalunya. The team Athletic Bilbao of the Basque country, though typically no match for the Catalans, played in a fierce and resilient style reflective of the Basque’s secessionist sentiments. The club Real Madrid played a powerful style befitting Castile’s geopolitical centrality and dominance. Yes, Spanish soccer is much more than a game, but, fortunately, it is also a game. I appreciated the spectral components of Spanish culture; art, literature and the American experience of it, as expressed by Hemingway. I imagined myself living there, challenging a bull and finding honor and ancient chivalry on any of thousands of Spanish soccer fields. The idea that I discussed with my teachers and family was to spend a semester abroad in Spain, which I did in my sophomore year.
I arrived in the small town of Moralzarzal, near Madrid. My host family spoke Castilian Spanish, fast and at first hard to comprehend. I soon followed their children to the local school. It was a challenge, but I learned to love my host family, the local culture and way of life. I began to sing Spanish pop songs (and still do). I was able to join a local soccer club and play alongside of people for whom this sport was nothing less than the essence of life itself. My little town was fascinating; it’s shops, bullfighting arena and people.
My interest in Spain and its culture has not diminished with time. I stay in touch with my Spanish family, have hosted them at my home, and been involved with Spanish exchange students who visit us each year. In my neuroscience research, I learned that the foundation of my work was laid by the Spanish scientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who mapped out the structure of the nervous systems of many animals, from insect to human. Before Cajal, we did not know that the brain consists of intricate cells called neurons, or that neurons are connected by synapses. I saw many of Cajal’s beautifully artistic drawings of the nervous system on display at the museum of the Instituto Cajal in Madrid. In my work, I study how neurons register an animal’s hunger and translate it into the urge to hunt. These animals are designed to adapt their behavior to their experience. To quote Cajal, “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of his own brain”. I wish to sculpt my brain to understand the language and culture of Cajal, and to understand our brains through the study of neuroscience. I would like to continue my study of Spain and its cultures through courses offered by Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Cultures and continue my study of neuroscience at Harvard’s Center for Brain Science.