Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Little Perspective

Approximately 25 days, 22 hours, and 50 minutes ago I left JFK to embark on a four-month jaunt to Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar. Before I left, I spent a good amount of my time mentally preparing for what I envisioned to be the culminating experience of my college years – marked not only by its substantial length but also by the immensity of the work that needed to be accomplished – but more on that later.

With that being said, lets get one thing out of the way; Madagascar is not, nor should it ever be considered, “Africa.” Yes, Madagascar is technically considered to be one of the 54 states that make up the continent; however, it is in many ways completely different. There are no lions here. No zebra. No hippos, giraffe, baboons, or rhinos. In fact, Madagascar is one of the only places on Earth where there is not a single predator capable of killing you – you’d be very hard sought to find such a place in the Sahara or Congo.

Ambatalahi, Ranomafana
Aside from the fauna and flora, the Malagasy people are also extraordinarily unique. Over the past few weeks, I have been doing a lot of careful observation of the local people and their cultural nuances in an attempt to discover a Malagasy identity. Although I have only been here a short time, never before have I encounter such universal pride and passion across all walks of life. For a country that is brutally crippled by poverty, I was surprised to find how joyous and hopeful the people were. In the face of extreme hardship – wide spread malnutrition and disease exacerbated by little to no health care, poor sanitation and a quickly degrading environment – the Malagasy people are more concerned with looking toward the prospects of a bright future then focusing on the dimly lit past.
I think that it all comes down to the way, which we as humans perceive our lives and how everything is relative to the lens in which we choose to view the world around us. It is funny really. Perspective is one of the most fundamental human traits, yet we spend little to no time as a society teaching the importance of breaking away from a singular outlook of the world. I fear that Western society has become so caught up in the pursuit of acquisition that any sense of becoming a true cosmopolitan has been lost; or at least greatly hindered. By no means am I saying that I am above this or an exception. It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutia of life and focus on all of the things that we do not have, that we fall blind to all the beautiful things we do: family, friends, love…

The Sifaka
What would happen if we all just paused the game for a quick second and thought about our lives from a holistic standpoint? Would we be happy with the sacrifices we made along the way? Would we truly be satisfied with ourselves? Or would we realize that we have just been part of a gigantic endgame? Personally, I do not know the answer. I’m not even sure that I could answer that question at this point in my life. What I do know is that I want my life to amount to more than just a collection of superficial experiences and physical “things.” Life is about forming truly meaningful relationships and bonds that help you to become enlightened to the human dynamic. If at the end of the day, the experiences of your life amount to no more then a assortment of photos and souvenirs with no deep feeling behind it, one could beg the question: “Was it worth it?” It’s something to think about as you – the reader – move through your day to day.

It’s hard to avoid becoming introspective when you are in the face of a society so different from your own. Originally, this was meant to be a blog post rather than a rant about perspective. At any rate: moving on.

My time in Madagascar over the last few weeks has been split between building the capacity of the laboratory on site and various excursions into the rainforest and villages. The rainforest is – in a word – sublime. One could easily compare it to Shangri-La or a Malagasy version of El-Dorado. Within minutes of my first hike we saw a lemur: the Red-Fronted Brown Lemur. For over an hour we were struggling to move around in the bush to get to a perfect vantage point to capture a proper photo. It was almost as if he knew have enthralling he was, only allowing us to take photos of him on his terms, showing us his backside the rest of the time. 

Over the next few weeks my species list would grow to include a Sifaka Lemurs, Bamboo Lemurs, Red-Bellied Lemurs, countless mouse lemurs, chameleons and a plethora of fascinating insects – my favorite being the Madagascan Moon Moth. But nothing compares to the Aye-Aye and the effort we put in to find it.

Madagascan Moon Moth
In a group comprised of four local guides and ten researchers, including myself, we hiked up a densely forested mountain, in the thick of night to catch just a glimpse of this strange, elusive, “demon” lemur. And that’s all we got, just a glimpse. Two hours of climbing on all fours for what amounted to maybe twenty seconds total… it could not have been more worth it. For those of you who do not know about the Aye-Aye, just do a quick Google search and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Now, I could – and should – go into all of the trials and tribulations of attempting to set up a functioning infectious disease laboratory – being that this blog is meant to catalogue my “scientific experience” abroad – in the middle of the rainforest, but instead I will sum it up in two phrases for the interest of your time. First: nothing goes as planned. And by nothing, I literally mean nothing. Second: have a damn good contingency plan for when the shit hits the proverbial fan (pun intended).

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Korea Adventures. The beginning Part 1

Korea has been a journey of ups and downs. Now as I look back at these past 3 weeks, I see personal growth and cultural appreciation. It's awesome to really immerse myself in my homeland and truly understand what kind of culture my parents lived in. I shall give a brief overview of the cultural shocks in my first blog.

My first culture shock came in my first day of lab. I was met by a post-doc who looked not much older than me. He was Dr. Hong, the post-doc I was suppose to work with. Immediately, I found myself struggling with Korean language, hangul, as I experienced my first true one-on-one conversation. Despite the language barrier, he was very nice and very welcoming. Then came my meeting with the professor. It was brief and he very intense as he drilled me about "water oxidation catalysts" and "Polyoxymetalates," my sub-field of research. He sternly lectured me about the respect given to those of higher authority and their proper titles. As I quickly found out, the structure of the lab, like every other corporate setting, was very hierarchical. At the top was the Professor (Prof. Nam); second, visiting professors and post-docs; third, Ph'D candidates; fourth, 2nd-year master's students; fifth, 1st year master's students; lastly, the As the one and only intern, I was at the bottom of the totem pole. Being the youngest didn't help either as I realized one's age mattered too when determining respect. 

Beffore leaving, the professor added a final comment: I had to work for 15hr/day for 6 days a week. I chuckled at first, not knowing if he was serious. I asked the other grad students if this was normal; they all said yes. It became apparent at the meticulous and intense work culture as I saw the dry-erase board in front of the professor's office detailing each student's arrival and departure time every day and the much faster pace when doing research.  It suddenly hit me that I was witnessing the Asian mindset to work tirelessly and efficiently. I finally understood why East Asia was progressing so quickly in a multitude of disciplines as I saw the incredible speed and determination of the students/post-doc. However, I still yearned for the freedom in America. I appreciated my lab in America much more as I realized the immense amount of freedom I've had.

Those first couple of days were difficult as I struggled with the intensity and demands of the lab. However, I do not want to leave an impression of negativity. These cultural roadblocks were stepping stones for me to learn the Korean lifestyle and discipline at much faster rate. Though my life may sound difficult to the reader, I am thoroughly enjoying my stay here in Korea. I plan to share the nicer things about the lab and my activities in Korea in my next blog. FYI, I later found out the professor's comment about the 15hr/day was a joke. It was later told to me that the professor has a interesting sense of humor that not many understand. Through the 3 weeks I've been here, I've learned that the professor is a person who works hard and plays hard. A great teacher and a thinker who know how to push others. He cares for his own and provides the best opportunities for everyone. Maybe that's why he is one of Korea's leading chemists and has amounted sizable renown in the chemistry world.  

Monday, June 23, 2014

Miracle Whip = Mayonnaise and other Oddities in France

After being in Paris for two weeks, I can finally say that I feel at ease. My time here as been an emotional roller coaster, from the elation I felt when I realized that I was actually standing the Louvre museum (somewhere I have always wanted to visit) to the despair I felt when I realized I am still perfectly capable of getting homesick at the age of twenty-one. Luckily, I have been able to venture out of my apartment and explore a bit when I am not being a lab rat. It's safe to say the highs have outweighed the lows. So far this trip has already allowed me to experience a lot of "firsts", and I have learned some interesting things about life à Paris :
1. There is a serious shortage of public restrooms (Several of my friends in the NBB study abroad program postulate that Parisians, as a group, are extremely dehydrated from lack of water consumption which results in the lack of public restroom. Either that or they have greater water retention and/or larger bladders than Americans).
2. Pizzas do not come pre-sliced, whether you order in or are at a restaurant.
3. It costs 1 euro ($1.36) to dry your clothes for just 10 minutes at a laundromat (which made me cry a little on the inside).
4. If you order mayonnaise on your sandwich, you will be surprised to find vile, imposturous Miracle Whip slapped on there instead (Luckily most of the sandwiches served here are so delicious, you hardly notice the "mayo").
5. Air conditioning is rare, especially on the Metro. (Add the hundreds of other people that miraculously fit on one train and you've got yourself a free sauna. It's not fun being short - i.e. armpit level- in these instances)
6. There are bakeries everywhere! This means that the temptation of fresh-baked goods is almost inescapable (But I have been good ... so far).
7. There are McDonald's everywhere. Subways, Domino's, and Pizza Huts are also prevalent.
8. There is free wifi offered at almost every public park in the city, which is even more amazing when you realize just how many parks there are.
9. Everything is either within walking distance or a short tram/bus/metro ride away. (Unlike Atlanta public transport, the system is very efficient and reliable)
10. There is a light show at the Eiffel tower every hour on the hour after dusk.
All in all, I feel as my time here has started out great. I cannot wait to see what else is in store. I hope you guys enjoy the cheesy, touristy pictures. À bientôt :)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Life in Edinburgh

Hello everybody!

I'm spending this summer exploring the beautiful city of Edinburgh and doing research in Paul Clegg's lab at the University of Edinburgh. So far everything has been great. The city is surrounded by hills and full of historic buildings. My roommates are all international students at the university and they have shown me around the area. I've never cared about soccer before but the excitement here about the World Cup is contagious and I've been watching all the games with them. I was nervous about traveling alone but meeting new people from all over the world has been a lot of fun.

The weather couldn't be more different from last summer when I did SURE at Emory. Edinburgh is a lot colder than Atlanta--it rarely has gotten to 70°F so far. There are also very few sunny days. Most of the time it's either cloudy or raining. However, the daylight hours make up for the weather. Last night I got home at 11PM and the sun still hadn't finished setting. It's a bit disorienting to wake up at 4AM and see that the sun is already starting to rise but I've learned to embrace how long days are here.

I've already spent some time exploring Edinburgh's Old Town. It's small but every other building has a museum inside and there are lots of alleys to explore. 

My favorite museum so far
A typical street in Edinburgh's Old Town
Edinburgh Castle. I'm climbing up Castle Rock to see it this weekend!


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Hello from Madagascar!

That island with an arrow saying "Madagascar".

   Three flights, about twenty hours of air time, and one extremely long van ride from the airport, and I have finally reached Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar! Most people shorten it to "Tana". For those of you who don't know, Madagascar is an island nation off of the Southeast coast of Africa.  It's only about the size of California, but it is home to about 22 million people and exists as an impressive hotspot for biodiversity, in spite of widespread deforestation.
Me at the Embassy
     Clearing customs was more interesting than usual. The languages of Madagascar are French and Malagasy. The airport seemed pretty disorganized to me, but I also couldn't read most of the signs, so you never know. Luckily, I already had my Visa from a trip to the Embassy of Madagascar in DC last month. Usually, you have to buy a Visa upon entering Madagascar.
           Rob, the other IRES fellow in Madagascar, and I exchanged all of our money for the trip. Ten thousand ariary notes are worth roughly $5 USD, so we walked out of the airport with quite a large stack of money. The porters grabbed our bags as soon as we walked out, and enthusiastically pulled them to the waiting van sent by MICET (the Malagasy office of the Institute for Conservation of Tropical Environments). The porters scrambled for tips, and I think we ended up giving them kind of a lot of money! We didn't know the exchange rate yet. Apparently they just keep saying "more" until the "vazaha", or foreigner, has shelled out hundreds of thousands of ariary, or around $50 USD. Our driver shewed them away before it went too far.
    After battling traffic that makes DC and Atlanta's roads look efficient, we reached the Saint Laurent.  Cheap by American standards, a room at this hotel goes for an exorbitant sum totaling about $20 per night. Here we met up with Cassidy, another member of the team, before eating dinner and sleeping for the first time in about 48 hours.
I messed up the panorama, but here is a sunset view of Tana.