The Variance of Science

Well here is my final reflection paper and I figured that I might as well post it up here as well. These feelings are mine and don’t reflect how everyone experienced the semester and their interactions. enjoy

 

When I signed up to travel and study in India for my fall semester, I did not stop to consider how I would be learning and what type of science would be taught in a developing country. This semester is a biology semester devoted to conservation biology and Indian ecology, thus requiring quite frequent scientific lectures, field experience, and research. During my three and half months in India, I, along with our whole group (including Dr. Paradise), have been exposed to the Indian style of teaching and understanding science. Being born and breed as a Western science student, I have experienced both positive and negative characteristics of learning science in India.

 

The thing that immediately struck me was the extent of an interdisciplinary approach within the science departments. Here, botanists could explain insect morphology, and entomologists easily rattled off the chemical aspects of advanced cellular processes in a variety of taxonomic groups. The fields do not have defined boundaries here, but rather the students and professors will explain any subject matter that pertains to their focus. In the United States, the majors can be incredibly isolated. At Davidson, I know many biology majors who graduate without ever studying organic chemistry. How is one ever to understand cell biology, human physiology, or environmental science without exposure to at least some of the chemistry and physics that lay the foundation to the biology? It was really refreshing to not have the separation in the fields that I love, since I myself study chemistry and biology. The Indian professors proved that it is okay to blend and combine subjects in different fields that should be studied together.

 

But the question must be ask, “What is the true extent of the understanding of Indian students and professors?” In my experience, many of our lecturers can rattle of memorized facts and scientific nomenclature, but in my eyes that does not prove true knowledge. I get the feeling that they cannot “think outside the box.” In the U.S., professors and experts encourage students to make connections and understand the processes in many different aspects. As I mentioned above, the Americans may be limited in knowing topics across varied fields, but within a certain area of study, a broad understanding is expected. I wholeheartedly believe that our group can better discuss aspects of habitat fragmentation than an Indian who can rattle of facts and definitions. Our lecturer for habitat fragmentation rattled off a doctorate degree’s worth of scientific names and various data concerning some examples of it, but he never once talked about the ecological effects to processes, populations, and dispersal! Nearer to test time, Dr. Paradise admitted that we should focus on the reading for that day instead of anything said in the 90-minute lecture. The knowledge that is valued here is very different from that in the USA. Indians expect vast amounts of knowledge to be memorized/understood that professors in the US (in my experience) would think crazy. I know almost no scientific names and would have a hard time remember the compounds present at every step of the Kreb’s Cycle. It makes such a difference in lectures and discussions when presenters begin telling all these facts about species, but leave out the “Why?”

 

Bringing it back to the positive aspects of school in India, class extends past just the PowerPoint’s and lectures. We are living in a region that is providing a large portion of the studies for the theories we are exploring. First-hand experience is amazing. Visiting MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) justifies taking all those globalization and ecology classes. In Economics 180 Globalization of Food, we studied the effects of the Green Revolution on India and its farmers and culture (along with many other topics). More than half of the class’s syllabus qualifies as MSSRF’s mission. They work on a variety of agricultural topics. In Kerala, they encourage the use of local rice varieties in villages and its sale in markets in order to prevent the loss of that traditional knowledge. By roaming through the jungle in Kerala, we saw the immense biodiversity that we had heard about in countless lectures. The theory of island biogeography also made sense to me, but trekking across South Andaman Island firmly cemented the concept. All of these journeys included an MCC staff member that knew quite a bit of the knowledge on the particular ecosystem. Mr. Selva Singh Richard was a living encyclopedia of the Western Ghats, from climate to organisms to threats. His life’s work thus far specializes in pollinators of the Western Ghats. Dr. Sam Sukumar, while not quite an expert on the Andaman Islands, was able to give a satisfying answer to every question that I may have had.

 

Unfortunately, not all of my interactions with experts were so fruitful. There were countless “lost in translation” moments where you just knew that the whole meaning/ answer wasn’t quite coming through. It is a terrible feeling because these were experts who were probably quite eloquent in Tamil, but their English skills lacked. Beyond the difficulties in language, there was just the ridiculousness of some lecturers. Many would spout information that would satisfy their thesis, regardless of its validity. Dr. Sudarsanam was quite possibly the most frustrating. He knew the science, but his peculiar lecturing style and disconnect with us just made him more trouble than beneficial to us.

 

This semester has been a great experience, regardless of some of the more negative occasions. Everything that I have learned and witnessed certainly outweighs some of the frustration. I now understand what form of knowledge a different culture values. It is fascinating to see and explore the differences, which this semester in India has fostered. Perhaps the most rewarding thing though is that we aren’t the only ones learning. The Indians interacting with us are being exposed to a new culture. Mr. Richard constantly asked us questions about college, science education, and classwork. He wanted to understand the differences and perhaps apply them to his own botany courses. So after this whole semester, what science-related technique will I most remember? Probably the interdisciplinary approach to the sciences. I can truly embrace (geek out on) my love of biology and chemistry together.

 

And for your enjoyment. Love the guys at MCC. Me in my dhoti!

And… us at the palace city of Fatehpur Sikri. Incredible place. More pictures will come up as soon as I am home… in less than 48 hours i think.

My Camera!

So I was thinking recently. My camera has traveled and witnessed some incredible sights! It is a dark silver/black Sony Cybershot ____. It began its journey with me Christmas 2008, and continues to keep on snapping those pictures. Here is a little semi-chronological summary of those amazing, life-changing journeys that my camera has helped me remember:

 

Countless trips to the gulf coast with the guys. Lil Gasparilla Island, Anna Maria Island, MacDill Air Force Base Beach

Hillsborough High School functions: Mu Alpha Theta math competition!!, Spanish Honor Society inductions, prom, graduation, and the IB banquet

My Italian cousins visiting us in Boston and Tampa

Minion Day at Lake James with Jon Brooks, Nate, Seth, and PJ. Oh gotta love Rockmont!

Moving into Davidson! Meeting Bernstein and Corinne/Jane/Luke etc.

It has accompanied me on almost ALL of my Davidson Outdoors adventures:

  • Backpacking at Mt. Rogers, VA (5 times), Pisgah, Mt. Mitchell (2)
  • Odyssey backpacking, canoeing, and general goofing off
  • Kayaking and canoeing on the French Broad, Nantahala, New, Gualey, and Tuck, Capers Island
  • The EVERGLADES!
  • Via Ferrata climbing

Concerts: Blink-182, Passion Pit, Wolfmother, Muse, Metric

New York City for Kaitlin’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade debut

Davidson events: winter, SigEp functions, shenanigans

And to top it all off: INDIA! My camera has survived over 3 months of traveling and studying all over India. Part of the screen doesn’t work anymore, but it still takes gorgeous pictures that allow me to share my adventures with friends and family.

 

I don’t know at all how entertaining this is, but it was a spur of the moment idea. Basically, I am doing some crazy traveling that I will carry with me for the rest of the life.

 

Little update: school is finished. Flew from Chennai to Delhi. Quickly hit up Agra and the Taj. Now I am sitting in Varanasi listening to one of the craziest Hindu celebrations for the Ganges! And then we will head back to Delhi inorder to fly out soon. December 8 is coming quickly.

Lesson of the Day #15

When you claim that you would be the only one that won’t get sick in India, beware, because you will end up on the side of a mountain crying to the heavens…

 

So throughout the trip, Lucy was the only person who had yet to get sick. She got to the point where she began to claim she could make it the whole semester without “Delhi belly” or other illnesses. Well Kerala got her! She spent a few days in bed, then after feeling well enough for a day, came on a hike with us. Let’s just say the illness hadn’t subsided. Lucy and I stayed behind and hiked out at our own pace and then rented a jeep to get back haha. O India

 

The more you know…

Lesson of the Day #14

When someone in India gives you an ETA or “distance”, take it with a boulder of salt…

 

So far in Kerala, we have gone hiking two or three times. At the beginning of each hike, we were told it was say 3 km. After 20 minutes, I asked again how far. I was told “3 km sir”. True, but you forgot to add the 3 km we just did! We have also driven all over the Wayanad District of Kerala. Mr. Richard, our MCC fixer, will often say, “Oh, it’s not too far, 20 km at most.” Two hours later and 55 km, we reach the destination (doesn’t help that every road is potholed from the monsoon). It doesn’t annoy me, it is just very interesting to see their take on “time” and “distance.”

 

The more you know…

 

Lesson of the Day #13

When sitting on the beach in Goa, never show any interest in the vendors…

 

Dozens of people roam the beaches in Goa selling cheap souvenirs, scarves, ice cream, etc. As soon as you show ANY interest in one of them, a cloud descends upon you. They try and show their products, and continually lower the price with, “Special price for you!” There is actually some pretty cool stuff, but it can get quite annoying when you are trying to read the Steve Jobs biography. At least I can see the writing through my new fake green Ray Bans!

 

The more you know…

My birthday and Diwali

I have never really spent a whole week celebrating my birthday, until now!

 

After 2 months of toiling on my premed work, I turned it all in on Monday, Oct 24. That left me quite free to relax and explore Chennai. The only assignment was a conservation paper about an Endangered Species (I did the Asiatic black bear, naturally). As it turned out, Diwali (pronounced with a V not a W) fell on my birthday this year, Wed Oct 26. Diwali is the festival of lights for Hindus and Jains. It is hard to explain what they are actually celebrating, but it is memorable all the less. When we heard Diwali was coming up, we started to ask about what to do in order to celebrate. A man I talked to at the guest house sorta just stared at me and said, “just be with your family.” I surmised that Diwali was a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas, 4th of July, and New Years. There are no real gatherings or festivals, rather everyone just hangs with their family and neighbors. Buying new clothes and lighting off a ridiculous amount of fireworks are the norms. Oh, and this takes place not just on the actual day of Diwali, but the whole week surrounding it. We went to the malls that whole week and it put Black Friday to shame.

Saturday:

Went to one of the nicest hotels in Chennai, the Raintree. They had a rooftop Punjabi restaurant. In honor of all our work, the Paradise’s treated us to an amazing night!

Sunday:

As a break right before all the premed stuff, I went along with Corinne, Lucy, and Haley to EA Plaza. 5 stories full of shops, both Indian and Western. We didn’t make the connection between Diwali and shopping, so we were in for a surprise. The mall was packed!!

Tuesday:

Went to a really nice restaurant, NH1

Wednesday:

On my birthday, class was canceled, leaving the day completely open. This was something new for us, since we had strict plans all the time. Cameron, Charlie, and I woke up early and took our first venture to KNK road to sit at a coffee shop. It was my first real coffee in forever, and was really nice to just sit in a small cafe and talk with the guys. We then looked around some of the high end shops on the road, and challenged Charlie into trying on new shirts. Nunganbakkam Rd intersects with KNK Rd and we had to look in Manyavar. They sell REALLY nice Indian clothes, and I wanted a nice Kurta to wear for the Diwali celebration that night. We made plans to meet up with a Furman College group that was currently staying at MCC. We took the train down to Tambaram in the rain, listening to the thundering fireworks. All the Furman students were in traditional Indian garb! The women had beautiful Sarees and the men kurtas and dhotis. The introductions were a little awkward, but we were escorted to a traditional Diwali dinner in the classroom. Eating a messy Indian meal with your hands is a great icebreaker when meeting new people. We talked about our respective programs and adventures. We had been in India about a month longer than they had, so we were giving them a bit of advice where we could. Before and after dinner, the group lit hundreds of fireworks in front of IGH. I thought it would get old, but I only got more into it. Eventually, 3 of the Davidson’s left, leaving 5 of us to mingle with the much larger group of 18. Instantly, the Furmans brought out some speakers and started a great dance party. Cameron and I learned how to “wobble” that night. My Odyssey groups would have been proud of the Bernie skills that I showed off! They also gave me my first drink as a 21 year old. Thanks Furman. We made the last train back to Egmore around 10:30 that night. Everywhere around us were monstrous explosions of sound and color! I felt like I was in a war zone. It was unending and unnerving…

Thursday:

I went straight from WCC classes to KNK Rd to write my Species paper at The Lounge (upscale coffee shop). On the way, I stopped in the Oxford bookstore to grab the Steve Jobs biography as my reward after I finished the paper. Since everyone was working, nothing to exciting beyond the cascade of fireworks.

Friday:

I decided to do my birthday dinner on Saturday night because our Species paper was due Friday night. Most people spent the day working on it. I had my first visit to the gas station-ice cream shop-wifi cafe thing. Awesome bright blue LEDs with marble heart flooring. Classic India.

Saturday:

The work was finally finished and Fall Break commenced. Cameron, Charlie, and I went back to KNK Rd to tackle the Jean Problem. We each did a little of our own shopping, but we succeeded in convincing Charlie to stop hating jeans. For the dinner, Charlie had found a small, authentic Italian restaurant called Tuscana. I couldn’t resist getting raviolis and tomato caprese! Delicious. After dinner, the others took me back to the Raintree rooftop bar to celebrate my birthday. It was really cool to be back up on the roof, and just relax without any work.

Sunday:

Adventured to Spencer’s Plaza. Basicaly an Indian bazaar where all the prices are negotiable. The mall itself is incredibly confusing, all the hallways snake around. That night after dinner, Lucy, Haley, and I went to the Taj Hotel (nicest one in Chennai) and just lounged until 12:30. Definitely our latest night in Chennai, since the whole city shuts down at 11 o clock. The Lobby has a 3 story waterfall! Why??

 

well thats sorta the story of my Diwali week. Goa adventure is up next.

Time for a Recap

It is time to briefly summarize my time in between the Andamans and Goa.

 

We spent three weeks living at the YWCA International Guest House in the Egmore district of Chennai. It could not have been more opposite than living on Madras Christian College’s campus. MCC is a 400 acre Scrub jungle southwest of the city. The YWCA sits on one of the main throughways of the city, Poonamallee High Road. We were literally in the middle of the city, a forty minute train ride from the MCC campus. Our guest house took a while to adjust to, and to be frank, most people never quite fell for it. Cameron and I had to switch rooms twice due to various problems, one being an exploding AC unit. IGH only had internet in the lobby, which was one of more more stuffy, humid, mosquito infested parts of the city. I actually used this to my advantage when it came to work. I spent the maximum amount of time working/writing in my room, and only ventured downstairs to finish up research or waste time on Skype/facebook/itunes. Really, the only consistent group complaint was about the food. Let’s be frank, it was awful. We went out to various restaurants for dinner, and ate most lunches at Women’s Christian College (more on that later). Beyond these few annoyances, YWCA was fine, typical Indian accommodations in my eyes, and it REALLY exposed us to the city. Most of the Davidson groups that come for the semester never live in the city, and only venture up to it for a few hours my train. We, on the other hand, woke up and could catch a rickshaw to the shops, or cafes, or just about anywhere for less than 150 Rs. I definitely gained a lot of confidence living in a huge city, and just finding my way around, haggling with street vendors, and dealing with dirty conditions.

 

During the time in the city, our classes were held Mon-Fri at Women’s Christian College (WCC). Its gorgeous campus was dominated by huge, columned buildings and trees that were reminiscent of colonial times. Every morning, we had a van shuttle us to campus at 8:30, and take us about at around 1:30. The Canteen at WCC was my favorite feature of the campus. Our WCC coordinator convinced Dr. Paradise that we could all survive on a lunch budget of 100 rupees (about 2 dollars). We all were doubtful, but as soon as we walked into the Canteen, we sighed. For 25 Rs, I purchased a MOUND of chicken fried rice that I could barely finish. Curries were 25 Rs, and delicious chocolate donuts were 12 Rs. I usually walked away from every lunch with at least 50 Rs remaining, which nicely supplemented my rickshaw rides. Being white was one thing walking around WCC, but being a white male was a different story sometimes. The campus rarely hosted men, except for physical staff. The throngs of students would just stare, laugh, whisper as we walked through campus. But we have gotten quite used to that at this point.

 

After our first week at YWCA, we spent the weekend in Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram. The trip was supposed to be environmentally-focused, but as is Indian fashion, most of these plans changed. The trip evolved into a tourist weekend, which was quite relaxing. During the 3 hour drive to Pondicherry on a Thursday, we stopped at the Madras Crocodile Bank. SO MANY CROCS. And as soon as we checked into Pondicherry, we ventured to an amazing French restaurant. Pondy was once a French colony, and walking through the city creepily reminds me of long-past memories of New Orleans and Paris. Cobbled, broad, shady avenues with fancy shops and cafes. On Friday, we visited an Ashram, Temple, and several shops. We then boarded on the bus to Mahabalipuram (or Mambalampuram, depending on who you ask). We sprung for the Ideal Beach Resort. Heaven! Robby and I had a great room, and all the Davidson’s were in our own building right next to the pool and massage center. The beach was great, and the restaurant had tremendous food. The real thing that stands out at this point though was the breakfast. Freaking Fantastic. many options and my personal favorite of freshly made eggs and pancakes. While at Ideal, I also indulged in an Ayruvedic massage. Let’s just say one of the more unique massages I’ve ever experienced. Mahabalipuram is famous for the Shore Temple and the 5 Rathas. I encourage you to check out the photo albums on Facebook to see the amazing stone carvings. Diya (MCC Prof) toured us around the stone temples, Rathas, and shore temple. Most of these structures were carved out of single pieces of stone! It was a blazing hot day, but everything was so cool and unique. Krishna’s Butterball is this gargantuan boulder that receding glaciers plopped on a stone hillside. It precariously hangs there, threatening to start rolling at any moment, juxtaposed with the goats lying right below it.

Back in Chennai, I worked a lot on premed and other papers. I drove my mom and sister Bridget crazy with my frequent Skype calls and emails. I eventually finished it all and sent it in though! Our other downtime was spent shopping and eating mostly haha. We got Western culture shock whenever we ventured to EA Plaza (a huge mall with hundreds of shops). My favorite area became Khader Nawaz Khan Road. It had some nice shops and coffee joints on it that made life pleasant. That is where we opened Charlie’s eyes to the world of clothes. Cameron and I convinced him to buy one fitted button down shirt, and quickly moved in the next weekend to pressure him into a pair of jeans. He was adamant about never owning jeans, but now he does! We also used the exchange rate to our advantage for restaurants. We went to some great places throughout Chennai. The Raintree hotel had an amazing Punjabi rooftop restaurant. Best chicken Murglah kebab ever. We could see all over the city, and the ambiance was unrivaled. Other highlights include: early morning birdwatching with professors from WCC at a wetland/trash dump; Pulicat Lake; Spencer’s Plaza, the most Indian style mall I’ve experienced, lots of small shops and bargaining (definitely negotiated some gifts)… there are more but I’m on the beach, and the sun is setting soon, soooo….

I am going to post about my birthday week and Diwali in a separate post so that I don’t overwhelm everyone.