Exploring Diabetes Prevention and Management in Chennai, India

– written by Pranati Panuganti, SURF Recipient

The Health Sciences Library

The Health Sciences Library

Many Indians like my grandmother are suffering from diabetes and other chronic diseases, which motivated me to pursue a summer internship at the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation (MDRF) in Chennai, India. My two-month stay in this urban city served a two-fold purpose: (1) To learn how food, culture, and other lifestyle practices influence the rapidly escalating prevalence of diabetes in Chennai, and (2) To analyze the effectiveness of a school-based intervention in teaching Chennai’s youth about diabetes.

At MDRF, I was a research assistant for the ORANGE study: Obesity Reduction, Awareness, and Screening for Non-communicable diseases through Group Education. Phase I of this study is a screener for diabetes risk factors in 2,000 randomly selected children from residential colonies in Chennai. During our 7:00AM field visits on Saturday mornings, my team performed anthropometric measurements, an oral glucose tolerance test, and administered a questionnaire about the child’s lifestyle practices. A trend I noticed among many participants is they do not willingly engage in sports or exercise. Rather, their physical activity seems to come from activities of daily living, such as getting to and from work.

After screening for diabetes in these colonies, select individuals with pre-diabetes or diabetes were invited to Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Hospital for consultation. I met an 11-year old research participant who attends a boarding school where he only learns Sanskrit, and no math, science, or English. When the diabetologist asked about playtime, the boy’s eyes widened and he shook his hands to exclaim, “No! We are beaten if not studying!” I have learned this boy is one of many children in India who face barriers to healthy living stemming from illiteracy. Without being able to read and write, it is difficult for people like him to learn from intervention strategies and health promotion programs, such as pamphlets, posters, and presentations.

Phase II of the ORANGE study involved a school-based co-curriculum intervention for diabetes awareness and self-management training in children and adolescents across Chennai. I analyzed intervention results and identified several emerging themes. First, I found that students of lower socioeconomic status (SES) had trouble distinguishing non-communicable and infectious diseases. For example, many students from low SES suggested sanitation as a healthy habit to prevent diabetes. Among students of high SES, many mistakenly associate an expensive lifestyle with a healthy lifestyle. Finally, among both low and high SES students, there seems to be a lack of awareness of physical activity and an increased emphasis on diet as healthy behaviors to prevent or manage diabetes.

These issues and emerging themes call for two restructured intervention programs, one tailored towards students from low SES and one for those from high SES. This experience has taught me that improving the health of low-income populations depends on meeting the basic, grass-root needs of the people (such as clean water, clothing, and literacy), before intervening to improve diabetes prevention and management.

For more details & pictures, stop by my blog at: www.pranatiloveschennai.wordpress.com


Samuel Harper, the Search for Answers, and the Heart of Research

– written by Griffin Creech, SURF Recipient

A 1916 photo of Harper attached to his passport. Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Special Collections Archive, Samuel N. Harper Papers, Box 3, Folder 2.

A 1916 photo of Harper attached to his passport. Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Special Collections Archive, Samuel N. Harper Papers, Box 3, Folder 2.

The Cold War. American intellectuals. The Russian Revolution. What do these terms make you think of? Your mind probably flashes to duck and cover drills, men wearing bowties and monocles, and Lenin. In order to get to know a man who probably wore a monocle and, certainly, a bowtie, I spent this summer in the University of Chicago’s Special Collections archive examining thousands of documents dated between 1916 to 1921. This intellectual was Samuel Harper, professor at the University of Chicago from 1915 to 1943, the first American to devote an academic career to studying Russia, and the protagonist of my senior honors thesis in history.

I set out to examine Harper’s intellectual role in forming American attitudes towards the Soviet Union. As I stood in front of the archives before beginning my research, I thought I knew what I would find inside: a record of every lecture and exam that Harper ever gave at the university. These documents, I believed, would show me how Harper interpreted the Russian revolutions of 1917 to undergraduates in his classes and how he used his academic position to form a strictly intellectual framework for interpreting Russia that would become important during the Cold War. I had a preconceived answer to my research question, yet no evidence to confirm it.

Yet, that day I found letters linking Harper to American corporate tycoons including Henry Ford and International Harvester Corporation executives. As my search continued, other similar documents emerged until I was at an impasse. Was Harper really just a university professor, or was his intellectual and political legacy more complex?

The University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library and the home of the Samuel N. Harper Papers. Photo courtesy of Griffin B. Creech

The University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library and the home of the Samuel N. Harper Papers. Photo courtesy of Griffin B. Creech

It turned out that Harper was far more than a professor. He spent most of 1916 acting as a go-between for American business interests, informing them on how to claim a stake in the economic renaissance that he believed was transforming Russia’s “backward” economy and political traditions. Optimistic over the country’s prospects for democracy, Harper broadcasted his analysis in American newspapers, speeches to civic groups, and a shockingly small amount of university lectures. His interpretation, I discovered, had little sympathy for far-left parties like the Bolsheviks, who came to power in 1917. So, Harper had helped to construct the Cold War’s intellectual framework; he simply hadn’t done it in the way I expected.

This conundrum perfectly encapsulates the research experience that my SURF made possible this summer and summarizes what I would change if I could repeat my experience: not beginning my research with a preconceived notion of what I would find. If I had to leave my readers with a message, it would be that the foundation of research lies in understanding what we don’t know or in disproving that which we accept. Having one’s preconceived notions challenged is a positive thing, and I would argue that it is exactly this that a SURF makes possible. So, apply for one, get ready to have your ideas challenged, and accept that knowledge stems from being open to an array of answers.

Beyond Words: A Comparative Analysis of the Symbolic Role of Silence in Two Monastic Communities—Oriental and Occidental

– written by Rukmini Deva, SURF Recipient

Rukmini with Father Kevin in Mepkin Abbey Monastery, SC

Rukmini with Father Kevin in Mepkin Abbey Monastery, SC

Mahatma Gandhi said, “A periodical decree of silence is not a torture, but a blessing.” This summer, I embarked on a quest to understand why “silence is golden” in both eastern and western religious doctrines. Monastic silence is of particular interest to me, since it indicates a lifetime of voluntary commitment to silence and/or “stillness.” In order to explore this topic further, I visited monasteries around the world but selected two monastic communities to study in depth: a Trappist monastery of fourteen Catholic monks in South Carolina, and a Yogoda ashram monastery of Swamis in India. Through an ethnographic characterization of the symbolic role of silence in the spiritual practices of these two groups of monks, I explored how and why silence is used as a vehicle of deeper thought and spiritual experience within their respective communities.

After days of participant observation and interviews*, I understood how meaningful silence is to these monks. Being a medium of thought, exploration and awe, silence is one of the greatest shapers of the monastic experience. Although the techniques of attaining silence differ for occidental Trappist monks and oriental Kriya Yogis, and the understanding of term “silence” differs as well, the ultimate purpose is common: God-contact. Having years of spiritual experience, these monks understand the occasional temptations, spiritual dryness, and distractions which result during silent meditation. Yet, they are adept at maneuvering their minds God-ward despite “inner demons.” They use will-power and persistence to accomplish their highest spiritual aspirations.

I was touched by their eager willingness to verbalize a sacred, inner journey, so honestly with me. One Trappist monk stated, “Monastic silence has not been easy for me. But it’s certainly the most fulfilling, and it allowed my deeper self to come out faster than anything else.”

Rukmini at a Yogoda Ashram Monastery in India (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India)

Rukmini at a Yogoda Ashram Monastery in India (Yogoda Satsanga Society of India)

Each monk I interviewed left me with a different thought to ponder. A Trappist monk, for example, suggested that ideal silence consists of being comfortable with oneself; people often distract themselves with noise so they do not have to face their inner selves. A Kriya Yogi stated that “motion is the death of spirituality.” It is in true stillness that God can be heard and found. Therefore, it is not surprising that the words “silent” and “listen” consist of the same letters!

While silence was not the goal for either community of monks, it was a means to achieve spiritual attainment. The Kriya Yogis understood this silence as mental and physical stillness while the Trappists understood it as a space for contemplative prayer.

These individual monastic narratives have helped me to appreciate silence as something tangible and worth practicing.

*This human participants’ research was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB)

Appreciation for Comparative Literature 460

– written by Morgan Welch, B.A. Anthropology and Archaeology, minor in Social and Economic Justice, Class of ’15

Study Session for Final, Roy Rice Photography

Study Session for Final, Roy Rice Photography

I am writing this in extreme appreciation for my course Comparative Literature: Transnational Romanticism with Professor Janice Koelb (CMPL 460). I wanted to stress that this course allowed me to pursue diverse and in-depth research topics, and was the best taught research-focused course I found in my undergraduate career.

The seminar format of the class facilitated communication between students and student/professor interactions. I found that the structured research of the class led me to use both online and print resources I didn’t know existed before this class, and I particularly enjoyed using the Articles + feature from the UNC library. I found that having a clear research focus throughout the class allowed for me to develop my ideas more clearly, and get feedback at every step of the writing process. We utilized an open forum concept following project presentations, as well as individual meetings with a graduate student to workshop our research methods, questions, and process.

The course also made clear the importance of interdisciplinary considerations from work, and the blending of visual and written art to convey thematic ideas in a creative format. We were able to benefit from a visit to the Ackland, after reading essays that critically discussed paintings that were available to the public there. We also had the privilege of seeing Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, following a close reading and discussion with the director about the motivations behind his interpretation of the play.

I was exposed to essays, discourses, novels, and poetry that challenged my conceptions of the Romantic movement, and also expanded my artistic tastes. I can honestly enjoy museums and poetry much more, now that I have learned more about how to properly analyze what is being said. I have also come to appreciate the role of poet as social critic, and found that poetry written centuries ago is aptly able to describe emotions and concerns that are relevant to me.

I feel that this class has impacted me in a profound way, and this is due to Professor Koelb. She is so genuine and gifted at helping students reach their potential. She has made me a better student, and not only expects greatness, but nurtures it through a responsive and kind teaching style. All her assignments are clearly linked to the goals of the course, and I appreciate the clarity and creativeness that her classes foster. This is a sentiment shared by all of Dr. Koelb’s students.

Thank you for your time, and for your support for undergraduate research on campus!

Note: You can read this related post on the GRC Blog from Rachael Isom, the Graduate Research Consultant in the course.

A Sleepy Summer on Campus: Conducting Sleep Research, that is!

– written by Lindsey Freeman, senior SURF Recipient

As a SURF recipient this summer, I got a head start on collecting data for my senior Honors Thesis. I’m interested in investigating how different wavelengths of light (manipulated through the use of colored glasses) impact circadian rhythm, daytime energy level, and mood. Blue light emitted from artificial light sources at night can suppress melatonin synthesis, and can make people feel less tired. Theoretically, filtering out this blue light with amber-tinted glasses could mimic the effects of darkness and allow for the natural production of melatonin, despite our continuing light-emitting device usage.

To investigate the effects of these glasses, I got the chance to work with human participants. This meant that I had to draft, submit, and revise my first IRB ethics application. There was a lot of prep-work involved before I could start the protocol after Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, though. This study uses Ecological Momentary Assessment in studying the constructs of sleep, energy, and mood, which simply means that I want to study how people are feeling in the moment, at random time points throughout the day. To achieve this, I worked with one of my faculty co-investigators to modify a programming script she had written to automatically send my survey links via text message to the participants. After some initial debugging and troubleshooting, I was able to get 14 participants completely through the 18-day protocol. For me, this meant that I had to meet with each of the participants at separate times to go over the consent form and hand out the first pair of colored glasses, meet with them again halfway through the study so that they could exchange their glasses for a second, different-colored pair, and again at the conclusion of the study for them to return their glasses and to get debriefed/compensated. Additionally, I was involved in writing more computer code to merge and clean my data files, and I was involved in conducting preliminary data analysis to lay the foundation for further analyses with a larger sample.

Lindsey Freeman

Participants were asked to send in “selfies” of themselves wearing the glasses each night to track their adherence to protocol—This is my example!

Through this experience, I gained skills working with the R programming environment (R: A language and environment for statistical computing.) for data cleaning and automating tasks. My organizational skills have also improved: I’ve had to keep track of different bursts of participants and have had to check in on their survey completion, often needing to troubleshoot if the survey technology fails to cooperate. I have also sharpened my analytical skills, brushing up on what I’ve learned in introductory statistics classes.

This project has affirmed my interest in a career dealing with psychological research. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed researching this topic and have learned a great deal from each step of the process. Although it can be frustrating sometimes, the rewards of psychological research encourage me to continue conducting research to some degree in the future. Depending on the results of this study (which is still ongoing), I would love to conduct future research to see how amber-lensed glasses perform in clinical populations (particularly in those with bipolar disorder or depression, including post-partum depression). Special thanks to Dr. Eric Youngstrom, Dr. Nisha Gottfredson, and Tate Halverson for their tremendous help with this project.