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.

Welcome to the Fall 2015 Semester

We are also happy to see and feel the energy that comes with the start of a new semester. As you’re thinking about your undergraduate research career here at Carolina, don’t forget about OUR resources and support.

You can talk with an OUR student Ambassador or Department Liaison for advice and support.

Check out opportunities that have been posted in the Database of Research Opportunities.

Review the criteria to be a Carolina Research Scholar and plan to earn this transcript designation.

Check out our Fall Event and our SURF Information Session schedule.

Read the OUR Blog, sign up for the biweekly e-newsletter, follow our Twitter feed and like us on Facebook.

A Different Kind of Semester — Research at a North Carolina Field Site

– written by Andrea Stewart, OUR Ambassador and Environmental Science major

The Institute for the Environment at UNC is praised for its network of field sites, where students can venture for a semester in North Carolina or abroad and do coursework, take field trips, hold internships, and perform group research projects. As an environmental science major with a concentration in natural resources and conservation, I chose the Highlands Field Site, a beautiful place in the NC mountains known for its high biodiversity. Little did I know that through this program, I would have the opportunity to study at Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, home to one of the oldest continuous environmental studies in North America.

A waterfall in the experimental watershed

A waterfall in the experimental watershed

I was assigned a research internship at Coweeta and visited the lab several times each week in the fall semester of my junior year. My mentor was an ecologist who is interested in studying the effects of logging on forest vegetation dynamics. Research at Coweeta usually focuses on one or more watersheds, or areas of land where all the water flows to the same location. In our study, we examined a watershed that was partially logged by researchers in the 1950s. We asked – how was this forest changed over the past 60 years?

To answer that question, I trekked into the field, a mountainous forest that ranged in elevation over 1300 feet. I located large plots that were established in the 1930s to measure vegetation. One by one, I measured and identified all the trees in these plots, careful to record the data accurately, not get tangled in rhododendron shrubs, and watch out for black bears! Considering that Coweeta is located in a temperate rainforest, the work outdoors was not always easy, but it was very informative. I learned to identify many tree species, observe vegetation patterns, and recognize different forest ecotypes, skills that I could not have gained by simply reading a textbook.

Measuring tree diameter at Coweeta Lab

Measuring tree diameter at Coweeta Lab

After completing the field work, we resurrected historical data from the 1930s and 1950s and compared it with our data. We also used similar data from a watershed that was completely logged and a watershed that was unaltered by humans. I was surprised to discover that, in some ways, partially logging affects the characteristics of a forest significantly less than clearcutting. We also observed that forest hydrology is not significantly changed due to partial logging, a finding that has important implications for water sustainability.

My internship at Coweeta Hydrologic Lab through the Highlands Field Site was an exceptional introduction to ecological research. This project elucidated for me what exactly “research” looks like and how it is conducted. Furthermore, it helped me solidify my interest in forest ecology and ecohydrology. I encourage all students to consider a research project or independent study at a field site; the experience outside the typical classroom cannot be matched!

Science and Math Achievement and Resourcefulness Track Program Symposium

2015 SMART symposium

2015 SMART symposium

On July 17, 2015, the SMART Program hosted a research symposium highlighting the work of SMART undergraduate researchers. This program is supported by the Office for Undergraduate Research, and the NSF-funded North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, (NC-LSAMP) Phase IV. Dr. Laura Miller is the PI for the NC-LSAMP Grant. You can read more about the program here.

In his opening comments, program director Dr. Gidi Shemer praised the students and encouraged them to think of their summer research as just the first step in their journey. Research, Dr. Shemer observed, is an excellent way to develop critical thinking skills. He noted the power of witnessing the transformation of the students as they learned to think like scientists and matured into scholar-scientists. The students reported that their projects pushed them to step outside of their comfort zones; many were initially surprised at the high expectations of their labs, PIs, and co-mentors. They were, in fact, expected to do real research! Dr. Shemer announced that plans are underway to build in more interaction between the SMART and SMART-Transfer cohorts for next summer’s participants.

Nicholas Larsen presents his project

Nicholas Larsen presents his project

In two poster sessions in the lobby of the Genome Science Building, program participants discussed their summer research projects. There was an impressively diverse range of projects from many academic disciplines, including Computer Science, Biology, Chemistry, Nutrition and more. Students discussed using network analysis of bill co-sponsorship to determine relationships between US Senators, the efficacy of the flu vaccine in obese subjects, the connection between head impact and reaction time in high school football players, and more.

2015 SMART participants

2015 SMART participants

This event was an impressive example of summer undergraduate research at Carolina. Thanks to the PIs and co-mentors who welcomed our students into their labs and supported their interest in scientific research, and to all who attended the symposium.

SMART and SMART-Transfer Research Presentations

Each summer the Office for Undergraduate Research offers the Science and Math Achievement and Resourcefulness Track (SMART) and SMART-Transfer program. This program is conducted in partnership with North Carolina A & T University, the lead campus in the NSF-funded North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, (NC-LSAMP) Phase IV. Dr. Laura Miller is the PI for the NC-LSAMP Grant and Dr. Gidi Shemer is the SMART Programs Director.

SMART 2015 participant Dana Elhertani gives a chalk talkThe students selected to participate in the program are matched to a laboratory based on their interests; they spend nine weeks during the summer doing 30 hours of research per week under the mentorship of a lab member and the principal investigator of the lab. Students also attend weekly meetings with their peers and the program director where they discuss scientific papers, present chalk talks, and gain scientific writing skills.

SMART 2015 students studyOn Friday, July 17, at 12:00 p.m. in the Genome Science Building lobby, there will be a research symposium where the SMART and SMART-Transfer students will present their summer research projects. Dr. Shemer noted that a wide range of STEM fields were involved in this program; projects included: “A computer-science approach to design an easily accessible keyboard for the disabled,” “Comparing water treatment protocols to determine which provides the best (almost) germ-free water that we should drink,” and “How to use Nanodoplets to fragment chromatin and to improve personalized cancer screening.”

Feel free to join us at the research symposium, and keep an eye out for these up-and-coming scientists.

Burch Fellowship Scholar – Burn Prevention in Malawi

– written by Marissa Bane, Health Policy and Management student and Burch Fellow

As a burn survivor, I had dreamed of working at the Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) burn unit in Lilongwe, Malawi for several years, and I was finally able to go this past summer as part of the Burch Fellows Program. The burn unit was founded in 2008 through a partnership with UNC Hospitals to help improve outcomes for burn patients. Because the unit is relatively new, they had no knowledge on burn prevention in Malawi, and they did not have the resources to research and fund a program. At first, I did not understand why it was important to research burn prevention strategies in Malawi. In the United States, we already know how to prevent burns – for example, we know not touch a hot stove or let children near a pot of boiling water. However, if we tried to implement our burn prevention strategies in Malawi, most would be completely useless and even confusing. The challenges Malawians face regarding burns are very unique, and burn prevention strategies need to be relevant to them.

Open flames are the cause of the majority of burns in Malawi.  Marissa's project aimed to educate Malawi's citizens on fire safety and burn prevention.

Open flames are the cause of the majority of burns in Malawi. Marissa’s project aimed to educate Malawi’s citizens on fire safety and burn prevention.

With the help of UNC surgeons, I created and translated a 35-question survey that was asked to the parent of each child at the burn center under eight years old. Prior studies have shown that children bear a disproportionate share of the burn injury burden, which is why this specific age range was chosen. The goal was to understand how serious burns occur for children, as well as the environment surrounding the accidents. To do this, it was important to assess other factors potentially affecting the burn accident, such as underlying health problems and bad weather. The survey consisted of five main sections, which included basic demographics of the burn patient, socio-demographics of the patient’s primary guardian, cooking style in the home of the patient, child care in the home of the patient, and information about the burn accident.

Marissa with a family in Malawi.

Marissa with a family in Malawi.

We discovered more than half the burns were cooking-related. Further, most people in Malawi are dependent upon fire for survival. They use open flames or unsafe traditional stoves several times a day for light, heat, cooking, bathing water, and manual labor. At the time of the burn, only 23 percent of mothers were with the patient. Further, 22 percent of patients had no one looking after them when they were burned. There were several other discoveries that were found to be extremely helpful when considering burn prevention in Malawi. Information collected from the study should be used to help create effective burn prevention strategies for those in sub-Saharan Africa, which is why I plan to present my findings from the study at Harvard University’s 2015 National Collegiate Research Conference, as well as produce a publication under the guidance of UNC surgeons.

I loved my time in the beautiful place I now call a second home. I learned so much during my time in Malawi and built some amazing friendships. My heart was broken by the poverty, especially the failing health care system. And while I know my research will not change everything, my hope is that I can change the life for at least one person. As a burn survivor, I know the pain and hardship a burn produces. Therefore, if I could prevent the burn of just one Malawian, I would consider my research a success. They call Malawi the “Heart of Africa,” and I now know why. I will never forget the people I met and the experiences I had.

SURF 2014 in Malawi

– written by Connor Belson, BS Biology and minor in Business Administration, Class of ’15

I arrived at the University of North Carolina in the fall of 2011 with a head full of ideas—plans for the future, places I wanted to see, experiences I wanted to create. But none of these plans involved Malawi. And none of these plans involved research. However, I now find myself entering my senior year of college in the midst of a life-changing research experience in Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe. The development of my research experience at Carolina resulted from a series of relationships that have been growing since my freshman year. It began with a shadowing experience with a doctor at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC two summers ago, which led to a friendship first built between him and me over discovering that he had attended Ubelson 1NC for undergraduate and medical school, and then strengthened over sharing our love for Carolina basketball, Franklin Street, and lunch at Weaver Street on a Sunday afternoon. He then connected me with several UNC staff members back in Chapel Hill, who, after meeting with all of them in the fall, each connected me with several more. And then, two years and countless conversations later, I was offered the incredible opportunity to travel to Lilongwe, Malawi and work with the UNC Project Research Center for Infectious Diseases at the Kamuzu Central Hospital.

I am pursuing an undergraduate degree in Biology with a minor in Business Administration through the Kenan-Flagler Business School. Because of my interest in both the hard science and financial aspects of the healthcare world, the director of the UNC Project Research Center, Irving Hoffman, asked if I would like to join a team that was working on a new business proposal that would improve access to sufficient healthcare and diagnostic testing for the population of Lilongwe. Because many clinics and research centers in the country operate with a significant lack of resources and cannot provide all of the tests needed for their patients, a majority of individuals who come for diagnosis and treatment are not able to receive a comprehensive set of all possible causes of their illnesses and can risk missing the proper treatments. However, the University of North Carolina’s center at Kamuzu Central Hospital has a full laboratory with the resources to test its patients for any and all possible causes of their illnesses. In order to provide this to a wider portion of the population of Lilongwe, the UNC Project has offered to allow other clinics in the city—those without access to sufficient patient testing—to pay for samples from their patients to be tested in the UNC Project laboratories, ensuring that the patients receive a proper diagnosis. During both of the last two summers, I have traveled to Lilongwe, Malawi to conduct research on this process. In my first trip, I researched the feasibility of the patient sample exchange system. This involved performing a financial analysis of the UNC Project laboratory to ensure that it could handle an increased level of patient samples and conducting market research as a means of identifying potential partner clinics in the area. By the end of the summer, I had generated a final presentation that supported the feasibility of the proposal and that identified the UNC Project’s future partners who could benefit most from the commercialized system.

This summer, through OUR’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, I was able to travel back to Malawi and research the financial and cultural implications of the new partnerships as they were being implemented. The goal of the research was to identify any barriers that were met along the way and to record how they were resolved, in addition to tracking the additional revenues and expenses that were generated for the laboratory as a result. I designed and incorporated a computerized accounting program to replace the inefficient and unorganized handwritten receipting process, as a way of helping the staff handle an increased influx in work. In addition, a system of transporting the samples between clinics was created, and pricing system for all of the tests was created to make sure the lower-resource clinics would still be able to pay for any tests their patients needed. Thus far, the commercial system for patient samples has generated additional profits that the UNC Project has been using to support the free clinic it provides for patients. In addition, the partner clinics have successfully increased the array of diagnostic tests that they can deliver. Although several cultural issues have been encountered along the way, solutions have been found for all of them, indicating that this system is one that has potential to be incorporated in other low-resource areas as well.belson 2

Because I had never considered research before coming to Carolina, I did not seek out my initial research opportunities. However, I soon learned how integral research can be to other areas of work, like medicine, that had always interested me. And so when the opportunity for international research presented itself to me, I took it immediately, despite knowing very little about what experience I would have or how it would impact my future. Since then, my research with the UNC Project in Malawi has become a defining characteristic of my undergraduate experience at the University of North Carolina. I have used it to help reinforce my desire to work in a medical career. In addition, it has opened the doors of clinical and public health research as potential roads I may find myself traveling down in the future. It has given me countless memories, experiences, useful skill sets, and friendships, and I would now recommend undergraduate research to anyone, including those not currently considering the idea of research. It will provide ways to learn outside of the classroom, to discover hidden interests and passions, to expand important networks of relationships, to see the world, and to enjoy the entire process.

Research in Medical Robotics

– written by Cenk Baykal, BS Computer Science and Mathematics

When I started at UNC, I didn’t have the slightest idea what undergraduate research was. As a freshman, I heard about research opportunities, but given my inexperience, I was hesitant on pursuing them until my sophomore year. That year, I began to work as a research assistant in Enabling Technologies under the supervision of Dr. Gary Bishop. During this time, I helped develop and enhance tarheelreader.org, a website designed to provide a collection of easy-to-read books, and created an online game designed for visually impaired students. I was able to see the positive impact this work had, and wanted to continue conducting research afterwards.

I then became a research assistant in the Computational Robotics Group led by Dr. Ron Alterovitz. In the robotics group, I’ve been researching concentric tube robots – medical robots that have potential to enable novel and minimally-invasive surgical procedures. One challenge that we’ve faced is allowing for intuitive control of these robots by physicians. Hence, I have worked with graduate student Luis Torres and developed a multi-component system architecture that bridges real-time motion planning with an interactive user interface and visualization. Concurrently with my robotics work, I conducted research with Dr. Ming Lin and graduate student David Wilkie on participatory route planning, which culminated in the creation of a mobile system, similar to Google Maps, that was able to generate optimal route plans by considering the impact of the system’s own plans on future traffic conditions.

An image of the cocentric tube robot used in Cenk's project.

An image of the cocentric tube robot used in Cenk’s project.

During Summer 2014, I continued my research on concentric tube robots with the help of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and my advisor Dr. Ron Alterovitz. Namely, I have been investigating the optimization of the design of these medical robots on an application- and patient-specific basis. More specifically, I have been developing a software program that is capable of computing the optimal design under which the robot can feasibly maneuver to clinical regions of interest and simultaneously avoid damage to surrounding tissue. This has been an extremely exciting project and a great experience as it not only combines my passion for Computer Science and Math, but also has potential to facilitate the use of concentric tube robots for early diagnosis of lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. Thanks to the Dunlevie Honors Undergraduate Research Award, I will be extending my work and writing an honors thesis on the design optimization for concentric tube robots during my senior year.

In retrospect, undergraduate research has definitely been a highlight of my experience at Carolina. I had the opportunity to work on fascinating projects and collaborate with outstanding professors, graduate students, and mentors, to whom I am extremely grateful. Conducting research has exposed me to a wide variety of notions and concepts that I would not otherwise be introduced to in a classroom setting alone. Participating in undergraduate research has also motivated me to apply to graduate schools this fall in pursuit of a PhD in Computer Science, something that had never crossed my mind when I first came to Carolina. I would definitely encourage every undergraduate student to give research a try and not be demotivated by qualms concerning lack of experience or skill. As I look back on my research experience, the only regret I have is not starting any sooner.

For more information about these projects please see:

http://robotics.cs.unc.edu/
http://tarheelreader.org/

http://gamma.cs.unc.edu/