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TOMADACHI Initiative Funds Student Research in Japan

Aug 05, 2016


students for tomodachi research in JapanThis summer, four Randolph-Macon College students traveled to Japan to conduct research in conjunction with the Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program.

Generous Funding
The students' research and travel were funded by the Taylor Anderson Memorial Fund through a grant from the U.S.-Japan Council's TOMODACHI Initiative, which invests in the next generation of Japanese and American leaders through educational and cultural exchanges as well as leadership programs. Anderson, a member of R-MC's Class of 2008, died in the tsunami. This was the second time that TOMADACHI Initiative funded R-MC students' travel to Japan.

Professors Lauren Bell (political science), Susan Parker (psychology), Rachele Dominquez (physics) and James Foster (biology) mentored the students and traveled with them. SURF offers students the opportunity to conduct 10 weeks of original research during the summer months, under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Also on the trip was Mayumi Nakamura, assistant director of R-MC's Office of International Education. Nakamura helped plan the trip and served as a chaperone and translator.

Laura Peyton Ellis '17, Rebecca Reidy '17, Phillip Terrono '17 and Eric Montag '17 examined different aspects of the effects of the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. Ellis focused on health concerns; Reidy examined mental health issues; Terrono did a policy analysis; and Montag compared perspectives regarding nuclear energy.

Laura Peyton Ellis '17
Ellis' research, Five Years Later: Health Concerns Still Plaguing the Public, examined the obstacles to physical and psychological recovery faced by the community in the Tohoku region.

"Five years later, the rest of the world may consider the disaster 'over,' but there are very real problems that people face every day," says Ellis, a behavioral neuroscience and psychology major and biology minor.  "Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to move into temporary housing complexes, and long-lasting health concerns, like depression and alcoholism, resulted from the stress of relocation. While policies exist to support the revival of businesses and construction projects, the same measures do not exist for the ‘invisible recovery’ facing the Tōhoku region."

In Ishinomaki, the group listened to the stories of those affected by the tragedy.

"One story in particular stuck with me," says Ellis. "A young mother was climbing the closest hill as soon as she saw the impending tsunami rushing into her town. She and her friend were literally running for their lives. When she reached a safe elevation, she turned around to see her friend overcome by the tsunami. She cried as she told us her story, but she said it was vital that she carry on her friend’s memory."

Visiting several of the places where Anderson taught was equally touching.

"My favorite was Inai Junior High School," she says. "We had lunch with the children, played an English-language game with them, and watched as they performed a play. I felt Taylor's love for Japan and truly understood to what and to whom she had devoted her life."

Foster says, "Laura really dove into the project and explored the public health and communication of science aspects from every angle possible. Every day was filled with new experiences. Everything we did immersed us in the Japanese culture, from meals to using money to finding our way around. Plus, we had many meetings with Japanese professionals, so we also learned how to negotiate professional and academic interactions while being aware of cultural differences."

Although Foster didn't know Anderson, he was moved by the impact she had on so many people in the Ishinomaki area. "It was a privilege to take part in the TOMODACHI program, and I feel compelled to tell the story of the recovery in Ishinomaki and try to support the efforts of the people there," he says.

Rebecca Reidy '17
Reidy, a psychology major and English minor, researched Mental health recovery after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

"The Japanese, like most collectivist cultures, are more likely to utilize avoidant coping mechanisms," she says. "However, these mechanisms might not benefit the recovery process. The Japanese have a strong belief in a 'natural spontaneous recovery process.' My findings show that, while there does appear to be a slight shift in acceptance in Japan toward psychiatric illnesses such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, there is still a stigma associated with mental health illnesses."

Exploring her major from another cultural perspective was enriching, says Reidy, who is in the process of applying to clinical psychology Ph.D. programs.

"Residents in Ishinomaki, where Taylor Anderson lived, felt the most devastating parts of the disaster," she says. "We visited Ishinomaki Senshu University and two schools where Taylor worked, and we met some of her students. We also saw the 'Taylor reading corners'—called bunkos—at both schools. It was a privilege to be part of Taylor's continuing story and to see how many lives she touched."

Phillip Terrono '17
Terrono is a political science major and international studies minor. His project, A Policy Analysis of the 3/11 Disaster in Japan, offers an analysis of potential options to stabilize the population in the areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

"SURF allowed me to complete a project of considerable breadth," says Terrono. "Through my research, I concluded that in order to stabilize the population in the disaster-affected areas, temporary housing needs to be removed and residents need permanent residences; there needs to be a more transparent effort by the local government to address the needs of locals in their efforts to repair their communities; and traditions need to be created and restored that will ultimately lift morale." Working under the guidance of Bell was a privilege, says Terrono.

"I admire her expertise and her ability to help me refine and focus the way I think and write," he says. "Her guidance was instrumental in encouraging me to articulate and advance my research objectives." This was Bell’s fifth trip to Japan.

"Part of the fun for me was rediscovering familiar places with people who were seeing them for the first time," she says. "There is nothing quite like seeing the Great Buddha of Kamakura or Senso-ji's Kaminarimon Gate for the first time—or in my case, for the fifth time! Of course, the primary purpose of our travel was to enhance the research that our TOMODACHI-funded students were doing." Bell especially appreciated the opportunity to sit with two of the students—Terrono and Montag—while they interviewed journalists about the recovery efforts in the disaster-affected areas of Japan.

"The journalists' insights into the ongoing economic challenges and lingering fears about radiation in the Fukushima area were exactly the kind of information we couldn't have gotten without being there," she says.

Eric Montag '17
Montag, a physics and mathematics major and engineering physics minor, researched Nuclear Energy after the Great East Japan Earthquake: Japanese and American Perspectives.

"Nuclear power plants can generate large amounts of energy without producing carbon emissions," says Montag, who plans on attending graduate school to study mathematical physics. "However, the disaster at Three-Mile Island demonstrates the risks associated with nuclear power plants. Japan was heavily dependent on nuclear power before the earthquake, with a national goal of producing half its energy by nuclear power. Fukushima drastically changed Japanese attitudes and the regulations on nuclear power. However, while the United States increased regulations on nuclear power plants, attitudes in the U.S. did not change drastically."

"This trip allowed Eric and the other students to get firsthand information relevant to their research projects," says Dominquez. "For example, we visited the Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant, which safely shut down without incident following the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, despite being the closest nuclear plant to the epicenter. We also explored the connections of the 2011 disaster to Japan's tragic past by visiting Hiroshima and hearing the story of an atomic bomb survivor."

Traveling to Japan gave Montag and his peers the opportunity to see their work as a part of a larger project in global connections.

"By connecting with Taylor's family, students and colleagues, as well as the faculty and students at Ishinomaki Senshu University, our students saw the significance of their work as establishing lasting and meaningful connections, which honor the memory of Taylor Anderson," explains Dominguez.

"As faculty advisors, we're not only content experts, but also research assistants, writing coaches, and cheerleaders," says Bell. "When you throw international travel into the mix, like we've done for the last two years with the TOMODACHI-supported projects, mentorship is even more vital, as we have to help our students navigate the different language, culture, and customs of a new place. But as much work as this is, it's also incredibly rewarding. I think all of us are acutely aware of how privileged we are and hope that through the work we're doing and friendships we're establishing, we're bringing honor to Taylor Anderson's work and to her memory."

Foster says, "I think a travel experience like this is always life-changing, no matter how many places you have traveled, but it's particularly valuable for students who have not traveled a lot. When returning home from a trip like this you can't help but examine your own culture from a fresh perspective. I think we will all be reflecting on the trip for a long time."

Found in Translation
Nakamura often faced challenges when translating heartbreaking stories of the individuals and families affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

"I tried my best to put my emotions aside, but sometimes I felt my voice starting to shake," she recalls. "At the same time, I reminded myself that we all have a mission to listen to these stories and share them. I am very proud of our students and faculty; they were incredibly open-minded and did not waste any opportunity that was available to them. They have become true cultural ambassadors."