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Ewa Protasiuk ’15: Reflections on the 2015 International Studies Association Conference

By Peter Tschirhart on March 26, 2015
View of New Orleans. Photo by Ewa Protasiuk.

View of New Orleans. Photo by Ewa Protasiuk.

The following post was contributed by Ewa Protasiuk ’15, a Biology major and PCON minor. Ewa recently used her AMS Grant to attend the International Studies Association conference in New Orleans. Along the way, she reflected on the synergies of travel and the promise of academic inquiry.


This is a post about a trip that almost didn’t happen. (Thank you, February 2015 weather!) But luckily, it did.

After two canceled flights and a delay, I made it to New Orleans for the International Studies Association’s Annual Convention. This conference brought together scholars from the discipline of International Relations. This is not my discipline; but as a Peace and Conflict Studies minor with an interest in how (or perhaps whether?) academic scholarship can be anti-oppressive on a variety of fronts, several presentations and discussions interested me. They covered themes such as feminist takes on militarism, “Queering/Querying Global Political Economy” (as one roundtable discussion was titled), the relationship between silence and agency, and how collages (yes, as in the art form) can open up different ways of thinking about political science. (Check out Saara Särmä’s dissertation collages if this intrigues you.) I also attended talks with my advisor in Peace and Conflict Studies, Susan Thomson, and met several of her colleagues, friends, and fellow Canadians.

While the discussions formally organized by the conference were certainly thought-provoking, I also thought a lot about the conference itself–as an entity with its own culture, set of power dynamics, and materialities. I’ve also been thinking about the meaning of my travel between New York State and New Orleans, and many different dynamics I saw at play just in those few days. A few scattered anecdotes:

  • While flying to the conference, delayed in Charlotte, I sat down at my gate among a number of people–apparently strangers, apparently white–who were sharing a conversation about their military experiences. The tone of the conversation was overwhelmingly positive.
  • While at the conference, held predominantly in a Hilton hotel on the riverfront of New Orleans, not far from the famed French Quarter, I heard only one panelist acknowledge that we are on Native American land.
  • While flying back to New York, sitting at the gate, delayed yet again, I got into conversation with a woman who used to live in New Orleans but who, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, moved to Central New York. She has traveled back to New Orleans as often as she could over the past ten years with devotion.

Pieces of the what scholars talk about during academic conferences are evident in the everyday—things with big names like militarism, environmental racism, and settler colonialism. What do conferences have to do with resistance to these things? I am a big-time, largely unapologetic nerd. I love school. I love research. I say this even as a second-semester senior with a matter of weeks left at Colgate. But there is some disconnect between the world I find at the conference, and the world I find at the airport. One I want to explore further.

Kelsey Bash ’15: “A trip around the globe with Mary”

By Peter Tschirhart on March 23, 2015

Alumni Memorial Scholar Kelsey Bash ’15 at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, France.

Alumni Memorial Scholar Kelsey Bash ’15, a Molecular Biology major, used her AMS Grant to travel the world during the winter of 2014-15. Her project, titled “The Transculturation of Marian Apparitions,” examined how the appearance of the Virgin Mary was expressed in Catholic communities around the globe. As a practicing Catholic herself, Kelsey found rich meaning on both a personal and intellectual level throughout her study. What follows are photographs and a written report describing her experience at each site.


During the Christmas season of miracles, I was able to go on a miraculous around-the-world journey using an AMS Grant. The goal of my project was to consider the transculturation of the Catholic Church through the lens of Marian apparitions, and it was also a pilgrimage of great self-discovery. I was blessed to visit five countries and six Marian sites over the course of three weeks and will reflect on each separately before making some general conclusions.

Firstly, some background information may be helpful. A Marian apparition is defined by the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a particular person or persons. There have been thousands of reported apparitions of Mary in the 2,000 years since her assumption, with more apparitions reported in the 20th century than in any other. While there is some controversy among believers and in the Church, with only 9 apparitions receiving official Vatican approval, the fruits of the apparitions are evident. Countless miracles, healings, and conversions have resulted from Mary’s appearances.

Convent where a wooden statue of Mary spoke and wept 101 times in the 70s.

Convent where a wooden statue of Mary spoke and wept 101 times in the 70s.

My trip started in Akita, Japan, at the Convent Seitai Hoshikai where Mary appeared to a Sister Agnes Sasagawa in 1973. Sr. Agnes, previously deaf, heard a “voice of indescribable beauty” coming from a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary and received three messages from the Virgin. The statue then wept 101 times from 1975 to 1981, with over 500 witnesses. I was blessed to spend time alone (January being an unpopular time for pilgrimage) with the miraculous statue in the convent chapel. Kneeling before Mary two feet away, I could feel the warmth of her graces, but also the urgency in her call to pray for the conversion of sinners as relayed by Sr. Agnes.

Next, I embarked for Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the most visited and most controversial apparition sites, with Mary still reportedly appearing to some of the visionaries today. In 1981, Mary appeared to 6 Bosnian children with a call to conversion and prayer and with 10 secrets regarding the end of the world. Mary told the visionaries that she would continue to appear to them daily until revealing the 10th secret and presently two visionaries continue to receive daily apparitions while the others receive monthly or yearly messages, many of which are made public online.

Statue of Our Lady, Queen of Peace on Apparition Hill.

Statue of Our Lady, Queen of Peace on Apparition Hill.

I arrived in Medjugorje on the eve of the Feast of Mary, Mother of God on January 1st, just in time to join the hoards of devout pilgrims for a midnight vigil. I stood outside for the vigil, watching the Croatian mass on a large screen and occasionally being able to peak in through the crowded doorway (despite having arrived two hours early). Each subsequent service I attended–indeed, there were masses and services in many languages throughout the entire day–was similarly packed. Entering into such an international and devout Body of Christ was an absolute blessing. Medjugorje also offered many intimate encounters with Mary as I prayed my way up the steep and snowy Cross Mountain and up the holy Apparition Hill. I also encountered the commercialism of religious pilgrimage sites in Medjugorje as I walked by (and into, admittedly) tens of shops selling rosaries, prayer cards, medals, and the like.

Mary led me to Paris next, to the chapel at Rue du Bac. Mary appeared in this chapel at the convent of the Sisters of Charity in 1830 to a new novice, Catherine Laboure. Since her mom died during Catherine’s childhood, Catherine had always had a special devotion to Mary and wished nothing more than to see her. This was realized when she was led to the chapel by a young boy, presumably her Guardian Angel, who told her “Come to the chapel; the Blessed Virgin is waiting for you.”

In the chapel, Catherine heard the rustle of a silk dress and saw a beautiful lady sit down in the Priest’s chair. Mary comforted Catherine and told her of things that would come to pass in France in the next 40 years. She also charged Catherine with a mission—one that she explained to Catherine during a second apparition on November 27th. Catherine was to oversee the production of a medal emulating Mary as she appeared to Catherine and with a beautiful symbol on the back.  The medal was cast in 1831 and millions distributed within a few years. It quickly became known as the “Miraculous Medal” due to the many conversions and cures it led to. Catherine’s identity as the visionary was not revealed until just before her death in 1876.  Catherine was canonized in 1947 and her body was found to be incorrupt. It lies today in the chapel where I was blessed to pray before it.

Indeed, it was miraculous that Mary led me to the chapel just before it closed for two weeks the next day. The chapel at Rue du Bac had an air of Grace unlike anywhere I have ever been. Kneeling before the chair where Mary sat with St. Catherine’s incorrupt body to my right, glancing up at the beautiful statue of Mary, I could feel Mary’s graces pouring down upon me. I was struck by the glorious way the rays pouring out of Mary’s hands pointed directly to Our Lord in the tabernacle situated beneath the statue, confirming Mary’s promise to lead us to Christ.

Chapel at Rue du Bac, Paris, where Mary appeared to St. Catherina Laboure with the image of the Miraculous Medal.

Chapel at Rue du Bac, Paris, where Mary appeared to St. Catherina Laboure with the image of the Miraculous Medal.

After a quick stop in Paris, I headed to the Pyrenes foothills to Lourdes, France. Mary appeared in 1858 to a 14-year old peasant, Bernadette, in a grotto when she was fetching water. Mary appeared as a young girl of 16 or 17 dressed in a white robe with a blue ribbon at the waist and a white veil on her head. She was carrying rosary beads. Mary appeared to Bernadette 18 times that year with messages of hope and of a need for penitence. Mary caused a miraculous spring to come up from the dry ground that still flows today. At this Grotto, Mary told Bernadette “Que soy era Immaculada Counception,” I am the Immaculate Conception, confirming the Catholic teaching of Mary as Immaculate. Thousands of miracles have been approved in Lourdes, France, and it is once of the largest Catholic pilgrimmage sites for healing.

I was blessed to have a couple of quiet days at Lourdes during the off-season for pilgrimages. I participated in French and English mass in the various chapels and the rosary basilica, bathed in the baths at Lourdes, went to confession, visited the childhood home of Bernadette, and explored all that the beautiful basilica had to offer. My time is Lourdes was a time of penitence and beauty.

I ended my journey at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. It was a huge coming home for me, as I have always had a special devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and being in North America revering the Patroness of the Americas in a language I spoke was a huge blessing. Guadalupe certainly was not an afterthought as it is the most well known apparition and the most visited Marian shrine in the world with 10 million pilgrims visiting it each year. I spent four days in Mexico City and went to the Basilica each day. The Basilica was built on the site where Mary appeared to a poor farmer, Juan Diego, in 1531. The young Aztec woman asked Juan to have a basilica built on Tepeyac Hill where she greeted him. The Bishop did not believe Juan Diego and asked for a sign.  Mary told Juan to pick Castilian roses on the hill—Spanish flowers growing in Mexico, in December. Juan brought the roses to the Bishop and when he unrolled his garment, his “Tilma,” carrying them, the roses fell to the ground and a miraculous image of Mary was on the Tilma. The Bishop fell in veneration and had a basilica built. People quickly came to revere Our Lady, and within 7 years, 8 million Aztecs had converted—the apparition is largely responsible for the Christianization of Latin America. The image of Our Lady remains on the Tilma today, completely unchanged, after nearly 500 years on a fabric that disintegrates after 20 years. Again, thousands of miracles have been attributed to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The basilica remains a very popular pilgrimage site today.

One of many processions to the Basilica with pilgrim groups carrying large floats of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

One of many processions to the Basilica with pilgrim groups carrying large floats of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

I was able to partake in many pilgrim activities, attending many masses, walking up and down the Tepeyac and enjoying the bustling commercialism. The number of pilgrims at the Basilica was unparalleled, with groups coming hourly for mass—held from 6am till 6pm with hundreds of pilgrims in each. By happenstance, I was visiting on the day of the annual pilgrimage and enjoyed mass in the square with thousands of Mexicans who had gathered from all of the parishes in Mexico City with the Archbishop and Cardinal. Mexico City felt like home, and Mary was my dear mother fully embracing me.

Annual Pilgrimage Mass with the Archbishop, thousands of pilgrims in the square between the new and old basilicas for mass.

Annual Pilgrimage Mass with the Archbishop, thousands of pilgrims in the square between the new and old basilicas for mass.

As an added bonus to my trip, I discovered one more apparition site near Mexico City on the final day of my trip. Tlaxcala, Mexico is a city a couple of hours by bus from Mexico City. Mary appeared there in 1541 to Juan Bernardino and brought forth a healing spring of water to cure the villagers from the plague. She also told him to tell the Franciscan monks that she would provide a statue of herself for them. One night in the forest, flames lit all the trees on fire, but the trees did not burn and one in particular stood out. The Franciscans marked it, returned the next day, split it open, and found a statue of the Virgin Mary inside. The statue sits today in the Church of Our Lady of Ocotlán, where I was blessed to spend a day.

Miraculous wooden Statue of Our Lady of Ocotlán that was found inside a tree after a lightening storm.

Miraculous wooden Statue of Our Lady of Ocotlán that was found inside a tree after a lightening storm.

Mary is known by many different titles, and I encountered her in Our Lady of Akita, Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of Tlaxcala. Most Catholics have a devotion to one particular image of Mary largely depending on the image they’ve encountered most. However, in all of the images, we are worshiping the same woman, the Mother of God. And, indeed, there is a large intertwining of Marian images across cultures. The patroness of the Americas, and absolutely fundamental in Latin American Catholicism, Our Lady of Guadalupe earned a spot in nearly all of the churches in Mexico. Additionally, though, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was frequently in other countries as well. Indeed, there was a large icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe at a side chapel in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego at a central altar right next to the basilica in Lourdes. Conversely, the grotto at Lourdes was replicated in many churches in Mexico.  I also noticed many consistencies in the images of Mary. Mary’s hands were always formed in prayer, she was frequently carrying a rosary, the sun and the moon were featured largely in the images, and all of the images were consistent with Scripture. From all of this, I received the sense that one can pick whichever image of Mary most resonates with them to revere, but that one MUST pick one. The tradition of the Church, the role of Mary as the Co-Redemptress and Mediatrix of Grace, the writings of the Popes, and in Mary’s messages themselves, emphasize that utmost importance that we honor Mary.

Church of Our Lady of Ocotlán, Tlaxcala, Mexico.

Church of Our Lady of Ocotlán, Tlaxcala, Mexico.

Many people question why Mary appears when she does and how she picks to whom to appear; I found myself asking similar questions of Mary, and also of myself, during my pilgrimage. Why had I been blessed with such an opportunity to discover Mary? Indeed, it seemed nothing short of a miracle to have received an AMS research grant to explore Marian apparitions. I am over-joyed to share the answer I received. While Mary manifests herself differently in each culture, just like Christ who she constantly points her children to, Mary is for ALL, including me!

Mac Baler ’15: “若者言葉に耳を傾ければ – If We Lend Our Ear to Youth Language” (Japan)

By Peter Tschirhart on March 9, 2015

During the winter of 2014-15, Mac Baler ’15 used his AMS Grant to study the geography of youth language in Japan. Following Yanagita Kunio’s theory of “peripheral zones,” Baler wondered whether important cultural centers still drive the creation of new words, phrases, and dialects. “There are a few Japanese resources investigating youth language as a whole,” he wrote, “though one is pressed to find data cataloguing this youth language by region.” What follows is Baler’s report, detailing both his experience on the ground in Japan and some preliminary results.

This past winter break, through my AMS independent research grant, I was able to return to Japan to conduct linguistic surveys concerning the current state of, and dialectical variants on, Japanese youth language. Since the day I left Japan, at the end of my semester studying abroad at Kansai Gaidai University (関西外国語大学) in Osaka, Fall 2013, I vowed to return. I knew it wasn’t さようなら (sayonara), meaning goodbye, but, as youth would say, またね (mata ne), meaning, literally, “again, yeah?” – casual parting words between friends, akin to “see you later.” Even here, in the form of saying goodbye, youth language appears.

In my time studying abroad, I discovered the phenomenon of Japanese youth language, and the vast variety, and quick turnaround, it possesses. As my university pulls students from all over Japan, it became common to talk with friends about the Japanese slang or dialect used in their hometown, and vice-versa, as I was learning their language, and they learning mine. Upon returning to Colgate, I spent time pondering different possibilities for a thesis in Japanese, and in discussing possible books to translate with my Professor, my interest in youth language shone through, and a book titled 「若者言葉に耳をすませば」(“If We Lend An Ear To Youth Language”) came up. Upon reading through this book, I realized that there are those who are interested in these same kinds of language trends or word usage as I was, and that I could perhaps return to Japan and do some sort of survey on the current state of youth language, in comparison with this book’s results from 2007, focusing in on certain aspects I discovered in the book in which I had a particular interest. Simultaneously, I discovered that the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs does national public opinion polls on Japanese language and usage, showing even more native interest in such things. In these polls, and in the youth language book, there were bits touching on how such language varied by region. This particularly sparked my interest, and related directly to that which I experienced firsthand while studying abroad. The area in which I was, the Kansai region (south-central region of Japan’s main island), is famous for its dialect, which everyone in the nation knows, and through my interactions with students, my host family, etc., I was able to recognize it and pick it up. When talking with friends from Tokyo, across the country from Kansai, or looking at a textbook, such dialectical words did not appear. I therefore sought out to expand on these experiences I had while in Japan, and return, conducting surveys on Japanese youth language, and if, and if so, how, it changes depending on where you are in the country.

I find it necessary to give a brief background concerning Japanese trends and a bit of interesting yet informative history concerning the birth of certain geographic dialectical trends. In general, Japan is unbelievably trend-conscious, and fad-driven. Whether it be fashion, popular media, etc., youth are up with the trends. Furthermore, these trends are always in flux, changing unbelievably quickly. It turns out that these trends apply to youth language as well. As for dialects, there is a notably large number despite Japan’s size. Interestingly enough, they’re quite distinct from one another, yet their origin is often under debate. However, for linguists, one school of thought concerning the dissemination of dialects prevails. In the early 1900s, Yanagita Kunio, the father of Japanese folklore study, traveled throughout Japan, noting the different dialectical words for “snail” used throughout the country’s regions. He discovered that the distribution of these dialectical words formed concentric circles throughout the country, with their center/source point located at the nation’s former capital, Kyoto, in the Kansai region.

Centered at Kyoto, each consecutive ripple zone contained the same word for “snail,” and share similar language trends.

Centered at Kyoto, each consecutive ripple zone contained the same word for “snail,” and share similar language trends.

From this, he proposed his方言周圏論“Peripheral-zones Dialect Theory,” stating that synonyms or “buzz-words” are created in influential, cultural centers (i.e. the nation’s capital), and general propagate beyond, over time, extending out in a ripple-like fashion. This not only portrays the frequency with which slang words are created in Japan, so fast that words are rippling across the nation, but also how different the language can grow to be. This same ripple concept was the basis of a television segment and eventual book (1996), which charted what word people used to mean “fool” or “idiot,” focusing on two main words – baka, used often in standard “Tokyo” Japanese, and aho, a word seemingly of Kansai dialect. As expected, the results were a ripple, focused on the old capital of Kyoto in the Kansai Region, with similar words exiting in concentric circles disseminating outward.

3 2

Upon my discovering this survey, I remembered the frequent use of the word aho by my Japanese friends from Kansai, or by my host-family, but not by others from outside the region.

With this foundation in mind, I set out to create a survey asking people what kind of youth language they’re currently using, in aim to see not only the current state of youth language, in 2014/5, compared to that of prior years, but to also see if respondents’ answers would vary depending upon their birthplace / region in which they currently live. I therefore went to Japan over winter break, from late December to mid-January, spending a little less than a week in the Tokyo area, and almost two weeks in the Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, etc.), conducting my surveys. This was truly made possible via the help of contacts I had in Japan – Colgate alumni, prior Colgate language interns, my host family, and most of all, the various friends I made while studying abroad, with whom I had remained close.

4As for the survey itself, I created one version that could be distributed in person, via paper, and online as well. I created some unique questions of my own, based some off of topics in the youth language book mentioned before, and mimicked some asked in the Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs national polls, to allow for the possibility of seeing a difference in results over time. The question types ranged from multiple choice (“Which of the following emphasis words do you use most often?”), to fill-ins (“If you had to pick a youth word you wish would go away/out of fashion, what would it be?”), to short answer (“Why do you think there is such variety in current youth language usage patterns?”), etc. I also asked birth location and current residential location in order to guarantee an accurate knowledge of participant geographical influence.

Time for results! I was able to garner 97 responses in total. I’ll now provide a brief synopsis of the results or interesting takeaway from each question.

5It turned out that a whopping 91.6% use shortened, abbreviated adjectival forms, and don’t mind when others use them either. Only a few said that they don’t use them, but don’t mind when others do, and only one person claimed to using them themselves, but admittedly caring when others do. This large majority that do use these stumped adjectival forms was not influenced by location – both in and outside of Kansai they are used. As for emphasis words, it was clear that meccha (“ridiculously”) took the cake, with a leading 42.3% of participants choosing it. Interestingly enough, though to not much surprise, 36 out of the 41 who chose meccha live in Kansai – this extreme usage was something I picked up on while at university there. Regarding imported words, two words pulled ahead – misuru, coming from “miss,” meaning to fail or not achieve, came in with 42.3%, and chekkusuru, coming from “check,” meaning to check or confirm, registered at 26.8%. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it seemed that 35 of the 41 who picked misuru were from Kansai, something I had not expected. I also asked whether one uses aho or baka, mimicking the survey done in the late nineties, mentioned above. As expected, the large majority who picked aho either currently live or were born in the Kansai area, and, in contrast, a large majority of those who picked baka live or were born outside of Kansai.

Lastly, the two more open response questions. Concerning responses to the question that asked, which youth language words or phrases do you wish would go away, almost 30% of them opposed variants of using the word or “death” or “to die” in sentences, as in telling people to “go die,” or using death to express extent, as in “so hot I’m going to die,” or “this was so bad I want to die,” etc. This sentiment appeared both in and out of Kansai. Multiple responses also expressed their dislike of the over-abbreviating of words or phrases. Lastly, some responses were opposed to those who overuse certain words, saying the same word in all situations, as well as against the certain words that are overused. In regards to the question which asked participants why they think there are so many various usages of youth language, there were some quite interesting response trends. First of all, 65 of the 97 respondents chose to answer this question, higher than any other open response, non-multiple choice question. Some respondents stated that, simply, youth language allows them, in the sake of brevity, to just get their point across faster, or and do have more fun doing so, freshening up the same old same old. Similarly, some said that they want to be able to express themselves easily, and in a way that they desire. Furthermore, there was a clear trend in responses saying that they desired to communicate with their peers effectively, not needing to explain everything, yet relying on these words used within their in-groups to strengthen a sense of feeling, belonging, and camaraderie. Relating to the intense trend or consumerist driven Japanese society, a handful of respondents stated that as they’re so driven by fads, and words can be fads too, they want to try and start using new words, create their own trends, and be seen as cool or unique. In a more negative light, some said that such slang is the result of the internet or texting, especially concerning abbreviations. There was also a surprising amount of responses pointing to globalization or westernization as the cause, with people being overly sensitive to influence from outside Japan, and thereby creating language trends accordingly. Lastly, a few respondents stated that, as youth have a limited vocabulary compared to that of adults, youth need to modify the few words they know and use in order to create variety and nuance, in order to convey more complex emotions.

Sustenance for my travels!

Sustenance for my travels!

So… what now? My senior high honors thesis project has stemmed out of this. After spending some time looking through「若者言葉に耳をすませば」(“If We Lend An Ear To Youth Language”), I realized that not only did I love the book, but now with first-hand experience under my belt, I wanted to share the knowledge in this book with even non-Japanese speakers. I therefore have decided to translate the book (it seems I shall be able to finish half of it) for my thesis, planning to finish the translation after graduation. I plan to perhaps incorporate the above-mentioned results of the survey into my thesis translation introduction, providing up-to-date examples of Japanese youth language, but, even if they don’t fit, they have provided invaluable background info to the material I’m translating, and was supremely interesting in the very least!

Also, why does this matter? Well, for those who have learned or are learning another language, and have studied abroad in that language’s native region, you may already know the answer. There is clearly a disconnect between textbook or formal learning of a language, and the on-the-ground, real-time colloquialisms, slang, etc. Furthermore, as “youth,” if one wants to try to talk to their newfound peers in their peers’ language, it will be quite the struggle if all of the youth language words go over one’s head. It is for this reason that I feel so strongly about investigating, keeping tabs on, and translating this rapidly changing information on youth language in Japan. If we are to continue to bridge gaps in this ever-globalizing world, the youth of today need to be able to communicate effectively, and comfortably, having a shared youth language to promote camaraderie.

This project has truly had an impact on me. I learned how to create a proper research proposal requesting grant money; I was given a gateway to discover my newfound interest in societal linguistics; and I was able to birth my thesis project. This project has certainly not been the end of my interactions with Japanese youth language or Japan in general – it has been a fresh beginning for opportunity! Remember, as the Japanese youth would say, it’s not さようなら (sayonara, goodbye), but rather, またね (mata ne, again yeah?).

Alex Rojek ’15: “Effects of Location on Scottish Wind Farms” (Cairngorms, Scotland)

By Peter Tschirhart on October 28, 2014

During the summer of 2014, Alumni Memorial Scholar (AMS) Alex Rojek ’15 used his AMS Grant to study the growing impact of wind energy in Scotland. By traveling throughout the Highlands–including the Cairngorms National Park–he hoped to better understand the impact wind farms have on the local economy, environment, and public opinion. You can learn more by attending his presentation at the fall AMS Symposium, scheduled for November 18, 2014.

Entrance to Whitelee Wind Farm, Eaglesham

Entrance to Whitelee Wind Farm, Eaglesham

It was obvious from the moment I stepped off the airplane in Glasgow that I was entering a place with a completely different perspective on energy and sustainability. Airport employees were driving around in “Zero Emission Vehicles Powered by Lithium-Ion Technology” (They were also present all around the city of Glasgow too, serving as transportation for city employees). When I rented a vehicle in order to travel to various sites at opposite corners of the country, I was amazed by the fuel economy of the diesel engine (well over 60 mpg!). Many restaurants I encountered embraced the “locavore” movement in a way that was totally foreign to me (One server detailed the exact origin of each one of the ingredients in my meal—all within 20 miles of the restaurant!). One of the wind farms I visited in my study acted not only as a generator of power for half the city of Glasgow, but as an educational and recreational center (more on this later!).

Overall, Scotland seemed to have embraced the culture of sustainability to a degree that has not yet been reached stateside. While the sustainability movement in the USA is certainly gaining ground, it is not quite as pervasive as in the land of our neighbors across the pond (and a little to the north).  Scotland has much more to offer than kilts and haggis—its impressive dedication to sustainability sets an example for the rest of the world to follow. This fact is becoming increasingly well known around the world, and it was a major reason that I chose to perform a study of the public perception of wind power in Scotland.

Proposed site of Nathro Hill Wind Farm, not far from Cairngorms National Park boundary and near a main tourist route across the eastern side of the nation. At the time of my visit, this was one of the most hotly-contested proposed sites in Scotland. Very recently, largely as a result of the controversial location, the proposed construction was cancelled.

Proposed site of Nathro Hill Wind Farm, not far from Cairngorms National Park boundary and near a main tourist route across the eastern side of the nation. At the time of my visit, this was one of the most hotly-contested proposed sites in Scotland. Very recently, largely as a result of the controversial location, the proposed construction was cancelled.

Cairngorms National Park, in the north of Scotland, is home to some of the most breathtaking scenery on earth. The sheer natural beauty and wildlife of the region, recognized by people all across Scotland and the greater United Kingdom, is truly something to be treasured. As such, it was unsurprising to hear that the proposed construction of several wind farms near the boundaries of the park was being met with resistance from the local people. I set out to determine if the general population truly held this belief (as opposed to simply “those who yell the loudest…”) and to find out if there was a deeper rationale for opposition than what appeared on the surface.

My fortnight in Scotland began in Glasgow, and traversed the majority of the country, going as far north as Inverness and as far east as Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Major stops included Carrbridge, Grantown-on-Spey, and Kirriemuir (all on the fringes of Cairngorms National Park and near proposed wind farm construction sites), as well as Eaglesham (home to Whitelee Wind Farm, the UK’s largest on-shore wind farm).

Whitelee Wind Farm was perhaps the most interesting (and potentially even my favorite!) place I visited while in Scotland. Yes, I am saying that a part of me may have enjoyed my time at a wind farm more than the numerous medieval castles and natural wonders I made time to see. The creators of Whitelee took formerly unused land and built something truly spectacular. They not only built a plant that supplies power to half of Glasgow, but they developed what seemed to be a cultural phenomenon. Miles upon miles of walking/running trails wound among the turbines, and a new mountain bike track was recently completed. The previously useless plot of land had  been transformed into a remarkably aesthetically pleasing and recreationally viable area. In addition to this, it has also become an educational powerhouse. The visitors center now offers tours of the grounds several times each day, and has several hands-on-learning exhibits to help explain how wind power can help change the world. All in all, I don’t see how it could be possible for someone to visit Whitelee and walk away not seeing wind power as the answer to the energy crisis.

Me, taking a sound recording at the base of turbine #40 at Whitelee Wind Farm in Eaglesham.

Me, taking a sound recording at the base of turbine #40 at Whitelee Wind Farm in Eaglesham.

While at Whitelee, I toured the grounds and recorded several audio files standing at various distances from wind turbines. A common fear the general population possesses of wind farms is that the noise pollution generated will negatively impact the quality of life in the surrounding areas. I found, however, that at a distance of as little as 100 yards from the base of a turbine, the noise was rather minimal and did not affect the volume at which I had to speak to hold a conversation. By walking only a bit farther from the turbine, the noise all but disappeared.  Therefore, from my judgments, unless one is thinking about erecting a turbine in close proximity to his home, he need not worry about noise.

Through my travels, I learned a great deal about the renewable energy movement in Scotland, and the rationale behind the rather strong opinions about it—both for and against.

A large part of my data gathering was done through an informal interview process, through which I would casually mention either a local wind farm or the concept of renewables to a regular Scottish citizen and take note of his or her response. This proved, rather effectively, how simple conversations could be transformed into a gauge of popular opinion in a certain area. Though it would be unfair to overgeneralize, I found Scottish views on wind farm construction to be positive on the whole, while opinions on wind farm construction near the Cairngorms specifically were resoundingly negative.

People from all walks of life across each area I visited supported renewable energy overwhelmingly. They really seemed to understand that fossil fuels were finite and that something needed to be done to provide power in a different way. Hydroelectricity as well as wind power were constantly brought up as excellent ways to generate electricity in the stead of fossil fuels..

The southern area of Scotland (near Glasgow and Edinburgh) is not particularly prized for its natural beauty or wildlife, and as such seems to be prime wind farm real estate. Whitelee Wind Farm, discussed previously, was built 20 minutes outside of Glasgow on previously unused land and has resulted in an economic boom for the area as well as valuable recreational and educational facilities.  The proposed site of Fauch Hill Wind Farm, not far from Edinburgh, was strongly supported by all the locals with whom I spoke. The plot of land on which it is to be built, though aesthetically appealing in its own right, possesses no real value to the people of Scotland. Because they don’t see it as a source of national pride, they are largely in favor of making it something to be proud of in another way. Similar attitudes are held toward off-shore wind farms, as not a single person I met opposed them. The general opinion seemed to be that land (and water) not directly part of a city or the cherished highlands region could be used in a manner that benefited Scotland, and the planet as a whole.

Though quite impressive, this fervor for taking unused plots of land and transforming them into valuable energy-generating areas, was completely overpowered by reverence for the wild lands of the highlands region and Cairngorms National Park. A Grantown-on-Spey resident put it rather bluntly, in a way that made me truly appreciate how strongly the Scottish feel about protecting the Cairngorms region:

“How would you feel if you went home and found 60 giant wind turbines right next to the Grand Canyon? The people of America would never let that happen and you know it. That’s how we feel about the Cairngorms here.” –Granton-on-Spey resident

My time in Scotland taught me many things. It served to strengthen my belief that renewable energy is an important part of our planet’s future, but it also taught me that people respond rather strongly when things they hold dear are threatened. The Scottish people love the Cairngorms. They love them the way they are, in all their natural splendor. No desire for an increase in renewable energy seemed able to supersede that.

James Paris ’15: “Flathead Lake Summer Academic Program” (Flathead Lake, Montana)

By Peter Tschirhart on October 23, 2014

During the summer of 2014, Alumni Memorial Scholar (AMS) James Paris ’15 used his AMS Grant funds to visit Montana with a field-based ecology program. In what follows, James describes his research experience and the value of the AMS Grant.

This past summer, I attended the summer academic program at the Flathead Lake Biological Station located on Flathead Lake, Montana. I completed a four-week course in field ecology that delved into general theory, field experimentation and data collection, and local ecological phenomena. The course concerned the natural environment, so we spent a lot of time hiking the surrounding areas and made frequent trips to Glacier National Park.

The class at Firebrand Pass on eastern side of Glacier National Park watching a moose wade in the lake and big horn sheep traverse the mountainside.

The class at Firebrand Pass on eastern side of Glacier National Park watching a moose wade in the lake and big horn sheep traverse the mountainside.

The beginning of the course was spent learning about local plants and how they are distributed across the landscape. We also contributed data to a century-long project on small mammal population size around the biological station. In the second week, we measured lodgepole pine regrowth to better understand how forests recover from a wildfire. Throughout, we traveled to nearby habitats to observe the unique interactions between animals, plants, and the physical environment. Some noteworthy places were the prairie pothole system, a collection of small ponds left behind by retreating glaciers; a river floodplain environment, which illustrated how ecosystems are composed of shifting patched of habitats; and the alpine zone, located above the tree line at high elevations. For my final project, I examined the animal community in an aquifer that flows into Flathead Lake. I found this environment to be particularly unique, because it was predicted to have a uniform physical arrangement. Yet, I found a very diverse community within it, including insect species normally found in fast-moving waters.

Overall, this class contributed to my understanding of the distribution and abundance of organisms in relation to their environment and how tenets of ecological theory play out in the Flathead Lake and Glacier Park Ecosystems. But just as significantly, I learned how to observe the natural world in ways that will allow me to ask important questions and gather relevant information, which I think is crucial for all fields of science. This class also honed my career interests. Though I already knew I wanted to pursue research within ecology, I am now keenly interested in mountain rivers and streams, as well as their associated groundwater environments.

Posing for a picture at Scenic Point near Two Medicine in Glacier Park.

Posing for a picture at Scenic Point near Two Medicine in Glacier Park.

Being able to use an AMS Grant for this experience was amazing. Because I did not claim credit for the course, I worried less about my grade and, instead, could learn for the sake of learning. As a result, it was more liberating than a normal course, and I felt I was gaining knowledge for future career opportunities, my own thesis research back at Colgate, and my burgeoning personal interest in ecology.