Unknown Researchers

Growing numbers of professors across the United States now use social media to highlight their research, share their ideas, expand their connections and attract new funding.

Not so in this corner of Eastern Europe. Facebook is widespread in Moldova but Twitter is not. Instagram is still catching on. Many Moldovans prefer Russian-language social networks such as Odnoklassniki or Vkontakte. And, of course, faculty members who hope to catch the attention of English-speaking journalists may have difficulty communicating with them.

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The deeper challenge, though, as I discovered when leading a workshop at Moldova State University on Friday, is that researchers in this post-Soviet state have no training or infrastructure to help them explain their work to the public, whether on social media, through journalists or otherwise. IMG_3407Moldova State University, the country’s flagship academic institution, doesn’t even have a news office, much less a system for promoting faculty research.

As someone who worked with researchers for several decades in the United States before coming to Moldova two years ago to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was humbled by the immense challenges academics face here. The ones I met are working on renewable energy options, decision-making models, biomedical systems and more, but they are essentially on their own in sharing their work with their fellow Moldovans, much less the outside world. 

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By contrast, the news office I led previously at Duke University (above) now has three research communicators as well as videographers, photographers, social media experts and others available to assist with stories. Additional research communicators focus on medicine, engineering, environment and other topics at Duke’s various schools. The same is true at other top U.S. research universities, as well as at other campuses, national labs, corporations and others involved in research. The National Association of Science Writers has nearly 2,000 members, with active regional groups, and there are U.S. groups for professional communicators in medicine, health care, environment, education and other fields.

Here in Moldova, there’s close to nothing.

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The main reason, of course, is money, or rather the lack of it. Prior to the workshop, I reached out to Florentin Paladi, a physicist and impressive guy (in the blue shirt in the photo above) who oversees research at the university and, earlier in his career, spent time at the University of Michigan and institutions in London, Italy and Japan. He described a budget so tight that most professors earn less than a U.S. teenager working at McDonald’s, with no resources left for news offices and other functions we take for granted back home.

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That’s why I encouraged the professors to use social media, since they can do it themselves for free. I showed them how researchers do this in the West, drawing on some excellent slides shared by my former Duke colleague, Karl Bates. I also showed a few budding social media examples from this part of the world, a few of which I’ve included here. I needed to move quickly, though, since I had to leave time for everyone to practice explaining their work simply to each other and, later, to the group. Just like back home, this led to laughter and applause as these highly trained experts struggled to speak without jargon, whether in Romanian or English. (The workshop was supposed to be in English but I ended up teaching much of it in Romanian.)

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A few weeks earlier, at the invitation of Vladimir Snurenco, I taught workshops at the American Language Center (above), on news writing and opinion writing. The students at these sessions were not academics but I encountered similar cultural differences. For instance, many media outlets here are controlled by oligarchs or foreign governments and even routine local news stories may be colored with political commentary. “Pay to play” is common. There are few op-ed pages.

I’ll be returning home in a few weeks and am already bracing myself for the first time I hear someone complain we don’t do enough in the United States and other developed countries to highlight research, which is often supported with public funds and is essential to our collective health, security and prosperity. I agree with them but, even so, I now know some experts who could give them a second opinion.

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The Missing Genre

Where are our “coming of older age” novels?

Our society celebrates “coming of age” novels, from Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye. Newer books fit into this genre, too, from The Fault in Our Stars to blockbuster series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

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But how many novels can you name whose central characters are retired or aging?

You might be able to think of some after awhile if you’re a dedicated reader ike me. But they are not so obvious and, as best I can tell, not recognized as a genre even though more than 46 million Americans are now over the age of 65, a total projected to more than double by 2060. I looked online and found lists here, here, here and here, all filled with examples of great books with older characters, but they still don’t feel like a “thing” to me.

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The recent death of Philip Roth got me thinking about this. (Another great writer, Tom Wolfe, also died. It was a bad week.) Roth famously explored the challenges of older age. When I learned of his passing, I had just finished The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a powerful story about an African American teenager who sees her friend killed by police. I loved her book but it’s worth noting its central character was a young person, just as in The Goldfinch and some of the other books I’ve read while serving in the Peace Corps.

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My list just topped 100 and, out of curiousity, I went back to see how many of the novels had older protagonists. There were a few, such as Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. But most of the books dealing with older age were nonfiction, such as two good ones I read recently: Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginnner’s Guide, about his experience with Parkinson’s Disease, and Marc Freedman’s Prime Time, about people creating new careers and identities after leaving the conventional work force. Many nonfiction books for older readers focus on financial planning and other practical questions. Those books are often suggested even when you search online for fiction about older people, as shown below.

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The percentage of American adults who read books has remained relatively unchanged in the past few years, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The median American reads four books a year. Print books continue to be more popular than audiobooks or e-books, which are more popular among younger readers, who read slightly more books than older Americans.

Younger adults are more likely to read for work or school while adults of all ages are equally likely to read for pleasure or to keep up with current events. In other words, the readers are still there, even as independent bookstores struggle to survive. So why aren’t more novelists focusing on “the coming of older age” — and why aren’t these books treasured as a genre in the same way we celebrate stories about people at the other end of the age span?

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Sure, there are classics such as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and more recent characters such as Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But their ubiquity or cultural impact are small compared to, say, Harry Potter. (I don’t think Disney World is considering a thrill ride yet about Medicare, with parts A, B, C and D.)

I wish more great novels featured characters my age. I don’t understand why they don’t. Obviously, the books assigned in our high schools are more likely to feature characters and stories of interest to younger readers. But how about for the majority of readers who are older than that — people like me? Why don’t our bookstores have shelves devoted to these audiences on topics other than how to apply for Social Security or deal with dementia?

Maybe it has to do with the economics of the book industry, but books don’t sell advertising like television shows, which want younger viewers to buy their beer and cars. Maybe older characters are harder to fit into genre fiction, like mysteries or romance novels. Maybe they’re not taken seriously by younger Americans, a thought that occurred to me this past week while reading Dan Lyon’s Disrupted, his hilarious but unsettling account of working at a startup company in his mid-50s.

Maybe it’s something else. I guess I’m too old to figure it out myself.

Places You Should Visit

Champa and I have taken several interesting trips to neighboring countries while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova. Now that we’re nearly finished, which places would we recommend the most?

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I’ve written previously about our impressions of Transylvania; Armenia and Georgia; Bulgaria and Bucharest; Odessa; Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava; and the Romanian city of Iași. In Moldova, our visits included Soroca, Comrat and several famous monasteries. 

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We enjoyed all of these places. But if you have limited time and resources, here’s our Top Three for your consideration:

  • The Transylvania region of Romania
  • Tbilisi, Georgia
  • Bratislava, Slovakia

We also recommend a visit to Moldova!

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Transylvania was our favorite spot. Many Americans associate it mainly with Dracula, the  fictional vampire inspired by the real-life Vlad Țepeș. But Transylvania is one of Europe’s most beautiful and undiscovered tourist spots. It offers majestic castles (including one named for Dracula), beautiful churches and picturesque cities such as Brașov, Sibiu and Sighișoara. It has nice hotels and restaurants, with architecture reminiscent of Germany and Hungary, whose people settled here. You’re also near Romania’s capital, Bucharest, which is worth a visit, too. Prices are lower than in most other parts of Europe, people are friendly, the weather is mild and the wine is delicious. What’s not to like?

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Tbilisi was called “one of the hottest tourist destinations” last year by The Independent, and for good reason. The Georgian capital, located on the eastern side of the Black Sea, offers distinctive cuisine, interesting sites and rich opportunities for nearby hiking and other outdoor activities. Vogue included it among its “10 Hottest Travel Destinations” and Anthony Bourdain devoted a program to its emerging food scene, including “hangover soup” to recover from a night in the city’s clubs. Don’t miss a visit to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the gorgeous church overlooking the city, or the nearby monastery in Mtskheta.

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Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, surprised us with its beauty and charm. Like many tourists, we visited it mainly because it was near Vienna and Budapest, which are better known. We loved those cities, too, but Bratislava was where we’d live if we had to choose among them. It has a friendly vibe, lovely places to visit, fun places to eat, a castle atop the city, even a bridge with a restaurant shaped like a UFO. Bratislava is cozier than its better-known neighbor, Prague, but you can happily spend hours or days enjoying its restaurants and shops, or strolling along the Danube. If you prefer a day trip, it’s just one hour by train from Vienna.

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We’ve come to love Moldova the most of all. Its travel infrastructure is far behind these other places, but you can spend several enjoyable days or more exploring its wineries, monasteries, countryside and attractions. Moldova offers a variety of adventure sports and outdoor activities, great meals, music and cultural festivals and nightlife that ranges from dance clubs to opera, all for a fraction of what you’d pay in most other European cities. This website provides a nice overview of Moldova’s travel possibilities.

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If you prefer to explore the fascinating culture of Armenia, the glorious Rila Monastery of Bulgaria or the famous steps of Odessa instead of our Top Three, well, those are great choices, too, and you can’t go wrong visiting Vienna or Budapest. My main suggestion is simply to give this part of the world a try. As I’ve written previously, too many Americans are missing out on great places here because they never even consider them. We found all of them to be interesting, safe, inexpensive and fun. Maybe you will, too.

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Racing to the Finish

I’m running at full speed as we approach the finish line for our Peace Corps service in Moldova.

Instead of slowing down and starting to pack, I’ve been tackling projects related to my expertise back home that I’ve wanted to pursue since before we arrived here two years ago. 

Bow at News-Writing Class

On Saturday, I’ll teach the second of two classes at the American Language Center in Buiucani, Chișinău. I opened the first one, on news writing, this past Saturday with a dramatic staged “fight” and “heart attack,” followed by asking the students to write a short news story about what they just witnessed. (See the video below.) It was a fun way to introduce them to journalistic concepts such as “the 5 W’s” and the “inverted pyramid” approach of opening a news story with the most essential information.

My second class at the center will be about how to write an opinion article that can touch people’s hearts and change their minds.

IMG_3148In a couple of weeks, I’ll teach a workshop at Moldova State University, discussing with some of their top faculty researchers how they might better explain their work to the public and attract the interest of journalists.

I’ve taught versions of all three sessions many times before and online, training academics and others in the United States how to reach out to citizens and journalists. In recent years, I modified the training to emphasize the importance of using social media to reach audiences directly.

I’m looking forward to discussing all of this here in Moldova, where “research communications” barely exists and “opinion writing” occurs in a very different context.

Simultaneously, I’ve been spending lots of time helping Peace Corps Moldova prepare a big celebration for its 25th anniversary. I’m working with Liuba Chitaev and others on the staff to write scripts, edit videos and pull together a memorable program.

IMG_3186I’ve also worked recently on Orașul Meu, the music video about our host city, Ialoveni, that local singer Laura Bodorin and I produced and released earlier this month. The video has now been viewed more than 7,500 times and shared by more than 200 people on Facebook. Laura and I were recently interviewed by television reporter Cătălina Russu, whose story about the video should air soon. (That’s Laura in the middle of the photo, Cătălina on the right.)

Meanwhile, Champa and I are wading through a long “to do” list for our departure, everything from arranging to reactivate our cell phones and homeowners insurance back home to receiving our final medical and dental checkups here, which we’ll do on Monday. We both need to fill out multiple reports and forms before Peace Corps Moldova will let us ring the bell that symbolizes successful completion of service.

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All of this is in addition to my usual activities at the Ialoveni library, such as working with our “Book Worms” robotics group, shown here in their new team shirts. Two of them, Mihai and Victor, recently spoke about the group at a regional conference for Moldovan youth leaders, shown below.

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I’m not complaining. I view every remaining day of my Peace Corps service as precious, so I want to do as much as possible before we leave. I’ve probably taken on too much, but there will be time to rest later. No matter how fast or slow I run, the finish line keeps getting closer.

 

In the Spotlight

When one of my fellow volunteers was highlighted on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page a few days ago, her grandfather responded: “So proud of our granddaughter making it a better world!”

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When the page highlighted another volunteer, a friend of her mother posted: “You have a very special daughter!”

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For another volunteer, the comments included:

  • It’s young people like you who do make a difference in this crazy world.
  • That’s our grandson and we are so proud.
  • That’s my son. I am so proud of the work you’ve accomplished and know that you have more to offer in the future. Great job!
  • Awesome. Keep up the good work!

 

During the past several weeks, the “Spotlight” series on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page has told the stories of these and other volunteers. Each entry briefly describes what the volunteer did previously in the United States and how he or she is now serving in Moldova. Two photos illustrate “then” and “now.” The stories appear in both English and Romanian, and sometimes in Russian, so local audiences can enjoy them, too.

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Liuba Chitaev, who manages communications for Peace Corps Moldova, came up with the idea and has been updating the series regularly with my assistance. She conceived it as a way to “put a human face” on Peace Corps programs, reflecting our shared belief that people often learn best through personal stories. We didn’t fully anticipate the heart-warming responses the posts would elicit from family and friends back home:

“This is absolutely wonderful,” wrote the cousin of one volunteer. “Congratulations on a job so well done!”

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“Congratulations to my lovely niece,” wrote the aunt of another. “I’m so very proud of you and your accomplishments. Well done to your Mom and you.”

The articles have also attracted attention from Moldovan readers, helping them understand the diverse backgrounds of Peace Corps Volunteers and their motivations for leaving home for more than two years to serve abroad. The articles are read by others as well, such as potential Peace Corps applicants back home.

For both Liuba and me, putting these volunters in the spotlight has been a labor of love. All of the posts and comments are public on the Peace Corps Moldova Facebook page, which will be sharing more of these features in the future. We’ll leave the light on for you.

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We're still working — but now as Peace Corps Volunteers in Moldova. Join us on the journey.

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