Robots Video

Students at Ialoveni’s library are learning to make, program and operate robots. See post with the full story.

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Nobel Season

Back when I was a science writer in the Washington, D.C. area, I interacted with three of the scientists who received Nobel Prizes this past week, a fact that’s reminded me of the career I left behind and led me to reflect on what I’m doing now.

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Richard Thaler

I worked on an op-ed article with Richard Thaler, who won this year’s economics prize for his pioneering work showing how people make decisions less rationally than models may predict. I later included his article, “The Economics of Reality,” in an anthology I produced for the National Academy of Sciences, which you can download for free. I loved working with Thaler, who was brilliant and fun. (You may have seen his cameo with Selena Gomez in “The Big Short.”) He’s definitely having a better year than Bill Cosby, whose article began the anthology.

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Joachim Frank

Joachim Frank was among this year’s three chemistry winners. I visited with him in his lab when he was at the Wadsworth Center in Albany.  His innovations with cryo-electron microscopy helped transform how scientists visualize biological molecules. Both he and Michael Rosbash, who shared this year’s prize in physiology or medicine, were investigators of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), where I worked in the communications office.

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Michael Rosbash

Rosbash’s research helped change how we think about sleep and “circadian rhythms,” a subject he discussed eloquently in a televised lecture series on which I worked.

I used to pay close attention to “Nobel season” every October when I was at HHMI, whose researchers seemed to get the call from Stockholm every other year or so for the medicine or chemistry prize. I was sometimes awoken by reporters seeking to interview the winner. I remember being called one year by a reporter friend at NPR. “Who won?” I asked him, half-asleep. “Günter Blobel,” he responded, citing a scientist who showed how proteins move within cells. If I remember correctly, one of my colleagues, who took the lead on these requests, was able to connect them quickly.

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 8.59.24 PMI left Washington to run the news and communications office at Duke. A decade later, the university claimed its first Nobelist, ironically someone also affiliated with HHMI. In fact, I’d commissioned and edited a major profile of Bob Lefkowitz for HHMI’s magazine. He shared the 2012 chemistry prize for his discoveries about how biological signals pass into and through cells. After we were alerted early in the morning to his happy news, our Duke team pulled together a press conference and media package within a few hours. As usual, Bob was moving, funny and inspiring as he spoke with reporters.

Some of those reporters were star-struck, even more than when they met Coach K for the first time. They didn’t know what I had learned over the years, which is that Nobel Prize winners and other eminent scientists are pretty much like the rest of us, just really smart.

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Robert Lefkowitz

I was reminded at such moments of how lucky I was to work with people whose groundbreaking research was saving lives and transforming human knowledge.

This week, as I’ve been cheering for Rosbash, Frank and Thaler, I’ve also reflected on how memories like these evolve with our own lives. When I worked with each of them — briefly, to be sure — it was just an ordinary part of my job. Now I savor those moments.

In the same way, things that now appear routine to me as a second-year Peace Corps Volunteer in Moldova will probably seem different in the future. A decade or two from now, I may look back and think: “Wow, did Champa and I really do that when we were in our 60s?” Perhaps the same thing has happened to you, too: The ordinary becomes extraordinary without actually changing, a quantum motion of the heart. No one has won a Nobel Prize yet for explaining why this happens. Maybe next October.

 

Moldova’s Marathon

If you’ve run in the Boston Marathon or the New York Marathon, maybe it’s time for you to step up and compete in the annual marathon here in Moldova’s capital city.

On Sunday morning, 17,000 runners from here and other countries participated in the Chișinău International Marathon. Cheering onlookers filled the central square. Nicolai Gorbușco and Olesea Smovjenco won the men’s and women’s marathons, along with winners of the half-marathon, 10 km and 5 km competitions.

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Chișinău’s marathon is only three years old but its local organizing committee does a great job of producing a professional event with everything you’d expect: racing bibs, water stations, a big stage, music and colorful signs.

 

There are sponsors ranging from a local supermarket chain, bank and television station to familiar international names such as Lenovo, Hyundai and Herbalife. Booths sell running shoes, running clothes, vitamin supplements and souvenirs. Food merchants offer everything from energy drinks to draft beer and barbecue.

IMG_7936As in other cities, Moldova’s marathon disrupts local traffic and bus schedules. I discovered this on Sunday when the bus I usually take downtown wasn’t running. I had to scramble to find another bus to take me to a meeting I’d scheduled at a downtown library. (The people I was supposed to meet didn’t show up at all.)

IMG_7943If you’re a runner, put the Chișinău International Marathon on your list. You’ll enjoy participating and you can spend a few days exploring Moldova’s other attractions, such as its churches, wineries and countryside. You’ll also get a cool medal, like the one you see here. Boston and New York are great, to be sure, but how many of your friends have a medal like this?

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Ethno Jazz Festival

Which is more remarkable: (a) a flamenco band whose musicians are all Polish, or (b) someone in their audience who stared at her cell phone the entire time they and two other bands played?

To help you decide, here’s a snippet of the band, Viva Flamenco!

Pretty great, right? I’d like to now show you my photo of the woman who sat in front of me chewing gum and flipping nonstop through Facebook as her phone illuminated the darkness. I won’t, though, since Champa says I may sound like an angry old man screaming at kids to “get off my lawn!”

 

So I’ll just say I loved the Polish flamenco band, and also really liked the act before them, the Antonio Silva Quartet, whose members came from Portugal, Ireland and Sweden. Both groups played on Saturday evening at Chișinău’s national philharmonic hall in an “Ethno Jazz Festival.” We went to the second of three concerts there, with the series also organizing events in Cahul, Soroca and Tiraspol.

As you can see, the theater itself is magnificent, its wooden walls lined with the portraits of famous composers and a giant chandelier shimmering overhead.

 

There was also an opening act: a Norwegian pianist playing with a Russian accordionist who wailed, chirped and otherwise vocalized in ways that seemed to elude most of the audience, including us. Nonetheless, she played her accordion with enthusiasm, advancing the concert’s theme of international harmony, if not necessarily musical harmony.

So we had a great time. Now, get off my lawn. 😃 Happy face!

Happy Patients, By Design

The doctor in the poster looks confident, doesn’t he? He’s wearing a white coat over his shirt and tie, his arms are crossed, his gaze is fixed, his medical equipment is gleaming in the background. The poster tells us he is Hakan Eraslan, an expert in cardiology. Come to him for a second medical opinion, it says, and he may help save your heart.

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Now look to the right of the poster. The nicely designed brochures on the rack tell you why you should come to Medpark, the hospital where Dr. Eraslan and others treat patients in Moldova’s capital city. The brochures describe the high quality you can expect for surgery, opthamology, maternity care and other services.

The poster, brochures and other signage at Medpark caught my eye when I went there on Saturday for a routine medical consult. (I’m fine.) They looked like what I used to see on the walls at Duke’s hospital and medical clinics. Other American medical settings have similar posters and signs filled with earnest doctors, loving parents and photogenic children. Medpark also has video monitors showing its caring doctors at work, with narration in Romanian and subtitles in Russian. (See the clip at the bottom of this post.)

IMG_7762I may pay more attention than most people to signs and videos like these because I work in communications, although even for me they often  blended into the background when I was back home. In Moldova, though, I noticed them immediately on Saturday because they were so different from the drab walls and signage I’ve seen in some medical settings here.

Most of Moldova’s medical facilities are public. Their challenges, including a lack of modern equipment and facilities, are much bigger than font choices and graphic design. Their signs tend to be functional and their amenities limited.

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Medpark, by contrast, is a fairly new medical center in Chișinău. It operates privately, with patients generally paying out-of-pocket for most services. Its rates are high for Moldova, although lower than in Western Europe and much lower than in the United States. As a result, many of its patients are from wealthier families, visiting home from jobs abroad or, as in my case, foreigners.

The hospital has an attractive coffee bar in its lobby, a free charging station for cell phones and colorful play equipment for children. Its pharmacy sells fancy creams and lotions along with medical prescriptions, and it offers artfully arranged eyeglass frames in a glass kiosk. The corridor signs look like they could have been plucked from a modern American hospital and translated into Romanian.

All of this didn’t happen by accident. Someone in the hospital’s senior management and communications department gave it a lot of thought, right down to the lower-case logo in sans-serif type and the aqua color palette. Once I began to notice and think about this visual environment around me, it was obvious Medpark is deliberately sending a message: We’re modern! You can trust us!

IMG_7756And do you know what? Its strategy works, at least for me. I felt reassured as soon as I entered through the revolving glass door into a bright lobby. The medical care I received turned out to be good, too, but I was already primed to expect this because of everything I’d seen, even if I wasn’t immediately conscious of why I felt optimistic.

None of this matters, of course, if the hospital doesn’t offer high-quality medical care. But my experience on Saturday reminded me how important thoughtful design and communications can be in advancing an organization’s business strategy. That’s true in Moldova just like back home. It’s why individual American hospitals and health centers and organizations such as the Society for Healthcare Strategy & Market Development, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Public Relations Society of America and others pay so much attention to these kinds of issues.

Effective communications may be even more important here in Moldova, a former Soviet state striving to assert its identity as a modern European country. This is true not only in the healthcare arena but more generally, a subject I hope to explore further in the future.

For now: Dr. Eraslan, your confident gaze is working for me.

 

Busy, Busy

My schedule lately rivals the busy American lifestyle I thought I’d left behind.

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At my primary job at the Ialoveni library, I’m co-teaching three robotics classes, tutoring a student in English and working with the director and others on various projects.

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I’m mentoring a team of four girls for the upcoming Diamond Challenge competition that promotes youth entrepreneurship.

I’m working with several other Peace Corps volunteers to develop training materials for Moldova’s tourism industry.

IMG_7617I’m helping a local Romani leader trying to establish radio stations to serve her community in Moldova.

I’m traveling to the Peace Corps office every Friday and working with them online throughout the week on Peace Corps Stories and other communications tasks.

I’ve been helping several volunteers and community members individually with articles, grad school applications, media challenges and other things.

I also write regularly for this blog and elsewhere, trying to advance the Peace Corps goal of promoting understanding between Americans and other people.

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Champa’s been busy lately, too, with school and other activities ever since classes opened again on September 1. The two of us also do everyday things like buy groceries, cook dinner, read books and, of course, hang out with our host family. This past Saturday we hosted a dinner party. This coming weekend we plan to attend both a jazz concert and a local cultural festival.

In other words: We’re busy. My life is not quite as intense as when I was running a university news office, but it’s a long way from being “retired.”

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We have only about ten months before we complete our service and return home. Until then we’re trying to do as much as we can to serve the people of Moldova. We’re not alone in this. As I wrote recently after a conference with the other Peace Corps volunteers in our group, many of them have abundant to-do lists as well.

Simultaneously, many Peace Corps volunteers in Moldova and around the world, especially those serving in smaller communities, have found a quieter life where they may still be having a big impact. Each of our experiences is different; “busy” does not mean “better.”

And here’s another thing: Many Moldovans, especially women, are even busier than we are. They’re raising families, working in offices, sowing crops, feeding animals, tending gardens, cooking meals and helping neighbors wth vastly fewer resources than we have back home. Yet I’ve never heard any of them refer to a “fast-paced Moldovan lifestyle.” Maybe they just haven’t had the time to tell me.

 

 

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