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A Transformative Journey

Four students. Four paths. One common thread.

Nick Tackes '13 and Kala Istvanek '13 were among four students who conducted interviews on the social context of Chinese medicine during a 2011 research trip to China.Nick Tackes '13 and Kala Istvanek '13 were among four students who conducted interviews on the social context of Chinese medicine during a 2011 research trip to China.

2011 research trip to China left lasting impact

Although it launched each of them in a different career direction, four Carthage graduates pinpoint the same springboard: a 2011 research trip to China with Professor Dan Choffnes.

After successfully applying for a grant from the ASIANetwork/Freeman Foundation, the students — Sam Haswell ’11, Scolastica Njoroge ’12, Kala Istvanek ’13, and Nick Tackes ’13 — spent a month studying the social context of traditional Chinese medicine. They conducted interviews with Beijing residents to better understand how they use traditional Chinese and Western biomedical practices. They also met with medical personnel and visited pharmacies and a medical school.

Among the four students, only Ms. Njoroge plans a medical career, and the experience solidified that ambition. She spent a year working in clinical research at ICON plc in Chicago and is now a first-year medical student at Rush University.

The group split its time between two research sites. Much of the research took place in Huairou, a district of Beijing about 30 miles north of the city center where Carthage has a longstanding educational and cultural exchange. The students also worked with doctors and patients at the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine.

Her medical mission

Ms. Njoroge said one of the medical clinic hosts, Dr. Xuejie Han, had a particularly strong influence on her.  She noted the doctor’s calm, caring demeanor despite having to squeeze as many as 80 patients into a four- to five-hour day.

Scolastica Njoroge '12 conducts an interview.Scolastica Njoroge '12 conducts an interview.“I was amazed at Dr. Han’s passion and dedication as she worked and discussed her career and her patients,” said Ms. Njoroge, who hopes someday to return to her native Kenya to perform similar research. “She inspired me to work with that kind of passion and make a difference in people’s lives.”

Through interpreters, the students interviewed about 75 residents in Huairou and central Beijing to determine how they dealt with a variety of illnesses. In that part of China, residents can seek out Western treatment such as surgery or antibiotics, or they can receive traditional Chinese medicine such as herbal formulas or acupuncture. For example, the practice of yangsheng — which means “nurturing life” — is believed to keep the body in physical, emotional, and nutritional balance.

“When people get ill, they have to make a choice,” Prof. Choffnes said.

An associate professor of biology and Asian Studies, he handpicked the students. Besides their curiosity, he spotted an opportunity to use their complementary skills.

“We could really see the best everybody had to offer and contribute in their own ways,” he said.

Their findings led to two branches of research that they’ve described in scholarly journals and presented at professional conferences. One branch categorized the use of yangsheng, and the other branch assessed whether the residents’ personal health care decisions matched classical Chinese medical doctrine.

Of the latter, Mr. Tackes said, “It’s sort of the stone that was left unturned by many investigators.”

In addition, they talked to medical practitioners to gauge their application of the theories behind Chinese medicine. During a tour of a pharmacy and medical school, the Carthage contingent learned how doctors identify a pulse as “slippery” or “wiry” in the course of their examination. The color and texture of the patient’s tongue also factor into the diagnosis.

Cultural awakening

Mr. Tackes, who previously interned at a Chinese medical clinic in Racine, Wis., noticed “profound effects” from the research trip. Besides adding tai chi to his Kala Istvanek '13 conducts interviews in a park in Huairou.Kala Istvanek '13 conducts interviews in a park in Huairou.morning routine, he ramped up his budding interest in Eastern culture. Earlier this year, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach English language and American culture to students in New Delhi, India.

The experience smashed his preconceived ideas about traditional Chinese medicine. The holistic approach of treating both the physical and mental aspects of an illness intrigued him.

“It’s a lot more than the stereotypical superstition that people might imagine,” Mr. Tackes said. “It was refreshing to see how similar Chinese and Western medical care are and how justified and comfortable all of the differences are.”

The journey altered the career plans of Ms. Istvanek, who graduated recently with a major in Asian Studies and minors in English and studio art. The Asian influence is heavy in her art and craftwork.

Ms. Istvanek makes and sells jewelry, writes and illustrates children’s books, and creates embroideries and knitted sculpture.

“Instead of focusing on Asian languages, I decided to delve deeper into the culture, particularly the mythology, fashion, and art world,” she said. “The research we did showed me that I was not ready to be an academic as a career and that I wanted a more creative lifestyle.”

Most of all, she remembers the people they met in China. She often thinks of a young English-speaking girl who helped her find the correct bus stop after exiting in the wrong place.

Cosmopolitan worldview

The effect on Mr. Haswell’s plans has been subtler. Although Prof. Choffnes’ medical ethnobotany course piqued his initial interest in the China study, he chose not to continue studying biology after minoring in it at Carthage. Instead, the French major said the trip whetted his appetite for foreign cultures.

Dr. Xuejie Han takes the pulse of Sam Haswell '11.Dr. Xuejie Han takes the pulse of Sam Haswell '11.Unlike during his study abroad in France, he arrived in China with minimal knowledge of the language or culture. He savored that feeling.

After graduating from Carthage, Mr. Haswell worked for a year in France as an English teacher before attending Aston University in Birmingham, England, where he recently completed a European Master’s in Translation.

“I now know what truly makes me happy: constantly changing my worldview by meeting people from different cultural backgrounds,” he said. “As a translator, I hope to act as a cultural intermediary, linking people who would otherwise be unable to communicate and fostering understanding between them. I have Carthage, the ASIANetwork, and the guidance of my mentor, Professor Choffnes, to thank for opening my eyes to what I really want my life to be.”

With such distinct interests, the students’ paths inevitably diverged after graduation. While they gained lifelong inspiration, the impact of their research could be broader.

“We’ve contributed some observations, some narratives, that might be the base of a much larger project,” Mr. Tackes said, “for us and for others.”

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