For twelve weeks this summer - the months of June, July, and August - I will be immersing myself in a culture that is very foreign to me. In mid-July, after six weeks of Ukrainian language training, I will be traveling to Ukraine for a six week research-service experience. I have created this blog to reflect on my research, share my stories, and express my joys and concerns about this exciting new adventure!
A summer of firsts
This will be my first summer away from Duke since beginning college, and the trip to Ukraine will be my first experience traveling overseas. Also, this summer will be my first time doing a real independent, self-structured research project. I have done research before, but always under the strict guidance of a mentor, and always on a suggested topic. This summer I will be largely on my own, although I do have mentors in Durham and Kyiv. My topic is self-designed, this trip is self-designed, and my methods are self-designed.
The focus of my research is a joint study on the health effects of exposure to radiation being conducted in Chernobyl, Ukraine, by Duke, Research Triangle International (RTI), UNC-Asheville, and Kyiv's Research Center for Radiation Medicine. You can read the project's press release here.
The basic gist is this: After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, officials constructed a concrete "sarcophagus" around the nuclear power plant to contain radiation; however, after more than 20 years, the hastily-built concrete shield is falling apart. In a new study, dubbed the "International Consortium for Applied Radiation Research" (which I will shorten to ICARR for the purposes of this blog,) researchers from Duke, RTI, etc. will monitor workers who are are currently building a better, stronger radiation containment system at the plant, called "the Ark." These researchers are hoping to expand their understanding of the health effects of ionizing radiation, especially on the genetic level, by studying the Ark workers. The original Science article about ICARR, published last year, may be read here. It is a great piece of science writing - well-written and succinct.
When I heard about ICARR almost a year ago, it immediately fascinated me. The study raises important questions about treating people as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to an end. How should the researchers reconcile individual workers’ roles as employees with their status as research participants? Also, since jobs are scarce in north-central Ukraine, won't workers have incentives to take risks with their own health? The history of bioethics has shown that people under psychological, social, or economic constraint are particularly acquiescent. (Consider, for example, the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments in Macon County, Alabama.) It may be that the Ark workers are people who, because of their station in life, do not have an equal chance to withhold consent when asked to build the Ark and/or participate in ICARR. Is this fair?
Our ethical intuition is that people participating in research studies have a right to know things and make up their minds, especially if their health is at stake. The research community has come a long way since Tuskegee, and ICARR has built in to it a protocol for informed consent. Nevertheless, ICARR has many unique political, social, and ethical characteristics that make it different from other research projects. I see a great opportunity in Chernobyl to create an ethical model that guides future work of this kind.
Over the past two semesters I have been developing a series of research questions, which I hope to answer this summer:
1) How can Duke, RTI, UNC-A, and RCRM conduct its research in a way that respects the rights and interests of the Ark workers?
2) Is it possible to improve current operational procedures in Chernobyl so that the rights and interests of Ark workers are better protected?
3) What is the best way to build the Ark so that bad health outcomes for workers are minimized?
My primary research techniques will be interviews and case studies. Although the latter can be done in the United States, the former requires that I travel to the Ark building site in Ukraine. Such a trip will allow me to evaluate the sample collection process, informed consent process, and local monitoring and worker safety programs first hand. Also, I have identified some sites of policy expertise, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, to do interviews en route.
Ideally, the finished product of all of this will be a series of recommendations for researchers in Ukraine. My goal is to create a useful document that will inform the decision making process in Chernobyl.
Time line for the summer
From June 4 until July 13, I will be taking an intensive Ukrainian language class through the University of Pittsburgh's Russian and East European Summer Language Institute. It should be a blast. There are over a hundred students in the program who will be learning a variety of eastern European languages, from Bulgarian to Polish to Russian. Ukrainian seems to be one of the least popular choices - as far as I know, there are only two students enrolled in the Ukrainian class, including me - but I see this as a positive thing. For all intents and purposes, I have a personal Ukrainian tutor for six weeks.
Almost immediately after the Pitt course ends, I will be leaving for Kyiv. Since I want to spend a solid 5-6 weeks in Ukraine, I need to depart ASAP in mid-July. The first day of fall classes at Duke is August 27th, so I will try to return to the States before then.
I am incredibly excited about my Ukrainian adventure! I expect to have many amazing experiences, and I will be sharing them with you through this blog every step of the way.