Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Updates and costumes

The Duke IRB liked my protocol a lot. Flattery aside, however, they had "a number" (read - "a million") suggestions for ways to improve my consent forms and other documents.

In order to gain the board's approval, I must incorporate their suggested changes into my materials and also prepare a separate consent protocol for the interviewees that are Ark workers/ICARR participants. As the IRB pointed out to me, these people shoulder the most risk by talking to me, so I must take extra precaution to ensure that their interviews are kept confidential.

My other "subjects," such as the ICARR scientists and the local health experts, do not risk unemployment or litigation by talking to me (as the workers potentially do). So I can keep their interviews public and on the record as I had planned, provided I receive their consent of course.

Just another draft or two, and this IRB business will finally be done!

My roommate (on the left) is going to kill me (on the right) if she finds out I am posting this, but I just can't resist:

Ви думаєте, що я справжня українка?
(Do you think that I am a true Ukrainian?)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Desperate for (IRB) approval

All week, I’ve been working hard on my application for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval of my project in Ukraine. This all-consuming process is something I really should have done before I left school, but it completely slipped my mind in the rush of finals. So, instead, I'm rushing to get it done now amidst classes, language labs, and four-hour homework sessions.

Procedures for protecting the rights and welfare of human subjects are the same, no matter who conducts the research; thus, student researchers like myself are held to the same standards as faculty researchers. If an undergraduate at Duke wants to conduct research that involves human subjects in any capacity, he or she must fill out a long, complicated application and send it to the Duke IRB before beginning the study.

There are different review procedures for research with human subjects, depending upon the research activity and the level of risk. These are (1) review for exemption, (2) expedited review, and (3) full review. When the IRB receives my application, they will determine what type of review my protocol needs. If a project qualifies for review as exempt research, the Director of the IRB program is authorized to approve the application. If it is not exempt, but qualifies for expedited review, one member of the IRB can approve the application. Exempt and expedited reviews can be done at any time. However, if subjects will have to accept more than minimal risk to participate in a study, the application will be reviewed by the full IRB.

I’m hoping and praying that my project qualifies for exemption or expedited review. If it doesn’t, I will be completely at the mercy of the IRB’s timetable, and there is a chance that I won’t gain approval until after I arrive in Ukraine. (However, since I am only conducting interviews and not, say, testing the effects of electroshock therapy on terminally ill children, I don’t think full IRB review of my project will be necessary… but the possibility still exists.)

Although the form took a lot of time and effort to complete, I’m very glad I did it. It really made me think through my research approach at a level of detail that I hadn't before. For example, I had to explain the potential risks and benefits of my research. Here is an excerpt from one of my application responses:

Re: The risk of a breach of confidentiality: "In most cases, interviews will be "on the record" and public, so I will not have to promise confidentiality or worry about a breach. However, it is likely that I will also be interviewing people less formally while in Ukraine. These subjects may share information with me that could have adverse effects should a breach of confidentiality occur. For example, in an informal conversation, an Ark worker may describe to me how he covered his radiation-detecting work badge with lead so as to work extra hours to earn extra money, despite the fact that he may have received a dangerous dose of radiation by doing so. This information could potentially damage the worker’s employability at the Ark should his boss discover it."

The most painful part of the application was preparing the protocol materials themselves. These included consent forms, audio release forms (since I will be recording my interviews), sample interview questions, and recruitment forms. I also had to describe how I will ensure that these materials are culturally appropriate. Fortunately, my Ukrainian professor has agreed to pre-test my interview questions, consent forms, etc. as well to help me translate them into Ukrainian and Russian. I'm very grateful for that... without the promise of her help, I am sure the IRB would have flagged my project as risky.

It sure takes a lot of work to get permission to just talk to people! I will let you know when I hear back from the IRB staff.

Side note: I am in Boston for the weekend, and I had another unexpected, wonderful Ukrainian experience. I will write about it soon.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


An interesting article from http://politicom.moldova.org/stiri/eng/53697/.

Ukraine has joined with other former Soviet states Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova to form GUAM, an pro-Western organization
that is seen as a counterweight to the Kremlin-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS):

(AFP, Bakutoday.net) Leaders of four ex-Soviet countries vowed Tuesday to boost cooperation and seek closer ties with the West as they aim to shake off Russian influence.

The presidents of Georgia and Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili and Viktor Yushchenko, were in the Azerbaijani capital Baku for a summit with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev.

Their four countries make up the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) group of former Soviet states, which is seen as a counterweight to the Kremlin-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who was also attending as an observer, promised to support their efforts to limit what he called "energy blackmail" by Moscow.

At their meeting the four GUAM states promised to pursue plans to ship oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia and Ukraine to Europe.

Their efforts were heartily welcomed by Kaczynski, while the staunchly pro-Western Saakashvili hailed the meeting as "a geopolitical revolution."

In a clear reference to Russian control of European energy supplies, Poland's Kaczynski said that "under conditions of energy blackmail, energy projects (with GUAM states) are of great interest."

Azerbaijan is the start point of a strategic new oil pipeline to the West that has been backed by Washington as a way of reducing Moscow's grip on oil supplies from the former Soviet Union, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.

Aliyev, whose country's oil and gas reserves are keenly sought by fellow members of GUAM and by the European Union, said the organisation was gaining in international weight.

"GUAM, in a short time, has turned into a serious organisation. Its goals are of interest to many countries," Aliyev said.

By boosting transport and energy links, GUAM members are "building a bridge between Europe and Asia," he said.

Saakashvili thanked Azerbaijan for increasing gas exports to his country after a large price-hike by Moscow at the end of last year that some critics saw as politically motivated.

"It was a heartfelt gesture and an important strategic decision," he said, adding that GUAM was surpassing the CIS as a basis for cooperation.

"GUAM seriously differs from the CIS, which has become only a club for meetings of heads of state," he said.

Kaczynski, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Romanian President Traian Basescu attended the talks in a show of support for GUAM's pro-Western aspirations. Kaczynski said he would support the efforts of some GUAM members to join the European Union and NATO.

Aliyev said the members would also present a united front in dealing with separatist conflicts in their countries. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova are all dealing with breakaway regions.

But Russian newspapers on Tuesday detected cracks within the GUAM group.

While Georgia and Ukraine have primarily viewed GUAM as a
pro-Western regional bloc, Azerbaijan has been more cautious and Moldova's position is unclear.

The Russian newspapers said Moscow would take comfort from the absence on Tuesday of Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and the sending of his prime minister instead.

Voronin is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday, Kommersant newspaper reported.

"Moscow managed to strike a pre-emptive blow against its opponents," the paper wrote. "Voronin has apparently decided to stay away from the company of Russia's enemies.

Publication date:
20 June 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

Is a language simply a dialect, plus an army?

When I first began learning Ukrainian, I assumed that it was essentially a dialect of Russian. After all, Russia and Ukraine have a long history together, and the question of dialect versus language is a tricky one. Generally, it is agreed upon that if you understand perfectly, you speak the same language. If it takes some effort to understand, then you speak different dialects of the same language. If you cannot understand at all, you speak a different language. It's as simple as that.

Unfortunately, Ukrainian doesn't fit neatly into one of these three molds vis-à-vis Russian. The languages are certainly related; according to my professor, a Russian who has been exposed to Ukrainian can usually figure it out. However, the languages are sufficiently different that a Russian from, say, Siberia, who has never met a Ukrainian person before, will probably not be able to understand.

I have proof of this notion. A friend of mine at Pitt grew up speaking Russian with her parents in Brooklyn, but was never exposed to Ukrainian. When I asked her if she could understand Ukrainian, she said she could to a certain point, after which it becomes too garbled. According to her, a Ukrainian speaker sounds "like a Russian who has been punched in the mouth." On the other hand, her father, who grew up in Belarus, can understand Ukrainian perfectly.

The reverse is also true in theory - Ukrainians who have heard Russian before should be able to understand it, while those who have not, should not. But in reality, nearly every Ukrainian can speak Russian fluently, so it's not a very relevant point to make. Indeed, some of the only people in the world who know just Ukrainian are students like me, who have taken or are taking the language outside eastern Europe. My professor even warned us that our knowledge of Ukrainian may be more "correct" than many native speakers', simply because our ears haven't been tainted by Russian.

Another interesting point: because Russian is so pervasive in Ukraine, a sort of creole language has become popular in many parts of the country. My professor, who is from Kharkiv, says that this mixed language is mostly found in the east. In the west, there are more people who speak Ukrainian at home (as opposed to Russian, or the mixed language), so there are many more "pure" speakers.

Someone once told me that a language is simply a dialect, plus an army. In the case of Ukrainian's relationship to Russian, this probably isn't true. All modern linguists agree that Ukrainian and Russian are separate languages that diverged from a common source many centuries ago. (To be specific, during the 13th century, two major dialects of Rus began to arise. The northeast dialect was the basis for the future Russian language, while the southwest dialect was the basis for the future Ruthenian language, which in turn developed into Ukrainian.) Nevertheless, from a historical perspective, the Ukrainian language has served both as a galvanizing factor motivating people who believed in the need for an independent Ukraine, and as a source of contention for those seeking to diminish the prospects for Ukrainian statehood. What a unique, complicated situation.

Was it prudent for me to take Ukrainian this summer, given that Russian is often the more popular spoken language in Ukraine? If my goal had been simply to speak to people in Kyiv and Chernobyl, then probably no, it would have been wiser to take Russian. But I also took this class to get a feel for Ukrainian culture - how Ukrainians think, what to expect from the nation and its people. I am learning that, so I do not regret my decision.

Plus, as Ukraine becomes a more powerful nation, and more and more schools start to offer the language, and more and more students decide to learn it, then my Ukrainian skills should prove very useful - maybe even invaluable - in the future!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Staying alert

I recently discovered a great feature of Google called "Google Alerts." The program allows you to closely monitor specific topics in the news without having to do a manual search. I have it set up so that any news or blog posts containing the words Ukraine, Chernobyl, or Duke will be consolidated and sent to my email account at the end of the day, every day.

Although I've only been receiving alerts for a few days, I've already learned so much about Ukrainian politics, economics, and culture. For example, I now know that:

"People who live in Gvozdavka-1 [a village near Odessa] know that thousands of Jews were killed in the area during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, but the evidence didn't surface until April, when workers laying gas pipes happened on the burial ground." (Read about it here.)
"Ukraine is the next country to witness tremendous growth in mushroom production." I hope those mushrooms are being tested for radiation - they are one of the foods most susceptible to radioactive contamination! (Read about it here.)
"Ukrainians who left their homeland back in the 1990s in search of a better life abroad are being drawn back to the country in growing numbers. Recruitment firms say that the reverse brain drain is a significant trend fueled by the country’s booming economy... Official state migration statistics show a larger inflow of migrants than outflow during the January-March 2007 period, with nearly 11,000 immigrants into the country compared with around 7,000 Ukrainians moving abroad." (Read about it here.)
A common Russian – Ukrainian "station of the space exploration" is to be created in Pryelbrusje. (Read about it - in broken English - here.)
And my favorite news alert of the week: "PepsiAmericas, Inc., the world’s second largest manufacturer, seller and distributor of PepsiCo beverages, and PepsiCo itself, announced a landmark agreement on June 7 to jointly acquire 80 percent of Sandora LLC, Ukraine’s number one juice maker... Home to some 46 million consumers, Ukraine is considered to be one of the fastest growing beverage markets in Europe." (Read about the acquisition - and Ukraine's fast-paced juice market - here!)

I definitely recommend Google's alert system to anyone who wants to track a topic in the news. But be warned - Google alerts are a big distraction. I really should be studying Ukrainian at the moment, but my mind can only handle so much in one day. My professor is a sweet lady, but her teaching methods are very European - memorize, memorize, memorize - and it's starting to wear on me.

Nevertheless, I'm definitely learning a lot! I am currently searching for an apartment in Kyiv, and I have found that I can read snippets of the housing descriptions in Ukrainian.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Mmm... Syrnyky

This past Friday from 3:00 – 4:30 PM was Polish and Ukrainian Happy Hour at Pitt’s SLI. Accordingly, my Ukrainian classmates and I were put to work at noon making a traditional Ukrainian dessert, syrnyky, for 120+ people. The result was delicious and a big hit among the other students. (To me, it tasted like fried cheesecake.) The recipe, provided by my professor, is as follows:

Syrnyky (cottage cheese fritters)

мій професор (my professor) with the syrnyky

(syrnyky is plural form of the word syrnyk, the first syllable is stressed)

500g of cottage cheese (about a pound)
half a glass of sugar
3 eggs
2 cups of flour
Half of one stick of melted butter
1 cup of sour cream
a little salt

Whisk eggs with salt and sugar into thick froth. Add minced cottage cheese, one and a half (1.5) glasses of flour. Knead thoroughly. Put the dough onto the board sifted with flour, and form a thick roll. Slice it into pieces as thick as a finger. Put each slice into flour, and make its form like a cutlet with a knife:

Fry in butter in a frying pan at the medium heat, both sides. Serve in sour cream.

The finished product.
(Smačnoho = Bon Appetit)

Friday night was a fun one! I went with some friends in SLI to “Srpska Noc” at Pittsburgh’s local Serbian Club. We listened to live Serbian music and watched locals dance the kolo all night long.

You know, I might as well be in eastern Europe already!

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Chernobyl Heart

I just finished watching a really moving film called Chernobyl Heart. I stumbled upon it randomly a few months ago upon doing a search at the Duke library. The film has been sitting in my hard drive for ages, but since I don’t have TV here in the 'Burgh, I finally got around to watching it tonight.

Chernobyl Heart is an Academy Award-winning documentary from HBO that takes a look at children born after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, many of whom have a deteriorated heart condition known colloquially as – you guessed it – “Chernobyl heart.” The title also refers to the generosity of volunteers at Chernobyl Children’s Project International who dedicate their lives to caring for the sick kids.

The children (mostly Belorussian) are suffering in unimaginable ways as a result of radioactive contamination. In addition to congenital heart defects, many are born with their brains on the outside of their skulls, with massive tumors, or with unusual genetic disorders. Needless to say, it was a difficult film to watch.

In Belarus, heart problems in children born post-Chernobyl have increased dramatically, with other health problems increasing as well. One doctor at a hospital in southern Belarus claimed that only 15 to 20% of babies are born healthy. (The country as a whole remains 99% contaminated.)

Much of the documentary was shot inside institutions with dreary names such as “The Abandoned Children’s Home” or “The Minsk Mental Hospital,” where sick kids have been permanently forsaken by their parents. (Although such an act seems unthinkable by American standards, I find it almost understandable in these cases. The children in Chernobyl Heart are so severely handicapped that caring for one would require an enormous supply of money, and in an economically destitute region such as Belarus, cash is in very short supply. Also, providing such a child with the proper medical care would require an expertise that most Belorussians simply do not have; in fact, many of the children would not be in the conditions they are in had the right care been provided immediately after birth, like draining fluid from the brain.)

I cannot imagine what it must be like to work in such an environment as the "Abandoned Children's Home" on a regular basis. The workers that the filmmaker interviewed appeared to carry incredible emotional burdens as a result of their jobs.

One moment of positivity came at the end of the film. An American doctor is shown performing heart surgery on a little girl that had been previously deemed "inoperable" by Belorussian medical experts. When the American surgeon tells the girl's parents that the surgery was successful - that the hole in her heart had been sealed - they begin to cry and overwhelm the doctor with their gratitude. Unfortunately, only about 300 Belorussian children per year have the opportunity to get such a surgery, and the rest usually die within 2-5 years.

A general conclusion that the film makes early on is that the victims of Chernobyl were not those who were adults in 1986, but those who were very young at the time of the accident, or still in the womb, or continue to be born in contaminated areas. I was born on January 12, 1986, just a few months before the Chernobyl accident. I was an infant when it happened. Many of those who were affected by Chernobyl are exactly my age. Had circumstances been different - had I been born in Belarus or Ukraine - I may have suffered from heart disease, or thyroid cancer, or leukemia... just like the kids featured in this movie. What a disturbing thought.

If you don't have an opportunity to see Chernobyl Heart, there is an extremely well-done photo-essay on the same subject on the web. You can view it here. It is produced by "Magnum In Motion," a company that does fabulous work in general. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

день 2! (Day 2!)

Want to know more about українська мова (Ukrainian language)? Click on the Cyrillic!

Monday, June 4, 2007

First day @ Pitt

Today was my first day of Ukrainian classes at the University of Pittsburgh.

The entire Summer Language Institute met as a group this morning. What an eclectic and interesting mix of people! All ages are represented - there are even retired people in the program - but the majority of students seemed to be at the graduate level. So far, the people I've met are wonderful.

After lunch, we separated into our "target language" classes. There are a grand total of 3 students in beginning Ukrainian, including me. Our professor seems great - she really wants to cater the course to our personal needs and learning styles. She taught Russian and Ukrainian as foreign languages in Ukraine for many years, and now she teaches at SUNY Albany.

Today, we listened to Ukrainian music, met three of our "other classmates" (finger puppets with Ukrainian names), went over the syllabus, and learned part of the Ukrainian alphabet:

I am having the most trouble with the vowel that looks like a backwards N (second row, sixth column). There is no English equivalent. In order to pronounce it, you have to jut out your lower jaw, squeeze your upper and lower palettes together, and say "yuuuuuuuu."

This language will be a challenge to learn, but I think it will be fun.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

New faces in familiar places

Have you ever experienced that phenomenon where, as soon as you learn about something new, you start noticing it everywhere? And it always seems as if the new thing just suddenly began popping up in your life, like a freak coincidence, but when you really think about it, you realize it's always been there - you just hadn't been looking for it?

Well, imagine my astonishment when I walked out of my condo this morning and saw this:

In case you can't read that license plate, here it is again:

As you already know from the title of this blog, that word is "Ukraine" in Cyrillic, with the owner taking normal license-plate creative license by replacing the H with an N. And the owner had even applied the umlaut mark on the "I" using two little blue stickers! Who was the owner of this mystery Ukrainian Tacoma? And why was he parked in my neighbor's driveway?
Well, a few hours later, I found out. My mom spotted a thin, scruffy looking man exiting our neighbor's place. She asked him if the car was his - it was - and if he could stay for a minute and talk to me - he could. The man's name is Andrey, and he is a Ukrainian construction worker for a remodeling company who has been working on my neighbor's condo for six months. And I never once noticed him or his car until today. Go figure! I guess Україна simply wasn't on my radar screen six months ago.
Although he was born and raised in Lviv, Andrey is now an American citizen. His "coming to America" story is really fascinating. Fifteen years ago, Andrey was granted refugee status because he is Pentecostal Christian, a faith that was frowned upon as a cult religion in Ukraine back then. (Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic were the main religions - anything else was considered a "sect.") According to Andrey, Reagan and Gorbachev signed some sort of agreement that allowed people under religious persecution to leave the USSR and come to the US, and it was this agreement that allowed him to emigrate. He initially settled in a Ukrainian neighborhood in Chicago, but moved to Virginia Beach eight years ago.
When I mentioned that I would be researching Chernobyl, he had some interesting stories to tell. He said that his friend in the Ukrainian special forces had spent six months guarding the Exclusion Zone after the accident. This friend had written to Andrey about the incredible size of the fruits and vegetables in the area; according to him, there were strawberries the size of apples growing in the fields near Chernobyl. "Did you eat them?" Andrey asked his friend. "Of course! They were enormous!" the friend replied. Andrey also talked about how his friend would walk past crystal clear lakes in the Exclusion Zone and see fish with mustaches, extra fins, giant heads...
Andrey has not been back to Ukraine since emigrating, but he still had some good advice to give about living there. He suggested that I visit a church if I ever needed someone to talk to in English. Since so many American churches do missions to Ukraine, nearly every Ukrainian Pentecostal or Ukrainian Baptist church will have someone who can talk both Ukrainian and English. He also told me to avoid Ukrainian "vending machines," which consist of lemonade on tap that, upon paying 3 pennies, will dispense into a communal cup that one must wash and return after using (but which, of course, almost never actually gets washed by the pervious user).
Andrey was nice enough to give me his e-mail address, so I will probably send him a message before I leave. It's funny how nice and receptive people are when you show an interest in their culture - Andrey talked to me and my mom for almost 45 minutes!
Tomorrow I leave for Pittsburgh. It's a 7.5 hour drive (ugh) and the forecast calls for rain...