Archive for October, 2006

Tuesday October 31, 2006

October 31, 2006 - 4:12 am 4 Comments

What an interesting article! http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/31/health/nutrition/31agin.html?_r=1&8dpc&oref=slogin

Humans are constantly thinking of new ways to prolong life.

October 31, 2006

One for the Ages: A Prescription That May Extend Life

How depressing, how utterly unjust, to be the one in your social circle who is aging least gracefully.

In a laboratory at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, Matthias is learning about time’s caprice the hard way. At 28, getting on for a rhesus monkey, Matthias is losing his hair, lugging a paunch and getting a face full of wrinkles.

Yet in the cage next to his, gleefully hooting at strangers, one of Matthias’s lab mates, Rudy, is the picture of monkey vitality, although he is slightly older. Thin and feisty, Rudy stops grooming his smooth coat just long enough to pirouette toward a proffered piece of fruit.

Tempted with the same treat, Matthias rises wearily and extends a frail hand. “You can really see the difference,” said Dr. Ricki Colman, an associate scientist at the center who cares for the animals.

What a visitor cannot see may be even more interesting. As a result of a simple lifestyle intervention, Rudy and primates like him seem poised to live very long, very vital lives.

This approach, called calorie restriction, involves eating about 30 percent fewer calories than normal while still getting adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Aside from direct genetic manipulation, calorie restriction is the only strategy known to extend life consistently in a variety of animal species.

How this drastic diet affects the body has been the subject of intense research. Recently, the effort has begun to bear fruit, producing a steady stream of studies indicating that the rate of aging is plastic, not fixed, and that it can be manipulated.

In the last year, calorie-restricted diets have been shown in various animals to affect molecular pathways likely to be involved in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and cancer. Earlier this year, researchers studying dietary effects on humans went so far as to claim that calorie restriction may be more effective than exercise at preventing age-related diseases.

Monkeys like Rudy seem to be proving the thesis. Recent tests show that the animals on restricted diets, including Canto and Eeyore, two other rhesus monkeys at the primate research center, are in indisputably better health as they near old age than Matthias and other normally fed lab mates like Owen and Johann. The average lifespan for laboratory monkeys is 27.

The findings cast doubt on long-held scientific and cultural beliefs regarding the inevitability of the body’s decline. They also suggest that other interventions, which include new drugs, may retard aging even if the diet itself should prove ineffective in humans. One leading candidate, a newly synthesized form of resveratrol — an antioxidant present in large amounts in red wine — is already being tested in patients. It may eventually be the first of a new class of anti-aging drugs. Extrapolating from recent animal findings, Dr. Richard A. Miller, a pathologist at the University of Michigan, estimated that a pill mimicking the effects of calorie restriction might increase human life span to about 112 healthy years, with the occasional senior living until 140, though some experts view that projection as overly optimistic.

According to a report by the Rand Corporation, such a drug would be among the most cost-effective breakthroughs possible in medicine, providing Americans more healthy years at less expense (an estimated $8,800 a year) than new cancer vaccines or stroke treatments.

“The effects are global, so calorie restriction has the potential to help us identify anti-aging mechanisms throughout the body,” said Richard Weindruch, a gerontologist at the University of Wisconsin who directs research on the monkeys.

Many scientists regard the study of life extension, once just a reliable plotline in science fiction, as a national priority. The number of Americans 65 and older will double in the next 25 years to about 72 million, according to government census data. By then, seniors will account for nearly 20 percent of the population, up from just 12 percent in 2003.

Earlier this year, four prominent gerontologists, among them Dr. Miller, published a paper calling for the government to spend $3 billion annually in pursuit of a modest goal: delaying the onset of age-related diseases by seven years.

Doing so, the authors asserted, would lay the foundation for a healthier and wealthier country, a so-called longevity dividend.

“The demographic wave entering their 60s is enormous, and that is likely to greatly increase the prevalence of diseases like diabetes and heart disease,” said Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and one of the paper’s authors. “The simplest way to positively affect them all is to slow down aging.”

Science, of course, is still a long way from doing anything of the sort. Aging is a complicated phenomenon, the intersection of an array of biological processes set in motion by genetics, lifestyle, even evolution itself.

Still, in laboratories around the world, scientists are becoming adept at breeding animal Methuselahs, extraordinarily long lived and healthy worms, fish, mice and flies.

In 1935, Dr. Clive McCay, a nutritionist at Cornell University, discovered that mice that were fed 30 percent fewer calories lived about 40 percent longer than their free-grazing laboratory mates. The dieting mice were also more physically active and far less prone to the diseases of advanced age.

Dr. McCay’s experiment has been successfully duplicated in a variety of species. In almost every instance, the subjects on low-calorie diets have proven to be not just longer lived, but also more resistant to age-related ailments.

“In mice, calorie restriction doesn’t just extend life span,” said Leonard P. Guarente, professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It mitigates many diseases of aging: cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease. The gain is just enormous.”

For years, scientists financed by the National Institute on Aging have closely monitored rhesus monkeys on restricted and normal-calorie diets. At the University of Wisconsin, where 50 animals survive from the original group of 76, the differences are just now becoming apparent in the older animals.

Those on normal diets, like Matthias, are beginning to show signs of advancing age similar to those seen in humans. Three of them, for instance, have developed diabetes, and a fourth has died of the disease. Five have died of cancer.

But Rudy and his colleagues on low-calorie meal plans are faring better. None have diabetes, and only three have died of cancer. It is too early to know if they will outlive their lab mates, but the dieters here and at the other labs also have lower blood pressure and lower blood levels of certain dangerous fats, glucose and insulin.

“The preliminary indicators are that we’re looking at a robust life extension in the restricted animals,” Dr. Weindruch said.

Despite widespread scientific enthusiasm, the evidence that calorie restriction works in humans is indirect at best. The practice was popularized in diet books by Dr. Roy Walford, a legendary pathologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who spent much of the last 30 years of his life following a calorie-restricted regimen. He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2004 at 79.

Largely as a result of his advocacy, several thousand people are now on calorie-restricted diets in the United States, says Brian M. Delaney, president of the Calorie Restriction Society.

Mike Linksvayer, a 36-year-old chief technology officer at a San Francisco nonprofit group, embarked on just such a diet six years ago. On an average day, he eats an apple or some cereal for breakfast, followed by a small vegan dish at lunch. Dinner is whatever his wife has cooked, excluding bread, rice, sugar and whatever else Mr. Linksvayer deems unhealthy (this often includes the entrée). On weekends, he occasionally fasts.

Mr. Linksvayer, 6 feet tall and 135 pounds, estimated that he gets by on about 2,000 to 2,100 calories a day, a low number for men of his age and activity level, and his blood pressure is a remarkably low 112 over 63. He said he has never been in better health.

“I don’t really get sick,” he said. “Mostly I do the diet to be healthier, but if it helps me live longer, hey, I’ll take that, too.”

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have been tracking the health of small groups of calorie-restricted dieters. Earlier this year, they reported that the dieters had better-functioning hearts and fewer signs of inflammation, which is a precursor to clogged arteries, than similar subjects on regular diets.

In previous studies, people in calorie-restricted groups were shown to have lower levels of LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, and triglycerides. They also showed higher levels of HDL, the so-called good cholesterol, virtually no arterial blockage and, like Mr. Linksvayer, remarkably low blood pressure.

“Calorie restriction has a powerful, protective effect against diseases associated with aging,” said Dr. John O. Holloszy, a Washington University professor of medicine. “We don’t know how long each individual will end up living, but they certainly have a longer life expectancy than average.”

Researchers at Louisiana State University reported in April in The Journal of the American Medical Association that patients on an experimental low-calorie diet had lower insulin levels and body temperatures, both possible markers of longevity, and fewer signs of the chromosomal damage typically associated with aging.

These studies and others have led many scientists to believe they have stumbled onto a central determinant of natural life span. Animals on restricted diets seem particularly resistant to environmental stresses like oxidation and heat, perhaps even radiation. “It is a very deep, very important function,” Dr. Miller said. Experts theorize that limited access to energy alarms the body, so to speak, activating a cascade of biochemical signals that tell each cell to direct energy away from reproductive functions, toward repair and maintenance. The calorie-restricted organism is stronger, according to this hypothesis, because individual cells are more efficiently repairing mutations, using energy, defending themselves and mopping up harmful byproducts like free radicals.

“The stressed cell is really pulling out all the stops” to preserve itself, said Dr. Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “This system could have evolved as a way of letting animals take a timeout from reproduction when times are harsh.”

But many experts are unsettled by the prospect, however unlikely, of Americans adopting a draconian diet in hopes of living longer. Even the current epidemiological data, they note, do not consistently show that those who are thinnest live longest. After analyzing decades of national mortality statistics, federal researchers reported last year that exceptional thinness, a logical consequence of calorie restriction, was associated with an increased risk of death. This controversial study did not attempt to assess the number of calories the subjects had been consuming, or the quality of their diets, which may have had an effect on mortality rates.

Despite the initially promising results from studies of primates, some scientists doubt that calorie restriction can ever work effectively in humans. A mathematical model published last year by researchers at University of California, Los Angeles, and University of California, Irvine, predicted that the maximum life span gain from calorie restriction for humans would be just 7 percent. A more likely figure, the authors said, was 2 percent.

“Calorie restriction is doomed to fail, and will make people miserable in the process of attempting it,” said Dr. Jay Phelan, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-author of the paper. “We do see benefits, but not an increase in life span.”

Mice who must scratch for food for a couple of years would be analogous, in terms of natural selection, to humans who must survive 20-year famines, Dr. Phelan said. But nature seldom demands that humans endure such conditions.

Besides, he added, there is virtually no chance Americans will adopt such a severe menu plan in great numbers.

“Have you ever tried to go without food for a day?” Dr. Phelan asked. “I did it once, because I was curious about what the mice in my lab experienced, and I couldn’t even function at the end of the day.”

Even researchers who believe calorie restriction can extend life in humans concede that few Americans are likely to stick to such a restrained diet over a long period. The aging of the body is the aging of its cells, researchers like to say. While cell death is hardwired into every organism’s DNA, much of the infirmity that comes with advancing years is from an accumulation of molecular insults that, experts contend, may to some degree be prevented, even reversed.

“The goal is not just to make people live longer,” said Dr. David A. Sinclair, a molecular biologist at Harvard. “It’s to see eventually that an 80-year-old feels like a 50-year-old does today.”

In a series of studies, Dr. Kenyon, of the University of California, San Francisco, has created mutant roundworms that live six times longer than normal, largely because of a mutation in a single gene called daf-2. The gene encodes a receptor on the surface of cells similar to a receptor in humans that responds to two important hormones, insulin and the insulin-like growth factor 1 or IGF-1.

Insulin is necessary for the body to transport glucose into cells to fuel their operations. Dr. Kenyon and other researchers suggest that worm cells with mutated receptors may be “tricked” into sensing that nutrients are not available, even when they are. With its maintenance machinery thereby turned on high, each worm cell lives far longer — and so does the worm.

Many experts are now convinced that the energy-signaling pathways that employ insulin and IGF-1 are very involved in fixing an organism’s life span. Some researchers have even described Type 2 diabetes, which is marked by insensitivity to the hormone insulin, as simply an accelerated form of aging.

In yeast, scientists have discovered a gene similar to daf-2 called SIR2, that also helps to coordinate the cell’s defensive response once activated by calorie restriction or another external stressor. The genes encode proteins called sirtuins, which are found in both plants and animals.

A mammalian version of the SIR2 gene, called SIRT1, has been shown to regulate a number of processes necessary for long-term survival in calorie-restricted mice.

Scientists are now trying to develop synthetic compounds that affect the genes daf-2 and SIRT1.

Several candidate drugs designed to prevent age-related diseases, particularly diabetes, are on the drawing boards at biotech companies. Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, in Boston, already has begun testing a new drug in patients with Type 2 diabetes that acts on SIRT1 to improve the functioning of mitochondria, the cell’s energy factories.

While an anti-aging pill may be the next big blockbuster, some ethicists believe that the all-out determination to extend life span is veined with arrogance. As appointments with death are postponed, says Dr. Leon R. Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, human lives may become less engaging, less meaningful, even less beautiful.

“Mortality makes life matter,” Dr. Kass recently wrote. “Immortality is a kind of oblivion — like death itself.”

That man’s time on this planet is limited, and rightfully so, is a cultural belief deeply held by many. But whether an increasing life span affords greater opportunity to find meaning or distracts from the pursuit, the prospect has become too great a temptation to ignore — least of all, for scientists.

“It’s a just big waste of talent and wisdom to have people die in their 60s and 70s,” said Dr. Sinclair of Harvard.

Wednesday October 25, 2006

October 25, 2006 - 2:54 pm 3 Comments

The debate passed triumphantly – granted, not that many locals attended, but the opportunity for me to once again speak in public on an issue I feel strongly about was just plainly inspiring. Once again, I realize how much I miss doing debate – to feel intellectually engaged in a battle of intellect. (Furthermore, the issue was Democrats vs. Republicans – clearly, a topic I feel strongly about.) Now re-energized, I will go and attack the 500 page translation that I need to edit by tomorrow morning. Ah, forgone sleep…

Classes are going well. Although grade-wise, I am not sure what the conclusion will be, I’m building rapport with my teachers and enjoying the material. In terms of overall work stres, there is much less. In terms of mental stress, there is a lot more!

Friday October 20, 2006

October 20, 2006 - 9:34 am 3 Comments

So much has happened since I last wrote, notably, my trip to Portugal and the new responsibilities and opportunities I have at work. Classes are going quite well – my International Economic Organizations class is truly my favourite! In no particular order, I’m going to list a few of my recent discoveries and ventures:

 

  1. Portugal – With a rather ambitious itinerary of Lisbon, Port, and Sintra over a span of four days, I got a penetrating insight to Spain’s most neglected neighbour. In Lisbon, the churches, historic districts, castles, and monuments were truly majestic! Unlike many of the more mainstream European tourist destinations, Portugal retains a quainter, friendlier ambiance. Granted, the country lags behind the rest of the European Union economically (to the point at which, given the deposition of Juan Carlos, a majority of Portuguese desire to be assimilated into Spain to share the economic benefits), having never recovered from the disastrous earthquake of 1755 which killed 60,000 people and ruined the city, but a rich heritage still persists. From port tasting in the famous winery district of Port to visiting the tomb of Vasco de Gama (nearly all the famous figures of the Age of Exploration come from this tiny country), I enjoyed myself thoroughly. In addition, I discovered a hidden passion for fado – the melancholic national music. In retrospect, I am astounded by how much I managed to cram into just a few days of travelling (including a telephone interview from New York)! If you would like a sample of fado music or if you want to know more, just ask.  

 

  1. Nantik Lum – Since the organization is very small, I shoulder quite a bit of responsibility with plenty of manoeuvring space. Currently, I´m in charge of writing and presenting a substantial project proposal to change their cooperatives in Chiapas to formal village banking institutions. The work is very rewarding because I get to coordinate execution techniques with their partners in Mexico as well as design a tailored village banking model. (The organization leaders are taking my input very seriously.) Given my limited hands-on experience, however, I expect many rough moments in the drafting process. Right now, I´m just sifting through research and impact assessment publications of the main village banking models to get a good background idea of where to start.

 

  1. Debate – Next Wednesday, the English language debate I organized for Spanish students will come into fruition! Right now, I´m still in the “biting my nails” phase since a lot of the logistics have yet to be determined. Notably, members of the local press and faculty from neighbouring schools of translation will be attending! Consequently, this surely puts on the pressure to make the event run smoothly, though with the topic of Democrats vs. Republicans, I am not too sure! Also, I signed up for the Trofeo Rector tournament in November, where I will be competing in Spanish on the topic of whether immigrants in Spain can successfully be assimilated culturally, economically, and politically. (The director is in the process of finding me a Spanish partner – sadly, due to my language skills, I am not very marketable.)

 

  1. Class – Going quite well, but I don’t have nearly as much time for independent investigation as I would like due to work and extracurricular time constraints. I volunteered for an in-class debate on IMF structural adjustment programs, and the end result was quite amusing. Due to a misunderstanding with the professor, I obligated myself to creating a handout, despite the informality of the debate, resulting in a clear mismatch between my Spanish competitor and me. Basically, she spoke for 5 minutes, while I stuttered out 25 minutes worth of arguments in front of the class and came in with a very detailed handout. Ah, but embarrassment is short-lived – I am glad I went through that process! Right now, I´m in the process of an interesting research project at HIPC initiatives – a great opportunity to apply empirical analysis to probe the legitimacy of debt cancellation critiques.

 

  1. Housing Situation – Some of you have heard horror stories of my discontent. In short, I´m trying to minimize the amount of time I spend at home. Despite all that is going on, I am extraordinarily homesick. In general, Spanish culture does not bode well with me. Moreover, I find the typical Spaniard abrasive (certainly, there are many notable exceptions to this rule). In addition, I find the Spanish university library system dismal – not only is a student restricted from browsing the stacks, but he or she has to fill out a form with a book request that may take up to three days to process, and even worse, can only check out a maximum of three books for a total of eight days. With such a miserly system, how the heck am I supposed to create quality research (ah, Lauren can attest to how many books I check out for a paper)! (Or, how is the university able to sustain research!) The library that I can physically browse is literally HALF the size of a typical Huntsman Hall medium size classroom, accommodating only three computers, three shelves of encyclopaedias, and a large front desk for book requests.

 

Since my morale often plummets, please send me e-mails and letters!

Wednesday October 11, 2006

October 11, 2006 - 3:00 pm 3 Comments

Ah, what a travesty…I´m off to Portugal. I need to work 25 hours each week…that is quite a bit considering my classes!

 

Iraqi Dead May Total 600,000, Study Says

BAGHDAD, Oct. 10 — A team of American and Iraqi public health researchers has estimated that 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since the 2003 American invasion, the highest estimate ever for the toll of the war here.

The figure breaks down to about 15,000 violent deaths a month, a number that is quadruple the one for July given by Iraqi government hospitals and the morgue in Baghdad and published last month in a United Nations report in Iraq. That month was the highest for Iraqi civilian deaths since the American invasion.

But it is an estimate and not a precise count, and researchers acknowledged a margin of error that ranged from 426,369 to 793,663 deaths.

It is the second study by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It uses samples of casualties from Iraqi households to extrapolate an overall figure of 601,027 Iraqis dead from violence between March 2003 and July 2006.

The findings of the previous study, published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, in 2004, had been criticized as high, in part because of its relatively narrow sampling of about 1,000 families, and because it carried a large margin of error.

The new study is more representative, its researchers said, and the sampling is broader: it surveyed 1,849 Iraqi families in 47 different neighborhoods across Iraq. The selection of geographical areas in 18 regions across Iraq was based on population size, not on the level of violence, they said.

The study comes at a sensitive time for the Iraqi government, which is under pressure from American officials to take action against militias driving the sectarian killings.

In the last week of September, the government barred the central morgue in Baghdad and the Health Ministry — the two main sources of information for civilian deaths — from releasing figures to the news media. Now, only the government is allowed to release figures. It has not provided statistics for September, though a spokesman said Tuesday that it would.

The American military has disputed the Iraqi figures, saying that they are far higher than the actual number of deaths from the insurgency and sectarian violence, in part because they include natural deaths and deaths from ordinary crime, like domestic violence.

But the military has not released figures of its own, giving only percentage comparisons. For example, it cited a 46 percent drop in the murder rate in Baghdad in August from July as evidence of the success of its recent sweeps. At a briefing on Monday, the military’s spokesman declined to characterize the change for September.

The military has released rough counts of average numbers of Iraqis killed and wounded in a quarterly accounting report mandated by Congress. In the report, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” daily averages of dead and wounded Iraqi civilians, soldiers and police officers rose from 26 a day in 2004 to almost 120 a day in August 2006.

The study uses a method similar to that employed in estimates of casualty figures in other conflict areas like Darfur and Congo. It sought to measure the number of deaths that occurred as a result of the war.

It argues that absolute numbers of dead, like morgue figures, could not give a full picture of the “burden of conflict on an entire population,” because they were often incomplete.

The mortality rate before the American invasion was about 5.5 people per 1,000 per year, the study found. That rate rose to 19.8 deaths per 1,000 people in the year ending in June.

Gunshots were the largest cause of death, the study said, at 56 percent of all violent deaths, while car bombs accounted for about 13 percent. Deaths caused by the American military declined as an overall percentage from March 2003 to June 2006.

Violent deaths have soared since the American invasion, but the rise is in part a matter of spotty statistical history. Under Saddam Hussein, the state had a monopoly on killing, and the deaths of thousands of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds that it caused were never counted.

While the near collapse of the Iraqi state makes precise record-keeping difficult, authorities have made considerable progress toward tracking death figures. In 2004, when the Johns Hopkins study was first released, authorities were still compiling deaths on an ad hoc basis. But by this year, they were being provided regularly.

Iraqi authorities say morgue counts are more accurate than is generally thought. Iraqis prefer to bury their dead immediately, and hurry bodies of loved ones to plots near mosques or, in the case of Shiites, in sacred burial sites. Even so, they have strong incentives to register the death with a central morgue or hospital in order to obtain a death certificate, required at highway checkpoints, by cemetery workers, and for government pensions. Death certificates are counted in the statistics kept by morgues around the country.

The most recent United Nations figure, 3,009 Iraqis killed in violence across the country in August, was compiled by statistics from Baghdad’s central morgue, and from hospitals and morgues countrywide. It assumes a daily rate of about 97.

The figure is not exhaustive. A police official at Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he had seen nationwide counts provided to the hospital that indicated as many as 200 people a day were dying.

Gilbert Burnham, the principle author of the study, said the figures showed an increase of deaths over time that was similar to that of another civilian casualty project, Iraq Body Count, which collates deaths reported in the news media, and even to that of the military. But even Iraq Body Count puts the maximum number of deaths at just short of 49,000.

As far as skepticism about the death count, he said that counts made by journalists and others focused disproportionately on Baghdad, and that death rates were higher elsewhere.

“We found deaths all over the country,” he said. Baghdad was an area of medium violence in the country, he said. The provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin, north of Baghdad, and Anbar to the west, all had higher death rates than the capital.

Statistics experts in the United States who were able to review the study said the methods used by the interviewers looked legitimate.

Robert Blendon, director of the Harvard Program on Public Opinion and Health and Social Policy, said interviewing urban dwellers chosen at random was “the best of what you can expect in a war zone.”

But he said the number of deaths in the families interviewed — 547 in the post-invasion period versus 82 in a similar period before the invasion — was too few to extrapolate up to more than 600,000 deaths across the country.

Donald Berry, chairman of biostatistics at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, was even more troubled by the study, which he said had “a tone of accuracy that’s just inappropriate.”

Sabrina Tavernise reported from Baghdad, and Donald G. McNeil Jr. from New York.

Thursday October 5, 2006

October 5, 2006 - 2:11 pm 4 Comments

So much has happened recently! I’m beginning to get settled in, though sadly, only 3 out of my 5 classes actually met this week, leaving little maneuvering capacity before the end of the add-drop period. Despite my lack of confidence in my Spanish speaking ability, I maintained an active learning stance in my classes, volunteering my opinion despite initial language barriers. For me, that familiar sense of engagement broke through my remaining doubts of insufficiency. In less eloquent terms, after embarrassing myself once, all posterior  chagrins lose their novelty. In particular, I really like my “International Economic Organizations” class – I look forward to the debates to come when we broach the subjects of IMF transparency, HIPC debt relief, World Bank/IMF austerity programs, and of course, the ubiquitously polemic structural adjustment programs that come attached to loan packages.

Good news! I am now a student scholar / grant recipient of the Nantik Lum foundation (www.nantiklum.org) – one of Spain’s few microfinance institutions. Most of my work will be centering on preparing materials for a microfinance conference in December, supervising a translation project of the group’s research publications, and continuing my own social impact research with their data sets from Chiapas and the Dominican Republic. I am so lucky to get this position…the reference came from a Professor at ICADE who I just happened to bump into when I inquired as to why the microfinance course this semester got canceled. (Turns out, he was also the professor of the course and the director of the microfinance research program at the university.) Upon following up with him, not only did he recommend an alternative seminar (“Business in the Developing World”), but he also put me in contact with Nantik Lum’s Director – his close associate. To me, the small amount of grant money I receive is nothing compared to the elation of discovering that being in Spain does not necessitate the sacrifice of my research / advocacy interests on campus.

In addition, I’m continuing with debate, competing in Spanish, but helping the director organize a debate for Spanish students in English about Democrats vs. Republicans in reference to the elections. I went to the first debate meeting yesterday, and was completely stupefied by the chaos. Although there were no more than fifteen people at the meeting, the small room rang with the passionate opinions of the Spanish students who disagreed on even the most minute of subjects. (I already thought debaters were highly opinionated in the US. Imagine exponentiating that natural proclivity to argue/critically reason of debaters with the heritage of Mediterranean vehemence and fervor!) The meeting dragged on for quite a long time – the very polite director (a natural orator, speaks perfect English with a British accent) chose not to interrupt the flow of conversation that involved nearly always more than 2 speakers at once.

Life is settling, but I still miss my family and friends desperately. Tomorrow, I’m off to Toledo with the rest of the Penn students!

Monday October 2, 2006

October 2, 2006 - 2:09 pm 2 Comments

10/2/2006

First day of classes…quite a slew of new epiphanies and e-mails. I had an interview today with the Club of Madrid (http://www.clubmadrid.org/cmadrid/index.php?id=1) — hopefully, I’ll be able to start volunteer work with them soon. Moreover, upon the recommendation of a professor who directs microfinance research at ICADE, I contacted a microfinance institution here in Madrid, and anxiously await a response. I also spoke to the director of the extracurricular programs here, and signed up for the debate club (though it was clearly conveyed to him that there is much on my Spanish oratory that needs to be improved before I get thrown into competitions).

As for classes, to be honest, I’m petrified. Although I understood the majority of what the professors said today since no specialized material was covered, I know that the upcoming weeks will be very challenging. Moreover, since I clearly understand a bit less than everyone else (I miss the jokes, the nuances, and some phrases), I am most discomfited at times. Even worse, there is so much I want to ask/say/comment on, but there is no way for me to translate some of the more specialized English vocabulary into Spanish. All of this culminates into a tenacious frustration – the aggravating sentiment of being forcefully silenced.

The professors appear nice, though I’ve only seen 2/5. Participation and oral presentations matter a lot, and final exams alone count for an average of 60-70% of each class. I’ll have a 25 page paper due in my class on International Economic Organizations (World Bank, IMF, WTO, etc.), but I’m looking forward to doing research and developing my own hypothesis. As for my Economy of the European Union class, there is quite a bit of groupwork involved (random groups with randomly assigned topics), which instills a simultaneous sense of excitement and fear.

My living situation has changed too. The house is now teeming with people – two girls from the US (one from Michigan Southeast?, the other from UCLA) who will study at the Complutense, one Spanish girl from Andalucia who studies engineering at ICAI, and an older Spanish man from the Canary Islands who is pursuing an MBA. Dinner is now a lively affair, a far cry from the rather solemn and impersonal dinners from just a few days ago. I think the senora of the house finds me a rather humorous topic of conversation…ah, she makes fun of me quite a bit, but it’s all in good humor!

EDIT: Calling my mobile on Skype is very expensive. Don’t do it! But calling me on my lan line is very inexpensive (*hint* GRACE)