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September 10, 2006

Life experiences help us learn meaning of quality

Quality. It is a word whose definition is unique to all of us. All of us should go on, metaphorically speaking, a motorcycle ride in search of Quality, a message that I took from Robert Pirsig's book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

As a result of hard work, luck and much support from friends and family, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to explore Quality while I conduct research in Chile.

Chile is situated between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean in the southern half of South America. The country stretches 2,700 miles in the north-south direction, equivalent to the distance between Los Angeles and New York, but is only 150 miles across at its widest point. As a result of this geography, Chile spans many climates and has amazing ecological diversity, allowing for interesting biological research. Additionally, the Chilean culture is diverse, with people living in the arid north and within striking distance of Antarctica in the south. Chile's recent political history is both tragic and hopeful. On Sept. 11, 1973, a Central Intelligence Agency backed military coup against Salvador Allende's popular Socialist government propelled Augusto Pinochet into power. After 16 years of ruthless dictatorship, Chile became a republic again in the early 1990s.

Today, Chile has a freely elected government led by a female president who, ironically, belongs to the Socialist party. Chile's free-market economy, fueled primarily by foreign investment in its seemingly unlimited copper industry, arguably has become the strongest in South America.

My Chilean experience began in June 2005, when I used Howard Hughes Medical Institute funding to travel to Chile — "Zen" in hand — to study the sociality of the degu (a rodent) with two University of Louisiana at Monroe students. In 2006, I returned to Chile with three students, with ULM funding and the knowledge that the National Science Foundation would support the project in the coming years.

Most of our time was spent monitoring degu social groups at a field site 12 miles outside Santiago. Based on the data we collected, my students and I are now writing scientific papers that will lead to a better understanding of mammalian sociality. This experience will make them more competitive for graduate programs and biology jobs. Even more important, I hope that, like me, my students learned something about Quality as a result of their experience.

My own Chilean experience has been filled with enjoyable moments of Quality. On off days, I often walk in Santiago, visiting the city's old buildings, monuments, museums and shops. Sometimes, I find myself reading graffiti targeted at world "leaders" and engaging in political discussions with my English-speaking friends, developing an understanding of a "Chilean" perspective. I enjoy the weekends, a time when I can see entire families spending hours together in the many city parks and outdoor markets.

But, the most rewarding moments of Quality occurred as I watched three people with very different backgrounds — a Chilean field assistant, a ULM student from Louisiana and my fiancée, who hails from New York all marveling at the snow-capped peaks at our study site in the Andes Mountains, some 200 miles north of Santiago. During those moments, I experienced what I had long told myself was a critical component of Quality — giving people opportunities to learn about other cultures and countries.

Some of our experiences were not pleasant. Tucked in a valley between two mountain ranges and lacking environmental laws, Santiago has air pollution matched only by a few other cities. The lack of apparent driving rules coupled with the aggressive "Micros" bus drivers make driving in Santiago a maddening experience. As "gringos," we are often the target of people asking for money, reminding us that poverty is a major problem in Chile.

Language barriers and cultural differences present additional challenges. Imagine the challenge of explaining a problem to someone in broken Spanish or ordering what looks like a traditional beef dish for dinner, only to receive a plate full of cow intestine. While frustrating, being a minority, seeing poverty and struggling to communicate are beneficial experiences because they humble us and promote introspection, pathways to a better understanding of Quality.

Originally, my Chilean experience started because I wanted to study the sociality of an interesting rodent. The experience transformed into an opportunity to explore my own definition of Quality through scientific research, cultural study and introspection.

I am fortunate enough to share this experience with my students. But, I can never fully explain what Quality means to them, just as the reader cannot fully comprehend what Quality means to me. Sometimes, understanding Quality requires that we learn a new language, spend time with family, help out someone in need or take a walk. Regardless of how we approach it, each of us has to discern what Quality means for ourselves. For me, the search for Quality requires the occasional motorcycle ride in Chile.

LOREN DONALD HAYES, Ph.D., is assistant professor of biology at ULM. He can be reached at

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