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November 18, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 6

Boston College master's degree candidates Timothy O'Connor (left) and Eugene Szymanski during their project in the Republic of Georgia last summer.

Georgia On Their Minds

BC grad students take part in international project

An international geological project in the Caucasus region is giving two Boston College graduate students a valuable education by mixing science with cultural enrichment, business management and diplomacy.

Master's degree candidates Timothy O'Connor and Eugene Szymanski spent part of last summer working in the Republic of Georgia through the Caucasus Seismic Information Network (CauSIN) project. An outgrowth of collaborations between Prof. Emanuel Bombolakis (Geology and Geophysics) and American and Georgian scientific colleagues, CauSIN is intended to help improve seismic analysis in the Caucasus and Central Asia, two areas of high earthquake activity.

The project also could aid underground nuclear test monitoring as well as oil exploration efforts in the region, according to Bombolakis.

For O'Connor and Szymanski - the first American students to work under CauSIN, says Bombolakis - their involvement in CauSIN entailed days of sometimes harrowing travel around the mountains outside the Georgian capital Tblisi, viewing historic sites and learning about Georgians' social customs, including their fervent brand of hospitality.

The budding geoscientists also gained insight into less publicized aspects of international scientific partnerships - namely the economic and political challenges of managing a cooperative venture in a region with a history of volatility above as well as below ground.

"We knew there was going to be a lot more to this project than scientific data, so we made an effort to be as prepared as possible," said O'Connor, a 2004 BC graduate and son of BC Honors Program Director Mark O'Connor. "That part of the world has endured scores of invasions and occupations, and even today is struggling with violence and unrest.

"But it was a great experience for us both. We were treated with such kindness by everyone we met, and we learned so much."

The two credit Bombolakis, part-time Geology and Geophysics faculty member Randolph Martin and Adj. Assoc. Prof. Paul Christensen (Political Science), among others, for helping them gain an understanding of the Caucasus' history and culture.

O'Connor and Szymanski lived in Tblisi, renting an apartment from a "very motherly" woman who cooked them breakfast daily, said Szymanski. Working primarily with Bombolakis, Martin and Shota Adamia, Georgia's former environmental minister who is now a geologist in the local university, the students had the primary task of making an updated and more detailed map of the Kartli Basin area. Using a GPS unit to help ensure greater accuracy, the two took digital photos at specific locations to give their map an interactive element.

"Our study area was in a very exciting location between two convergent thrust fault systems," said Szymanski, a Philadelphia native and graduate of Bloomsburg University. "The rocks we mapped are mostly Miocene in age, approximately eight to 25 million years old. It's a fantastic opportunity for anyone interested in geology."

Adamia, whose agility on the mountain paths belied his 75 years - and often left his American charges lagging behind - sought to broaden the two students' experience by taking them through villages and touring ancient churches and monasteries. On these outings, Szymanski and O'Connor received enthusiastic greetings by villagers, most of whom had never seen an American.

"In one place, Ateni, they had us gather in a group for photos, and afterwards one of the older men grabbed Eugene and me and gave us each a wet kiss on each cheek," recalled O'Connor. "That prompted another man to yell out 'I love the USA!' - probably the only English words he knew."

Some customs took the two aback, such as when Georgian men tapped O'Connor and Szymanski on their throats, "which is apparently the signal for drinks," said O'Connor.

Everywhere they went, Szymanski and O'Connor said, they were amazed by the generosity of the Georgians, who offered fresh bread, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and Georgian wine. "It seems to be a real honor to be considered the 'number 1 host,' so they take great pride in doing all they can to accommodate visitors," said O'Connor.

Bombolakis says CauSIN, whose US participants also include MIT, New England Research Inc. and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has received considerable support from the international scientific community, as well as the US departments of State and Energy, Congress and the European Union. But the success of CauSIN may ultimately rest on factors beyond the realm of science.

One challenge is getting representatives from the nations of the Caucasus to work together, which is no small feat, say O'Connor and Szymanski: These are relatively new independent countries competing for resources in the global marketplace, yet retaining complex attitudes toward one another that have been shaped by decades, even centuries, of regional conflict and upheaval.

Part of the students' responsibility in CauSIN is to communicate with the representatives and keep them apprised of the project's progress, says Szymanski, who along with O'Connor will attend a project workshop in Istanbul this January. "You can't do this over the phone or by e-mail, it has to be in person. Again, it is part of working with a different culture, where there is a lot of importance attached to personal attention. It's where you have to show your ability as a business manager as well as a diplomat."

Whatever the uncertainties ahead, Szymanski, who expects to complete his degree next spring, knows that he and his colleague have experienced something few students can only envision.

"The professional and scientific benefits for us were enormous. But to get know the Georgian people, and to have them be so accepting of us as American visitors - especially at a time when the international political situation has sometimes made it difficult to be an American abroad - was something you take to heart and always remember.

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