(June 29, 2015)

Students embark on multi-disciplinary coursework in Argentina

SHREVEPORT, LA — "Another religion cattle biology class?" joked Dean of Students Mark Miller upon hearing about the cross-disciplinary May Module course in Argentina this summer.

students in argentina
Students reinterpret the "Saturnalia" sculpture in the Buenos Aires Botanical Garden

Led by Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Dr. Spencer Dew and Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Cristina Caldari, the new Religious & Biological Diversity in Buenos Aires & Patagonia module stitched together biology and religion so that students could experience the ways in which religious communities use scientific discourse.

Students learned about endemic Argentinian species, like the Patagonian Mara, while visiting a zoological park and a biopark dedicated to raising awareness of animal and plant biopreservation. They were also able to tour beef and dairy cattle farms, where they learned about cattle ranching and dairy farming in Argentina, focusing on the processes utilized to maximize livestock production efficiency and the pastures used for grazing. The group learned about the process of breeding cattle, their life cycles, crop management, and the differences in beef and dairy cattle husbandry. During a "Day as a Gaucho" the module participants heard from a real gaucho (a cowboy of the South American plains), milked cows, rode horses, and herded and sorted cattle on horse and by foot.

"The highlight of the Biology portion of the trip was the visit to the INTA (Instituto Nacional the Tecnologia Agropecuaria), Argentina's National Institute of Agrobusiness Technology," said Caldari. "At INTA we met Isa, a transgenic cow that has two human genes that code for proteins found in human milk; lactoferrin and lysozyme. Isa was cloned, and the two trans-genes were introduced into her DNA before the cloning process. We learned about the process utilized to create the vector containing the two trans-genes as well as the cloning process. Isa is the only transgenic animal with two trans-genes."

day as a gaucho
Students get ready for the "Day as a Gaucho" in Argentina

During their agribusiness study, Caldari and the students discussed how the beef industry is optimizing cattle growth through the help of science. Farmers are pouring funding into their herds to remain a chief exporter of beef. Their techniques not only yield higher quantity of cattle but also incredible quality.

Such biological advances are causing faith communities to ask new questions about science and ethics.

"Isa has so many different upsides, but also draws a lot more controversy than one would think," said rising senior Erick Norem '16. "She can produce human breast milk at the rate of a normal Jersey cow (21 liters per day). Breast milk provides all the regular nutrients and can even be consumed by people with lactose intolerance. However, getting too close to 'playing God' scares a lot of people."

To dig deeper into the spirituality of Argentina, Dew gave students the opportunity to engage with different religious communities, such as a chanting ceremony with the Nanzenji community. Following the ceremony, Dew and the students received two books from the Soto Zen monk and director of the Nanzenji Association, the Venerable Senpo Oshiro. The pieces were a Spanish-language copy of sutras recited in Zen practice matching those used by the Nanzenji community and a copy of the commemorative volume chronicling the history of Soto Zen in South America for its first 110 years.

book ceremony
Students and faculty member Dr. Spencer Dew who explored Argentina on May Module present a gift from their travels to Magale Library.

"I have always enjoyed learning about other religious communities, but seeing them in person and participating in some of their practices took it to a whole new level," said Amber Smith '17. "I definitely feel more well rounded as an individual after getting to experience the meditation ceremony."

Students learned about the negative impacts of religious intolerance from Oshiro and other faith leaders during these appointments.

"One of the things that I really took away was seeing the interaction played between religion and politics," said Norem. "I watched a government scrutinize those who did not actively agree with its religious beliefs. I really grew a sense of appreciation for having grown up in a society that has had religious freedom established since 1791."

Participants also developed admiration for the relationship-centered nature of the culture. Chris Berrios '17 was born in Houston but lived in Honduras for six years with his family and found the two countries to have many similarities.

"The way of life in both countries is very simple," said Berrios. "People don't have too much, but they enjoy life to the fullest and appreciate all the little things. Argentinians and Hondurans are very open and like to engage in conversation and get to really know you."

Dew praised the group of students for taking advantage of every moment of the course and actively engaging with natives and other travelers alike. One of Berrios's most precious memories is spending time with new fast friends and his Centenary peers at a cookout at their hostel.

"It was just such a beautiful experience to sit down with a group of people from so many countries and have a meal," said Berrios. "We were talking like we had been friends forever. I will never forget that night."

For many students, Argentina opened their eyes to mass transit, art museums, and life in a major metropolitan area. Inside and out of class, the students plunged into their adventure head on and discovered how crucial experiential learning is to their education.

"I think traveling is a critical part of the education experience, said Norem. "Going out of one's comfort zone and immersing one's self in a different culture is what separates a Centenary education from the rest. Education is not truly effective unless it changes the way one views the world. I can't thank Dr. Dew and Dr. Caldari enough for all the hard work that they did planning and executing trip. They opened my eyes to a whole new part of the world."