Professor Teaches Cambodian Orphans

Program Combines Humanitarian Efforts In Impoverished Areas With Neural Research

Photo: Professor Marian Diamond, center, poses with orphaned students at the Wat Racha Sin Khon monastery. Diamond travels to Cambodia to teach the children every winter.
Marian Diamond/Courtesy
Professor Marian Diamond, center, poses with orphaned students at the Wat Racha Sin Khon monastery. Diamond travels to Cambodia to teach the children every winter.

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UC Berkeley: Research Abroad

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UC Berkeley anatomy professor and neuroscientist Marian Diamond was delighted to learn last Wednesday that two of her students were heading to college-not her UC Berkeley students, but the orphaned children she taught in a poverty-stricken monastery in the forests of Cambodia.

Every winter for the past seven years, Diamond has traveled to the Siem Reap province to work with impoverished children at the Wat Racha Sin Khon monastery as part of a neural development research program called Enrichment in Action.

The orphanage is run by Buddhist monks who took in children after they lost their parents during the Khmer Rouge regime. When Diamond first visited, about 15 children aged 10 to 19 lived in the orphanage.

The orphange has no running water,

electricity or bathrooms. Conditions were very primitive, Diamond said, and the houses only consisted of poles, a floor and a roof.

After witnessing the orphans' poverty and lack of formal education -one was 19 and still in the second grade-Diamond said she felt the children could greatly gain from her help. She teaches English and computer skills to the children in the orphanage.

"I just wanted to see if we could change their environments for the better," she said.

Diamond said the program is also a way to apply the knowledge gained in a lab to benefit humans. Before working in Cambodia, she spent 35 years at UC Berkeley studying the effects of enriched and impoverished environments on rats.

During her research, she found that a more stimulating environment enlarged the rats' brains.

"When we put our rats in enriched environments, we increase the dimensions of the outer layers of the brain, the cerebral cortex. When we put them in impoverished environments, the cortex shrinks," she said.

However, the goal of her lab work was not just to enrich the environments of rats, but to enrich humanity.

"It's wonderful to know that we can enrich rats, but to translate it so humans can benefit from it it's the beauty of transferring it so everybody benefits," Diamond said.

A major difference between working in a lab and working abroad, she said, is the inability to control outside factors.

"There's no way I can have controls," she said. "These are kids who have wandered in from Cambodia to just live in this monastery. And no two kids are alike, no two brains are alike, no two conditions are alike."

When she came to Cambodia, Diamond did not speak the language and was unsure of how to conduct her research. However, she soon met an English-speaking orphan named Chamroen who became her interpreter.

Now Chamroen, 28, and another man who lost his father during the Khmer Rouge regime, teach the children while Diamond is at UC Berkeley. She continues to advise from the U.S.

Diamond added that the news that two of her students would enter college this year truly brought her success home. She worked to fund the orphans' college educations, as well as most of the program, by contacting private donors she met as director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley.

Children in Cambodia are not the only students who benefit from her teaching. Winnie Chao, a fifth-year in Diamond's human anatomy class, praised the professor's passion for interactive lecturing.

"She actually engages you, and wants you to think about what you're learning," Chao said.

Diamond hopes the program will eventually reach a point when the orphans can do all the teaching themselves. Due to UC Berkeley and family obligations, she is unable to return to the program this year, but hopes to go back to see its progress soon.

"To see these young kids that have learned English, learned computers, out in the forest-I mean, it was a dream come true," she said.


Rachel Gross covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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