Erin’s Adventure in Asia: Ten Weeks of Firsts

Oct. 25, 2011

Erin Clair, a senior in the University of Arizona Honors College, will forever remember the first time she gazed at a Tibetan mountaintop monastery. She will remember making camp in the snow at 17,000 feet and sleeping in a tent in 20 degree weather. She will recollect the 26-hour train ride between the Tibet Autonomous Region and China.

And while they might not be her favorite firsts from the summer of 2011, she will also remember tasting goat. And sheep. And yak.

Clair, who is on the cusp of completing her dual Bachelor of Science degrees in anthropology and physiology, now carries these memories and many more to last a lifetime. Prior to June, having grown up in Glendale, Arizona, Clair had ventured as far as Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. But this past summer, she spent ten weeks studying in Asia. Her odyssey took her from Tibet to other areas of China and to Mongolia.  Everywhere she went and everything she experienced (and tasted) added not only to the honors thesis she is writing, but to her personal album of lifetime eye-openers as well.

“I was Valedictorian of my high school and applied to a number of Ivy League schools,” she says about her decision to come to the UA. Clair considered moving further away from home and attending college on the east coast or in the Midwest. “I was awarded a Wildcat scholarship to come to the UA, and I found I could achieve my goals, not break the bank for my parents or put myself in debt before I even apply to graduate school. I knew I made the right choice coming to the UA.”

As a child, Erin wanted to be an archaeologist, so when offered the chance to travel to Asia and study the movement of early humans with John Olsen, Ph.D., UA regents’ professor of anthropology, she jumped at the opportunity. While she loves her coursework, Clair knew that if she really wanted to extend her education, she needed to get out of her comfort zone and out of the classroom.

“Class is where you need to do well,” she says, “but the experiences outside are where you really learn.”

Into the Asia Experience

Throughout her travels, Clair experienced the East in its entirety, from the cleanliness of the executive boardroom to the dirt and dust of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Starting in Beijing, China, in late May, her group traveled to Chengdu where they met up with a team from the UA’s department of geosciences. From there, it was 25 days in Tibet, twelve of which were spent doing work on active archaeological sites.

“We conducted field surveys, analyzing ceramics and additional artifacts that I can incorporate into my studies this year,” she says.

In Mongolia, Clair and Olsen met with Sustainability East Asia, an Australian company which does consulting work for the Mongolian government on matters of environmental policy. They traveled to the Oyu Tolgoi mine in the Gobi Desert, one of the largest open-pit gold and copper mines in the world and a site where Olsen and Jeffrey Altschul, Ph.D., founder of Tucson-based Statistical Research, Inc., have helped develop strategies to conserve Mongolian cultural heritage. Currently under construction and scheduled to begin production in 2012, Oyu Tolgoi is expected to account for more than 30% of the country’s gross domestic product when it becomes operational.

“The towns are losing aspects of their heritage. They’re wearing jeans and forgetting traditional blacksmithing crafts. They’re not singing,” Clair says. “Their cultural heritage plan is to build museums and centers where people can visit, learn and preserve their heritage.”

Working alongside the mining operations, various companies and the government are investing in archaeological studies in the area. Clair had the opportunity to visit sites near the mine where teams have unearthed 169 bodies dating back to the Mongolian Medieval Period, about 700 years ago – sites that in a few short months will be transformed into a 400-square kilometer gold and copper mine.

“We’d go out there every day and they’d be uncovering new burial sites. With how big the mining machines are, these sites would be totally lost or ruined.”

Lessons for Life

Aside from the academic lessons learned, Clair also got a taste of more than the local fare. She experienced what it’s like to have to problem-solve quickly, on her own, half-a-world away from home.

“It’s kind of a funny story,” she remembers, “I had the chance to ride the highest train in the world in Tibet.”

She had bought a knife for her twin brother and fellow UA student, Sean, which security officials found during a routine check before she boarded the train. As a result, she had to unpack her bags in the rain for further inspection. During that process, Clair misplaced her passport.

Luckily, her professor had been conversing with a friendly Tibetan railroad official in Mandarin, who said that everyone else on the team should proceed ahead and that he would help her resolve the issue despite the language barrier.

Clair’s trip coincided with China’s observation of the 60th anniversary of the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet, and all foreigners were being asked to leave Tibet within 15 hours. Her new passport would not arrive for three days.

Even the most calm, level-headed of us might panic in such a situation. But ultimately, Clair’s ability to slow down, consider her options and think with a clear head prevailed.

“I just unloaded all my bags again, finally found my passport, and the railroad official put me on the next train,” she remembers, describing it as a “thrown-in-now-let’s-see-how-you-react” moment.

Olsen saw Clair’s unique strengths come out again and again throughout their travels. "Erin is not just an awesome intellect, but a really nice person to be around, to boot,” he says. “I put her through some pretty rough experiences in Tibet and Mongolia, but she absolutely thrived."

Forward from Today

Today, a few short months after her return to Tucson for the fall semester, Clair has stories to share that could fill volumes. She is taking all this knowledge and life experience forward as she plans her next moves. Starting before her travels and continuing today, Clair volunteers and interns at the University of Arizona Medical Center. She has shadowed pediatric heart surgeon Dr. Michael Teodori, and has spent time in the operating room, scrubbing in for surgeries. It is here where she has discovered her greatest satisfaction and passion: working in the medical field with children.

As amazing as her adventures abroad were, the trip served to solidify her career direction.

“At times this summer I thought how much I miss the OR and the pediatric patients,” she muses. “I realize now that working in the hospital, interacting with kids, being around the surgeons and their support staff is a great fit for me and extremely rewarding. I love the sense of satisfaction and gratification I feel seeing kids smile, achieving that through medicine.”

Today, Clair is keeping her options open and is considering studying to become a surgical physician’s assistant specializing in cardiothoracic surgery. Having now tasted more of what the world has to offer – including yak – she is ready to move ahead with confidence and determination.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” she says. “To see kids this summer who have never left their neighborhoods and farmers who still use yaks to plow their fields, for me it was an eye-opening experience. It made me realize I have so many more options. That’s what the entire college experience has afforded me, and I’m grateful.”

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