When Research Gets Risky

By Adam Glanzman, Managing Photo Editor
Published October 14, 2013

When LSA senior Leah List traveled to Egypt this past summer, she expected to spend two months studying women’s rights, not to witness the largest protest in human history less than two miles from where she was staying.

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In June 2013, tens of thousands of protestors descended upon Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt to both protest and support the new government — the nation’s first democratically elected. Just a month into her program, List and other University students in the country had an option unavailable to most people confronted with the violence that came with the demonstrations — they could leave.

“The night that Morsi was overthrown, they said, ‘Alright that’s it. We’re getting you out of here. You are going to be leaving in the next 48 hours,’ ” List said. “It was a sleepless couple of nights.”

From archaeological digs in Syria to social work in Haiti, researchers from the University of Michigan are working on all continents, even in conflict zones, as a part of academic pursuits.

The risk of encountering regional turmoil while conducting research abroad has not discouraged Michigan students from traveling for research.

Archaeology Prof. Sharon Herbert, the director of the University’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, has been working in Israel since the 1970s and Egypt since the 1980s, and has experienced a fair share of conflicts.

Herbert and her team of University of Michigan and University of Minnesota student-researchers work on an archaeological site called Tel Kedesh, located less than two miles away from the Israeli-Palestinian border. Their team was forced to evacuate Israel in July of 2006, following the commencement of what is now known as the 2006 Lebanon-Hezbollah War.

Rockets launched from Palestine into Israel became commonplace for the researchers at the time. It wasn’t until 4 a.m. or, “normal wake up time,” on July 14, 2006, when Herbert realized that a full-on war had been declared between Israel and the Palestine. She and her co-director had to make quick decisions regarding their tenure in Israel.

“I went into the Wi-Fi spot and started surfing the web to see what was really going on, and that’s when I saw it was a war,” Herbert said. “It wasn’t just ‘ha boom boom,’ they were calling it a war … They were showing the hits in the Galilee and they were kind of circling us.”

Assistant Researcher Sarah Rabe who had just earned her undergraduate degree at the University was working on the architecture of the Tel Kedesh site. She had worked with Herbert since freshmen year, but this was their first experience in the field together.

“Our first thought was that it wasn’t going to last very long and that it was going to be resolved in a couple of days,” Rabe said of the war.

Coincidentally, Herbert and her team were nearing the end of the field season and had just begun their final photographs. Nonetheless, they decided to immediately stop further work and began to store all loose materials and supplies with plans to leave the country within two days.

The team worked day and night over the weekend in order to leave on Monday morning.

“If I hadn’t gone to these digs in Israel every time people thought it was dangerous, I probably never would have gone,” Herbert said. “I’m a pretty good assessor of risk, but there was some luck involved.”


When students are studying or conducting research abroad and a crisis arises, the University will take measures to ensure that the safety of students is not compromised.

List was living in the region of Cairo known as Zamalek, less than two miles away from Tahrir square, where the protests took place this June.

Though List was close to the protests that eventually turned violent, she doesn’t recall feeling unsafe.

“No one was really thinking about us or worrying about us, they were upset with the government, so if there were any building they were attacking, it would be government buildings,” List said.

According to List, Michigan was one of the last universities to evacuate their students from the area. She felt it showed that the University made all efforts possible in order for the students to safely remain in the country. Prof. Geoff Emberling, an assistant research scientist in the Kelsey museum, said the University does a superb job weighing the importance of research in potentially violent regions.

“They have been appropriately cautious in having students and faculty do research in areas of active conflict,” Emberling said. “They have struck a great balance in terms of letting research go on in areas that might seem from the outside to be untouchable,“

John Godfrey, assistant dean of International Education at Rackham Graduate School, described the University’s responsibility to protect its students while simultaneously allowing research to go on as a “balancing act.”

When there is clear and present danger, the University has “to act seriously and quickly,” Godfrey said. “On the other hand, our students of all levels, not just undergraduates, frequently need to go to places that entail a certain element of risk in order to do their research or their professional training.”

Other students and researchers affiliated with the University agree with Emberling and Godfrey. Athena Kolbe is a graduate student studying in Haiti — the island nation that suffered from a deadly earthquake in 2010 and has faced a chlorea epidemic that has killed more than 8,300 people to date, according to The New York Times. Kolbe said one of the main reasons she chose to study at the University was their support of her research.

“I’ve seen how different universities deal with the idea of students working overseas, and I think we’re lucky that we work at a school where they’re realistic about what overseas research is like and willing to work with each student,” Kolbe said.

Godfrey has been instrumental in creating the standards and policies that govern University students who study abroad. These regulations are organized into the international travel registry program, which began in 2002. The University was one of the first academic institutions to have such a program, and other schools have asked for advice toward the development of their own international registries.

“These (evacuation) decisions are always broadly consultative,” Godfrey said. “There’s a gathering of a significant amount of information — from news sources, from the State Department, from people who may be on the ground.”

While many steps are taken before students leave, he emphasized that decisions must be made quickly especially if student lives could be at risk.

“Number one, we look for evidence of immediate risk to individuals … civil violence, unrest or infectious diseases,” Godfrey said. “The second thing we look for is how difficult it might become to remove somebody if the situation deteriorates very quickly, if transportation gets shut down.”

Going abroad elsewhere

Other institutions have recently come under question for their inaction following the recent terrorist attacks in Nairobi, Kenya.

Colin Smith, a junior at Kalamazoo College on the west side of the state, was studying abroad in Nairobi on September 21 when the upscale Westgate Mall was attacked by militants affiliated with al-Shabbab, resulting in the death of 72 people. If it weren’t for a late change of plans, Smith and his host family would have been eating brunch at the very mall where the attacks occurred.

When Smith was informed that there was bloodshed in Nairobi, he immediately contacted his family and friends in the United States to tell them he was safe. Kalamazoo administrators, however, waited three days before contacting the families of the students who were in Nairobi.

“One of the students called the (Center for International Programs at Kalamazoo College) 24 hours after the incident, and initially didn’t get a response, she called again and eventually got an answer,” Smith said. “The CIP officer didn’t even know there was a terrorist attack. This is 24 hours after the event.”

Smith was aware that administrators at Kalamazoo could do very little to tangibly change the situation. But he at least expected the school to recognize a crisis had occurred and inform students about the emergency protocol.

Following the incident, Kalamazoo College released a statement that said “Our last intention was to have them feel like they were abandoned or not cared for by the CIP or the College.”

Difficulties of studying in areas of conflict

When conducting research abroad, students often run into problems that are non-issues in the United States. Charlotte Maxwell-Jones is a University graduate student studying pre-Islamic ceramics in northern Afghanistan.

“Doing research here is different because there aren't resources at every corner like there are at U of M,” Maxwell-Jones said. “Practicalities are sometimes difficult.”

Access to Internet or cell service can be rare and often unreliable, as was exhibited during a Skype interview with Graduate student Jonathon Shaw, who is studying in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Losing the connection for the fifth time, Shaw said, “This is a Congolese reality you’re experiencing.”

Gathering the necessary resources to complete one’s research can also be a difficult task when working in certain regions of the world. Shaw, who is studying the recent history of the DRC, runs into these problems on a regular basis. The country is going through a war that stems from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, according to The New York Times.

“Most of the documents in the region that I’m in have been destroyed in conflict so you end up trying to piece together an archive,” Shaw said. “There aren’t really centers of data right now because of the conflict.”

However, the lack of reliable services and commodities can on some occassions have far more serious implications when the health of a student is involved.

Herbert recalls her closest brush with disaster in Egypt during the First Gulf War. A student on her team developed acute appendicitis and was forced to undergo immediate emergency surgery in a local hospital.

“The doctors are very good, but the facilities are terrible. There was somebody else’s blood on the sheets,” Herbert said. “Before we got in the ambulance I said, ‘I need your mother’s phone number,’ and he looked at me and he knew that I would only use his mother’s number if he died.”

Herbert, who said she is not “a believer,” recalls sitting on the roof of their apartment the previous night and thinking, “God please let him live and I’ll never dig again.”

“I was so scared he was going to die,” she said.

The surgery was a success.

The media’s portrayal of conflict zones

A common sentiment among researchers and students interviewed for this story is that the media often sensationalizes what is going on in areas of the world where there is war or conflict.

“One of the things that really frustrates me when people read the news here is, first of all, it tends to be somewhat overzealous, it has to be dramatic, they want to sell headlines,” said List, who studied in Egypt. “I think people tend to forget that most of the country is just normal people trying to get by, trying to live their normal lives.”

While at times it can certainly be dangerous to conduct research in regions of the world where there is active conflict, Emberling added it’s important to remember that turmoil in a country often does not mean that the safety of an entire nation is compromised.

“Often there is a huge gap between the international media coverage and the perceptions of danger, and the on-the-ground experience of what is actually occurring,” Emberling said.

When students and researchers decide to work in certain regions of the world, they often know from the start that there is the potential for things to go awry. In some cases this means that students may have to be evacuated, as was the case in Egypt this past year. Other circumstances require researchers to learn to work around ongoing conflict, while still furthering their studies.

“Conflict touches the lives of everyone I know in the eastern DRC,” Shaw said. “All of my friends here have lost people close to them because of the war.”

Herbert said students and researchers have the responsibility to continue to conduct research and advance global knowledge.

“You know, you could get killed anywhere,” Herbert said. “I say if you don’t take risks you don’t get anywhere, and I know this is so trite, but you’re giving into the bullies, and I don’t want to do that.”