Home » Arts and Science in the WorldFall 2011

Bridges to Bangladesh

by Joanne Lamphere Beckham, BA’62 No Comment

Traditional fishing nets, Meghna River in northeastern Bangladesh.

Mention Bangladesh and images of poverty, famine and environmental disaster might come to mind. That’s only half the story, says Steve Goodbred, associate professor of Earth and environmental sciences.

“Bangladesh is a land of superlatives,” Goodbred says. “It has big rivers draining big mountains [the Himalayas], a big climate, the world’s largest river delta and lots of people. We have a lot to learn from them.”

Vanderbilt and its College of Arts and Science agree. Scholars from Earth and environmental sciences, political science, sociology and religious studies have joined forces with colleagues from the School of Engineering and the Owen Graduate School of Management to study Bangladesh and its people.

Above, top: A typical street in the Sadarghat area of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh. Above, bottom: River dweller life—marketing, ferrying, hauling by water—on the Buriganga.

Why all the interest? “Bangladesh mirrors problems the rest of the world will be facing in the next century,” says Professor and Chair of Religious Studies Tony K. Stewart , who has studied the literature and religion of Bangladesh for 35 years. “They are developing innovative solutions to problems of overpopulation, poverty, rising sea levels, coastal flooding and cyclones through a creative synergy between their traditional culture and the use of modern technology.”

Stewart’s expertise includes several fellowships in that country, including a recent Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Fellowship. He is also the founder and director of the Bangla Language Institute at Bangladesh’s Independent University. Stewart recently joined the College of Arts and Science from North Carolina State University in a move that will increase Vanderbilt’s scholarship in South Asian studies.

Environment, Politics and People Intertwined

With a population of 162 million people—about half the size of the United States—crammed into an area roughly the size of Iowa, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Its Muslim majority has existed in relative peace and harmony with a Hindu minority for centuries. And while the country is currently stable, the potential for conflict stemming from environmental stresses exists, Goodbred says.

“Natural disasters and environmental change can cause political instability,” says Goodbred, who has been studying the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta for more than 15 years.

“Bangladesh has flooding, river migration, arsenic-contaminated groundwater, climate change, tectonic activity, earthquakes, cyclones and sea-level rise—it is a dynamic region,” he notes. “We’re trying to understand when, where and at what magnitude populations migrate in this area. Where’s the tipping point at which large numbers of people migrate and strain other cities and countries? Can we anticipate migrations and limit potential damage through advanced preparation?”

Impressed by the interdisciplinary nature and quality of research being done at Vanderbilt, in part through the Institute for Energy and Environment, the U.S. Department of Defense recently awarded Goodbred and his team $7 million to study the impact of climate and environmental change on human migration patterns in Bangladesh. The team includes Professors David Furbish and John Ayers and Associate Professor Jonathan Gilligan, all from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Associate Professor of Political Science Brooke Ackerly; Professor of Sociology Katharine Donato, and engineering colleagues George Hornberger, University Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth and Environmental Science, and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Mark Abkowitz. The five-year grant is a multidisciplinary university research initiative with Columbia University under the Office of Naval Research.

Far-flung Field Study

In spring 2010, university funds allowed Goodbred, Ackerly and Gilligan to take a class of 15 graduate and undergraduate students to Bangladesh to study water resources and water-related hazards, their impact on the population and possible solutions. The Arts and Science, Engineering and Peabody students were enrolled in a transdisciplinary seminar on “Water and Social Justice in Bangladesh” [see “Active Earth” in the fall 2010 issue of Arts and Science magazine].

“Bangladesh mirrors problems the rest of the world will be facing in the next century.”

—Tony K. Stewart, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies

“Vanderbilt’s investment in that course put us in a position to secure the DoD grant,” Goodbred says, as well as a $1.1 million National Science Foundation award that will enable him to take classes to Bangladesh in 2012 and 2014.

The interdisciplinary culture of the College of Arts and Science helps scholars better understand the dynamics of complicated problems by bringing together teams with varied expertise, Goodbred notes. “We can engage each other to answer complex questions and our students get to sit in the middle of that process.”

Political scientist Ackerly, who studies injustices associated with natural disasters, agrees: “We are teaching students from various disciplines to approach these questions informed by a broader view.”

A Different Perspective

In March 2011, then-junior Haley Briel traveled to Bangladesh with Goodbred to study the Brahmaputra River. The Earth and environmental sciences major continued her research on campus this past summer, supported by the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Summer Research Program.

“Meeting the exceedingly generous and curious Bengali population gave my academic studies a new sense of enthusiasm and purpose,” Briel says. “To meet literally hundreds of Bengali people, all with so little, but willing to give so much, was a truly touching experience.”

That is exactly what Goodbred hopes his students will take away from their experience. “We need to educate our students and get them to foreign places to give them a different perspective,” he says. “Our goal is to prepare the next generation of students to give service in the international arena.”

photo credit: Tony K. Stewart

Comments are closed.