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Calling Cambodia home

Sachs family

In July 2009, Roseann Sachs, chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, prepared her home in central Pennsylvania for renters and packed up her family for a year-long adventure in Cambodia where she spent her sabbatical doing research and teaching at The Royal University of Phnom Penh.

From navigating a busy city, to learning the language, to coping with a scary medical situation involving her oldest daughter, it was a year of unbelievable opportunities and challenges for this family of five.

Bound for Cambodia

Roseann’s original goals for her sabbatical experience were simple – travel internationally to some place in need of a chemist to enhance her professional career while also helping her family have an enriching experience abroad.  Roseann contacted Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) for advice, and they recommended Cambodia. As a country still undergoing industrial development, MCC thought Cambodia would be an excellent fit for a chemist interested and skilled in “green chemistry,” a field that seeks to reduce the use and generation of hazardous substances in all phases of chemical production.

The Royal University of Phnom Penh enrolls nearly 9,000 students. Roseann spent much of the first half of the year inventorying supplies, meeting and earning the trust of colleagues, and learning the Khmer language.

Meanwhile her children, ages 14, 12, and 9 at the time, were enrolled at Logos International School, and her husband Ron taught English at a Christian drop-in center. The Sachs family got used to zipping around busy Phnom Penh on the back of a motor bike or by using public transportation. They explored the Cambodian countryside and really began falling in love with their temporary home away from home.

Sachs in classroom

International Messiah community rallies

“We had been in Cambodia for about five weeks,” Roseann recounts, “when my oldest daughter’s left knee became swollen and painful.” They became concerned several days later when Janaya came down with a fever. After several unsuccessful attempts to have the knee cared for in Cambodia, Roseann traveled with Janaya to Bangkok for additional medical treatment. Janaya was diagnosed with septic arthritis and spent two weeks in a Bangkok hospital – her mother by her side the whole time.

During their time in Thailand, Roseann and her daughter were cared for by members of the Messiah community. Cindy Blount, the admissions representative responsible for international recruitment, happened to be in Asia and stopped at the hospital twice, bringing much-appreciated groceries and other goodies, Roseann said. For a second medical opinion, Roseann used Skype to talk with faculty in Messiah’s nursing department.  In addition, one of Roseann’s student advisees is from Thailand, and his parents visited several times to pray with and encourage Roseann and her daughter.

Thankfully Janaya made a full recovery and seems to have no long-term effects from the illness.

Change of plans

Upon returning to the university after New Year’s break, Roseann was asked to teach a third-year chemistry class. This provided an excellent opportunity for her to develop a green chemistry course, so she set about preparing lecture and lab materials for her students. Having found that many chemicals at the university were old or uninventoried, Roseann first assigned her students to inventory every chemical and assign and label them with their primary hazard code. The class then performed some additional experiments, including making biodiesel, recycling plastics, and running chemical reactions using Cambodian vegetables as reagents.

Roseann really enjoyed developing and teaching the course.  She challenged her students to think and write independently, a new concept for many in the class. Since cheating is so common in the Cambodian education system, it is not unusual for students to turn in exactly the same papers and labs.  A young Cambodian faculty member also worked alongside Roseann so that she could take over the course once Roseann had returned homeSachs on bike.

Roseann also worked with a senior thesis student, Socheat Thong, on a project “Vegetables as Biocatalysts for Oxidation and Reduction Reactions,” an experiment with locally grown fruits and vegetables as catalysts for oxidation and reduction reactions.

Going back

Despite this challenging start, the Sachs family reflects on their Cambodia experience with enthusiasm and appreciation. The experience was so positive, Roseann said, that her children were reluctant to leave.

Roseann remains in contact with the other educators she met while in Cambodia, and she also hopes to return. She is planning to lead a cross-cultural course there in January 2012.

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