Thursday, April 9, 2015

Never Again: One LETU Student's Efforts to Rebuild Rwanda

100 days. 1,000,000 dead. It’s been only 21 years since one of the bloodiest events in human history. The Rwandan genocide began swiftly, and in three months, an estimated one million Rwandans were dead.

Rwanda’s ethnic tensions had been high between the Hutu and minority Tutsi communities for decades. Conflict came to a head on the evening of April 6, 1994, when Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and he was killed. While those responsible for the president’s assassination remain unidentified, the extremist Hutus blamed the Tutsi people and the genocide began that night.

Radical Hutus targeted the Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Neighbors killed neighbors, friends killed friends, and husbands killed wives. Citizens reported that the Hutu-run government threatened to kill its own Hutu people if they did not kill the Tutsi themselves.

Charity Mutesi
The murders were brutal, chaotic and constant for over three months. BBC reporter Lindsey Hilsum, in Rwanda at the time, said “I’ve seen some of the most terrible things today that I’ve ever seen. It’s been absolutely horrific.”

Rwandan Charity Mutesi was two years old at the time of the genocide, but it still affects her and millions of others two decades later. She is frank in describing her fellow Rwandans.

“People are still broken.”

Soon after the genocide began, Mutesi, along with her parents and siblings, were among those fortunate enough to escape to nearby Uganda.

“We only know that my uncle died fighting. We don’t know where or even if he’s buried. I wish I’d met him.”

Mutesi and her family returned to Rwanda once it was safe. Two decades later, she is now a business student at LeTourneau University, but more than that, she is an advocate for her country that is now home to an overwhelming population of orphans and widows of the genocide. 

“I have grown up in a country with broken people. There are very, very many orphans and widows. It breaks me seeing people being hopeless,” she said.

And it does break her – there is a distinct urgency in her voice as she explains the plight of the Rwandan people, especially women. Most are unable to find employment and are left destitute.

“To me, I see women being unable to work as being the main reason there’s a lot of poverty. If a woman can work, there can be a lot of change,” she said.

According to Mutesi, many African women have only one option for survival: to get married.

“That’s not what I want for women. I don’t want them to look to a man and say ‘I want a man to be my everything.’ I want husbands and wives to love each other but I also want women to be independent on their own.”

Mutesi took that desire to Senegal, where she interned with the United Nations in December 2014-January 2015. When she was initially told she would be filing and making coffee, she approached her supervisor with a petition to do more extensive work. Her request was granted, and she approached her time there with the goal of furthering independence of women.

During her internship, she traveled to villages to research women’s need for work and met with banks and beneficiaries to study how microfinance institutions could help African women be gainfully employed. At the end of her time there, she presented her findings to the UN.

Her internship was not the beginning of her work to aid victims of the genocide. She spent her youth working with Never Again, a human rights organization born out of response to the genocide that aims to build peace in Rwanda through its citizens. Mutesi was president of the chapter at her school, where she worked to educate young Rwandans about the genocide.

“Our main idea at Never Again was to keep young people from growing up with an ideology of hate. Some youth have too much hate in them; they are broken. We were being an impact on them.”

With Never Again, she also took part in fundraisers for orphanages and spent time with children who were left orphans from the genocide. She recalls one particular girl with fondness: “When we used to go to the orphanage, I would feel like I wasn’t doing enough, so I ‘adopted’ one girl. I worry for her like I’m her mother. I hope to go home soon and see all the girls again.”

Nor was her time at the UN the end of Mutesi’s work for the healing of Rwanda. She is resolute in her plan to use her business degree from LETU to start an organization that will empower women to be independent and propel them out of poverty.

Remembering genocide victims at the Walk to Remember
“I want to start my own orphanage or microfinance institution to help women and orphans. I want to be a voice to people who are helpless. It’s going to be hard, because people are still broken. I’m not sure exactly what path God will lead me to, but I just want Him to use me to help the hopeless.”

Her Excellency Prof. Mathilde
She already has support; during her internship, she made connections with people who want to help her start a microfinance institution. Presently, as a student at LeTourneau University, she recently organized the “Walk to Remember” that was held at LETU’s campus in Longview, Texas, on Saturday, April 11 to commemorate those lost in the genocide. This worldwide event was the first time LETU participated
 and featured Ambassador of the Republic of Rwanda to the U.S., Mathilde Mukantabana, as a speaker.

Rwanda has, for more than 20 years, been a place of suffering, devastated from the genocide for the majority of Mutesi’s existence. Her desire to dedicate her life to help rebuild her home is palpable. When she speaks of Rwanda, it’s indisputable she feels the pain of the genocide victims, but her voice is also full of hope for a restored future. She is that future.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Incredible Explorations: Alumnus Discovers a First in Astronomy History

Dr. Sean Brittain has long had a penchant for new experiences. When he was 18, he ventured halfway across the country, from Virginia Beach to LeTourneau University, for the experience of being somewhere different. He decided to pursue astronomy during graduate school after receiving a  bachelor's in chemistry, a jump between relatively different fields. Now, he’s one of the first individuals in the world to observe and track the formation of a planet.

Brittain, a professor of astronomy and physics in Clemson University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, graduated from LETU in 1997 with a degree in chemical physics. Then, in graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, he made what he refers to as “crazy shift” in areas of study.

He began working with faculty studying the organic chemistry of comets, which morphed into studying the chemistry of disks around young stars. The trajectory of his research did not, however, stop there.

“As projects do,” Brittain said, “our focus started to morph a bit, and my interest became in trying to answer the question: ‘how did the planets themselves form in these disks?’”

He and the Notre Dame faculty took their initial research and applied it to the theory that planets form from the disks around stars. Brittain explains that planets are formed by grain-like material that sticks together, eventually growing into a larger mass – like 'giant dust bunnies'.  

“If they get large enough, they collapse in under their own weight and start sweeping up gas out of the disk and start forming planets," he said. "That’s the idea, at least, but it hadn’t ever been observed before.”

Upon graduating from Notre Dame, Brittain was awarded the two-year postdoctoral Michaelson Fellowship – now called the Sagan Fellowship – with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). There, he continued his studies on disks of stars and monitored his observations long-term. 

NOAO's Gemini telescope
After years of ongoing research, Brittain and his team were given the chance to utilize NOAO’s Gemini telescope in Hawaii, which was no small feat in and of itself. NOAO telescopes are shared by multiple countries due to cost – typically $80-100 million to build one telescope. Not to mention, operation can cost up to six figures per night. In order to gain access to such a limited and sought after resource, research groups must submit proposals for approval to receive the opportunity to use it. Brittain was granted approval on multiple occasions.

Brittain explains how this led to a first in astronomy history, known as HD100546 – the first star to ever be observed forming into a planet:

“We made a hypothesis that this was a planetary-type orbit. By that point, the project had gone on for about a decade. We took our data and, sure enough, we had this gas that’s in a planetary orbit around the star. It turned out to be the size we expect for disks to be forming around planets. This is the first time we’ve been able to see a forming planet. The disk around it will eventually become its moon and, finally, it will be something more massive than Jupiter. It could be anywhere from five to 40 times the mass of Jupiter. It’s going to be a big thing.”

Brittain says this project took the ability to ask questions with confidence or, as he puts it, to “be curious and have that curiosity cultivated.” It’s a quality he says he gained as a student at LeTourneau and credits low student-to-teacher ratio.

“When you have small classes, you get a chance to interact with faculty, and the faculty get a chance to respond to you in a way they wouldn’t if you’re sitting in a lecture hall with 200 other people,” he said.

“I had lots of opportunities to do research early on at LeTourneau, so I came into grad school ready to do hands-on work. I took that with me when I went to Notre Dame, which prepared me to make the shift from chemistry as an undergrad to astrophysics as a PhD student. I had the confidence to do that. Even though I moved to a different area in my PhD program, the skill set that I gained at LeTourneau was extraordinarily valuable.”

Seeing the outcome of HD100546 would be phenomenal. The timeline, however, is currently estimated at one million years for it to become a full-fledged planet. For now, LETU is more than satisfied that one of its own accomplished such an incredible discovery.