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February 15, 2008

Scientist Finds Hope among the Ruins

TsunamiResearch can change worldviews, topple paradigms, bust myths and improve people's lives. It can also be a window into the human spirit, as Elizabeth Frankenberg discovered while studying the psychological impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami that ravaged coastal regions of South East Asia in December of 2004.

Frankenberg, a sociologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and her colleagues began their study in Indonesia a few months after the tsunami left thousands dead and many others homeless. They found that a subset of individuals affected by the catastrophe continued to show symptoms of post traumatic stress more than two years after the event. Last night, on the eve of presenting her findings to conference attendees, Frankenberg told Science how the fieldwork had affected her personally.

"When I started the project, it was very painful to see the devastation first hand--entire families had been wiped out," she says. "But what I saw over repeated field visits to the villages also opened my
eyes to how astonishingly resilient people can be."

On Frankenberg's first visit to a community in Malabo, for example, she saw a sea of rubble. Hardly any homes had been spared. On a recent visit to the town, however, the place seemed to have transformed dramatically: people were settling in and the atmosphere was cheerful, she says. "If you drive through the setting, you see makeshift homes painted in bright colors and flowers in window boxes," says Frankenberg. "It's inspiring to see some of the recoveries that these communities have made."

--Yudhijit Bhattacharjee