Women in STEM Work Toward Gender Equality

This article appeared in Wake Forest University’s Old Gold and Black newspaper.

When the #MeToo movement formally started in early 2006, it focused on sexual harassment and assault among women around the globe, but it also opened a door for working professionals from all different backgrounds, disciplines and educational levels to express their dissatisfaction with the climate of gender inequality among their respective fields. Founded and formalized by Vanderbilt Professor BethAnn McLaughlin, the #MeTooSTEM movement provides a digital space for female scientists and mathematicians to share their experiences with gender disparity and harassment, while brainstorming ways to change it.

This virtual community touched the hearts and minds of accomplished women throughout the STEM field at all different professional levels, including Wake Forest Biology Professor Regina Cordy.

“A number of people on social media were raising concerns about gender and ethnic disparities in science,” Cordy said. “This eventually led a group of us young assistant professors to write a letter to the NIH [National Institutes of Health] to address the problem.”

Shortly after this group of professors voiced their concerns, the NIH listened.

In 2018, the NIH formed a working group on changing the culture to end sexual harassment, made up of professors, students, PhD candidates, provosts and Cordy.

The group is charged with identifying the current state of sexual harassment in the STEM field while determining steps that the NIH and other major scientific organizations can take towards improving the working environment for both men and women. They met once in Washington, D.C., this past February and discussed topics on accountability, providing clear channels of communication with the NIH and incorporating victims testimonials into future action.

Awareness and demand for change within STEM recently reached a turning point after the the National Academy of Sciences “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine” report was published last year. Over 300 pages of data, diagrams and references to scientific literature statistically reinforced the presence of gender disparities within the STEM workplace and at universities.

“Scientists trusted this report more because it spoke their language in the form of data and statistics,” Cordy said.

Among other similar studies in the report, the University of Texas system conducted a survey which revealed that 20 percent of female science students, more than a quarter of female engineering students, and more than 40 percent of female medicals students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff. Many universities, including Wake Forest, are starting to crack down on gender inequality within STEM and are making strides towards improving learning environments, but still struggle in some aspects.

“I have been pretty lucky because the Wake Forest Department of Biology is a very inclusive space,” said Stephanie Bilodeau, a Masters student studying marine ecology. “But at times it is difficult to find women as mentors within my field because there are not enough female professors in ecology.”

The biology department has a relatively balanced staff of men and women, including a female department chair, but women in academia are typically warned of the difficulties of obtaining tenure and starting a family.

“You don’t think about it being weird until you have been here for two years and realize you have only been taught by male professors,” said Julia Haines, a senior with a double major in computer science and statistics.

A gender imbalance is not only recognizable among professors in certain faculties, but in the student STEM community, as well. Particularly in the math department, apart from statistics, there is a wide gap between the number of male and female undergraduate majors, with few females enrolled in into upper-level classes each year.

“Growing up in small-town Georgia I had to fight to get into math classes because it was just accepted that the boys would fill them,” said Camille Wixon, a senior math and economics double major.

In her economics classes, Wixon noted how vocal the professors are about wanting more female majors, but data has shown that only 35 percemt of undergraduate economics majors are women, a number that has barely increased since the early 1980s according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. So, the question that many educators and scientists are asking is: how do we fix this?

One of the major problems many students recognized is that women are struggling to find enough female mentors within the field as they work to pursue a STEM career. Without seeing a model of what could happen for a female if she continues with a scientific education, some students lack the ambition or optimism to attempt to achieve a higher position in these careers.

However, clubs on campus like Women in STEM are working hard to provide this mentorship to the next generation. Members of this club visit students at Northwest Middle School in Winston-Salem to show them that studying STEM in higher education is possible for women.

“A lot of rhetoric is thrown around like ‘I like science, but I don’t think I could get there’ or ‘I am not smart enough,’” said Yassmin Shaltout, a junior and president of the Women in STEM club. “We teach them science lessons that are fun and interactive to maintain interest in these younger females.”

The two main goals of this club, and many organizations throughout the United States and Europe, are raising awareness of the problem and providing outreach to help solve it. Although the formalized movement against sexual harassment and gender disparities is relatively new in the STEM field, it is gaining traction within organizations like the NIH that have a wide reach and enough resources to make an impact.

“Women are here. They are doing science. And they are awesome at it,” Shaltout said.

Why Does Vacationing Make You Sick?

This article appeared in Wake Forest University’s Old Gold and Black newspaper.

It is the first week back from spring break and many students are sporting bronzed tans, souvenir t-shirts from foreign countries and, unfortunately, a nasty illness. As fun as traveling is, it can also have a range of negative impacts on the body. If you are one of the students holed up in your bed surrounded by tissues and NyQuil, mournfully scrolling through pictures of your poolside break in Punta Cana, you may be wondering why your body is falling apart.

The first leg of spring break festivities often includes a cross-country plane ride that travels from one time zone to another. The effect of this flight is one that many jet setters are familiar with called jet lag. Symptoms of jet lag include intense exhaustion, indigestion, moodiness and more that are caused by the disruption of your body’s internal clock, driven by something called circadian rhythm. Many of your body’s internal biological processes, from hormone release to sleep, are controlled by a 24-hour timing system roughly based on day and night. When you switch time zones or severely alter your daily routine, your mind and travel plans for the day become desynchronized with your body’s internal clock. With your body and mind at odds along with a weakened immune system, you are easy prey for a host of opportunistic pathogens and annoying illnesses.

The bacteria and pathogens attacking you have to originate somewhere and are often present on the plane itself. According to a 2015 study done by TravelMath, the surface of a plane tray table has approximately eight times more bacteria per square inch than the bathroom flush buttons. As you are enjoying the lukewarm pasta covered in mysterious sauce served by a surly flight attendant, bacteria are proliferating all around you and taking advantage of your weakened immune system to strike. A good way to avoid this cesspool of disease is to use a disinfectant wipe before eating or maybe just wait to eat when you land. 

Unfortunately, communities of bacteria are most likely waiting for you when you land, too, specifically those residing on public transit systems. In London, a country where over 1.3 billion people use the underground transit system known as “the Tube” every year, there are over 121 different bacteria and mold strains growing among the businessmen and women trying to get to work. During the London Under the Microscope project led by London Metropolitan University, researchers found nine bacteria species associated with antibiotic resistance, so it would be smart to always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer.

If you manage to dodge the slew of illnesses lurking on the plane and train, another thing you might have to worry about is the food and water. Several foreign countries have different cooking techniques and water management systems than the United States and your body is not always equipped for the organisms that may hide in the food and water like local populations. Locals already possess a semi-immunity to many of the illnesses that are omnipresent in their community because their bodies developed the antibodies specific to defending against that organism. For an outside visitor, defense systems are not quite as ready for these brands of attack from foreign invaders and may be more susceptible to illness. Some communities in Africa have even adapted and acquired immunity to certain strains of malaria due to consistent exposure to the disease.

Although spring break is filled with fun, sun, and relaxation, it is always important to be aware of the illnesses hiding around the corner. 

The Biological Science Behind Falling in Love

This article appeared in Wake Forest University’s Old Gold and Black newspaper.

As you peruse the sea of written loving sentiments lining the greeting card aisle of Target, trying to decide on the perfect prose to give to your partner for Valentine’s Day, you may be wondering how you got to that point. According to the Hallmark Corporation, approximately 145 million people a year are in the same position as you, buying a card for that special someone. With love in the air, and an influx of Wake Forest couples snatching up reservations downtown for the night of Feb. 14, it is the ideal time to learn more about the science and psychology behind love and attraction.

One of the primary models used to research this complex emotion is a furry little rodent known as the prairie vole. Prairie voles are one of the only species in the animal kingdom that are monogamous and mate for life. When a prairie vole meets it mate, it partakes in a behavior known as pair bonding and will spend the rest its life with its mate, producing offspring and remaining close. This behavior is so unique that scientists have spent their career studying it, especially Dr. Larry Young, from Emory University School of Medicine. Through his studies, Young determined that the reasoning behind this lifelong bond is hormones, specifically oxytocin and vasopressin. 

Female prairie voles will release an excess of oxytocin, which is commonly referred to as “the cuddle hormone,” when they are around their mates while males release vasopressin, another hormone that promotes deep bonds. Unlike other voles, the location of the neuroreceptors for these hormones are located in the brain’s pleasure center.

If you have ever been in love, or seen a pal head over heels for someone, you may be observing signs of obsession. Like prairie voles, humans produce a series of hormones, including oxytocin and vasopressin, which mimic the signs of addiction. These tiny creatures are a useful model for determining some factors involved in monogamy and attraction, but the best model of study are obviously actual humans. 

As a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and the chief scientific advisor to Match.com, Helen Fisher is one of the world’s leading experts on the scientific side of love in humans. During her many studies on this emotion, Fisher determined that love is broken down into three different categories of emotion: lust, attraction and attachment. 

Feelings of lust are typically centered in the brain’s hypothalamus, which produces sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen. Contrary to popular belief, testosterone increases in both males and females when they spot someone who gets them “excited.” In purely biological terms, a human’s primary goal in life is to reproduce and pass on their genes, so lust is a clear component in love. 

Watching people in love can often be as disturbing as it is endearing. Often referred to as “the honeymoon phase,” people in new relationships tend to spend every moment together, occasionally even forgetting to eat or sleep, but there is actually a scientific explanation behind this attraction component. 

When a person is with someone who is giving them constant sexual gratification and companionship, their brain releases a reward in the form of the dopamine hormone. Dopamine is associated with energetic feelings of happiness and is potentially the reason behind a new couple’s nonstop grins. Attraction has also been proven to decrease serotonin, which is involved in both appetite and mood.

One of the most important psychological factors involved in love is attachment. Like the prairie voles, humans in long-term relationships have shown increased levels of oxytocin and vasopressin. The other times these hormones are released in excess are during sex, breast-feeding and childbirth, which are all major bonding moments in life. 

While many use the phrase “follow your heart,” it is actually more likely that the hormones in your brain one driving your relationship decisions.

How Veganism Affects the Body

This article appeared in Wake Forest University’s Old Gold and Black Newspaper.

Whether it be because of religious beliefs, ethical dilemmas or just plain dietary preferences, vegetarianism and veganism are a growing trend throughout the United States. Wake Forest’s campus boasts of its vegan-friendly dining options, being ranked one of the top-10 vegan friendly universities by Insider and contains a significant population of students with a meat-free diet.

No matter what the motivation is behind a vegetarian diet, it is essential to know how this lifestyle choice can affect your body. There are a lot of preconceived notions and general attitudes that go along with vegans, who are often portrayed as some sort of superhuman species, but some of the realities may surprise you in both good and bad ways.

“When I first went vegan I was always super hungry because I didn’t know how to correctly feed myself,” said sophomore Olivia Field.

Field chose to go vegan about six years ago for health reasons, but has continued for so long because of the negative environmental effects caused by the meat industry. She quickly experienced one of the most adverse effects of a vegan diet: a deficiency of several essential vitamins. Without actively searching for the right greens, vegans and vegetarians may lack sufficient Iron, vitamin D and vitamin B-12. Several of these help with cell growth, brain function and making genetic material, which might contribute to an overall sensation of hunger and lethargy. These vitamin deficiencies can cause migraines, loss of bone density, and digestive issues.

“I get frequent headaches and I know I have low iron and protein so I take supplements,” said Anna Bartlow, a senior who continues to give up all red meat after an extended time of vegetarianism.

Many vegetarians also have trouble getting enough zinc in their system. The lack of this mineral may actually be the underlying cause of why a person’s tastes change when they go vegetarian, which was the case with senior Leah Wright.

“It’s weird because now I don’t really have a palate for meat,” said Wright. “I used to love chicken, but now it grosses me out.”

Along with this shift in cravings from chicken nuggets to broccoli florets, Wright experienced an overall sense of “feeling clean.” Initially, going vegetarian might make a person feel bloated because of a switch in the types of protein, but gradually the fiber and bacteria found in plants are typically better for your digestive system. Another plus side of this smoothly running digestive system and enhanced metabolism is a much healthier and deeper sleep.

While you are dreaming about eating all of the vegetables, you can also dream about the clear skin you can get from a vegetarian diet. Vegetables are full of antioxidants, which help to protect skin from sun damage because they prevent free-radicals from reaching your skin cells. Free-radicals are unstable molecules with an unpaired valence electron and can hurt the skin through intensive oxidation.

One of the not-so-dreamy sides of a vegan diet is the increased amount of time it can take to recovery from an active lifestyle. One of the main differences between plant and animal proteins is their amino acid contents. For humans, it is more difficult to break down plant proteins into usable amino acids for critical functions like cell repair, enzyme production and muscle proliferation. Gradually, your body will become more used to these unique proteins, but the easiest way to help with this process is by adding more protein-rich vegetables like beans.

A change in diet does not just affect the body. Several studies have shown that vegetarians report a better mood than non-vegetarians. Although going vegan may not make you superhuman, it can have some beneficial effects, but it is important to know all the facts.

Beer Goggles and Blackouts: The Science Behind Shots

This article appeared in Wake Forest University’s Old Gold and Black Newspaper.

As Wake Forest quickly approaches the end of its regular football season, this also means the end of warm weather, the beginning of all-night finals study sessions and the very last home tailgate. The last home tailgate may simply be a nostalgic and wholesome time for many of you, but for some, it will include the consumption of copious amounts of hard liquor during the unspoken tradition of “Senior Fifth.”

For those of you that don’t subscribe to the concept of “ignorance is bliss,” it might interest you to know what exactly this alcohol is doing to your body when you take that first shot of top-shelf liquor (or more likely a half-hearted sip of Aristocrat vodka).

The main ingredient of most liquors is ethanol, which is both water-soluble and fat-soluble. This means that when the ethanol travels to your stomach, it can be easily diffused into your bloodstream and pop on up to your brain. Some of the alcohol will be metabolized by your liver, but it has a hard time keeping up with the drinking rates of a lot of college students.

Once the ethanol hits the brain, that is when the real effects start kicking in. One of the very first reactions, and often most desired by drinkers, is a quick release of dopamine. Dopamine, also known as the “happiness chemical,” is a neurotransmitter that is typically released during an exciting or fun experience and causes feelings of euphoria. While dopamine is being released, the ethanol is simultaneously increasing the receptiveness of GABA, a chemical that decreases response times and may be the reason you just tripped over your own foot.

How drunk a person gets depends on many different factors: sex, age, size, genetics or even your mood. The more a person drinks, the more tolerance they build up against the effects of alcohol. This is the reason why two people can drink the same amount and one of those people could be in a coma while the other is still dancing to “Mr. Brightside.”

Although the way alcohol is expressed differs from person to person, drinking an entire fifth tends to have the same effects on pretty much anyone.

One of the best detectors of drunkenness levels is your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC), or the percent of ethanol in a person’s bloodstream. The legal limit of driving under the influence is 0.08 percent, but anything above 0.15 percent BAC is when a person typically “blacks out.”

The process of blacking out is when your brain literally does not have the capacity to make any new memories. Along with its other seemingly magical powers, ethanol reduces the effects of a neurotransmitter called glutamate.

Glutamate’s job is to keep you alert and to make new memories through signals sent between nerve cells in the NMDA receptors of your brain that allow glutamate to complete memory function. Contrary to popular belief, brain cells are not destroyed in this process, but they are too weakened to remember the reason why or how you woke up next to a Subway meatball marinara.

Ethanol has the ability to mess with your perception of time, but scientists believe that it can also mess with your perception of attractiveness.

If you have ever been drunk, you might be familiar with the concept of “beer goggles,” which is a term used to describe when someone is sexually attracted to another person who would not otherwise be appealing to them without a little influence from the bottle.

In a study conducted in 2008 published in Perception, researchers tested the ability of subjects to detect symmetry under the influence of alcohol. Many believe that attractiveness is based on the symmetry of a person’s face and subjects in this study had a significantly difficult time determining symmetry, which could explain the phenomenon of this warped perception.

Biology does not only unlock the mystery of beer goggles, it can also explain why you pee every five minutes after drinking alcohol. Alcohol is a diuretic, which is any substance that increases the frequency of urination, so when it is processed by your kidneys it forces you to pee out much more than you can take in. Along with this increase in urine output from diuretics, ethanol decreases the production of vasopressin, a hormone that signals for your kidneys to reabsorb water. Without this signal, all I can say is that I hope you have a bathroom nearby.

For those of you preparing to drink a fifth this Saturday, you are probably also prepared for the inevitable hangover that will hit on Sunday morning.

After the excessive peeing and terrible dancing from the day before, your body is almost guaranteed to be dehydrated. This lack of sufficient water plus the acetaldehyde toxins leftover from your liver’s hard work in metabolizing, can leave you feeling like a shell of yourself.

The biggest favor you can do to prevent this debilitating feeling is to eat before you even start drinking and chug a bottle of water before bed.

Stay safe this weekend, Demon Deacons.

The Biology Behind Fear

This article appeared in Wake Forest University’s Old Gold and Black Newspaper.

According to a study done at the University of Westminster, watching a 90-minute horror movie can burn up to 113 calories. Why? Well, let’s go through the typical experience of viewing a haunted flick.

As the archetypal horror movie starts, it introduces a happy family moving into a new house on a crisp and sunny autumn day. You quickly grow attached to this family; however, you can’t help but feel an innate foreboding, knowing that you chose this movie for its chilling description.

Then, the first note of creepy violin music punctuates a scene and your heartbeat picks up as fast as the rate of the beat in this terrifying score.

All of a sudden, a ghoulish apparition appears on the screen and the protagonist’s screams jolt your body into a moment of extreme stress, in something called a “jump-scare moment.”

By the end of the movie, you will have completely worked off that piece of comforting chocolate that soothed your nerves before the ghoul inevitably possessed your favorite character.

From the outside, it may seem like nothing really happened, except that you are a little more sweaty than normal, but on the inside of your body a host of mechanisms are occurring.

When an event catalyzes fear, whether that be a demonic figure or simply someone yelling “boo” from behind a door, your body reacts with something called the “Fight or Flight Response.”

This response is activated by the parts of your brain called the amygdalae, which trigger the release of a cascade of chemicals into your body that initiate different physiological mechanisms. The first thing to activate is your body’s sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is part of your autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions that are not consciously supervised such as your breathing, heartbeat and digestive capabilities.

As the sympathetic nervous system takes over, a surge of a hormone called adrenaline is released into the body and causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, along with an inhibition of insulin secretion and digestive systems.

Your immune system and digestive turn off and are no longer utilizing excess energy, while veins in the skin constrict so that blood is able to get to your muscles more quickly and oxygen can reach your lungs at a faster rate.

To ensure a higher quality of vision, your pupils will dilate so that your eyes can take in more light.

“Your body will begin to take in stored energy from glycogen and give you the sugar you need to run away,” said Biochemistry Professor Gloria Muday, who studies hormone action and signaling. “When you are given a signal to fight or run away, you need the energy to do that.”

In essence, your body is working hard to make sure that you can compete at peak performance and protect yourself from harm’s way.

This self-preservative physiological mechanism is extremely helpful in dangerous situations, but sometimes your bodily systems can go wrong.

When someone has a panic attack, they begin to experience many of the same symptoms that come along with basic fear. However, in this case, symptoms can last for up to 30 minutes straight.

“A panic attack is a prolonged epinephrine signal that doesn’t turn off,” Muday said. “Typically there are mechanisms your body uses to turn that signal on and off, but in this case the fear just doesn’t go away.”

The body is not meant to experience fear for such long durations of time and it can increase risk of depression, nausea, and breathing problems.

Moral of the story: watching scary movies can burn over 100 calories, but fear should not be your primary workout method.

Ecology monks in Thailand seek to end environmental suffering

This story appeared in Mongabay, Pacific Standard, Asian Correspondent, Yale News, and the Thai Embassy Newsletter.

As development in Thailand is increasing, so is deforestation. Acres of forests are cleared for contract farming, habitats are torn down to make room for new factories, and soil is eroded, causing massive flooding during the rainy season.

But amid the environmental wreckage, some trees remain untouched. These trees are wrapped in iconic bright orange robes and deemed sacred, protected from harm and destruction. These trees have been ordained as monks.

At a time when Pope Francis is calling upon religious leaders to step up as environmental advocates, Thai Buddhist monks are answering the call. Through rituals like tree ordinations, some monks in Thailand are integrating Buddhist principles into the environmental movement in order to garner support from their followers and encourage sustainable practices.

Dr. Susan Darlington, professor of anthropology and Asian studies at Hampshire College in the U.S. and author of the book The Ordination of a Tree, explains that protecting trees is a form of merit-making, an important practice in Buddhism. By accumulating merit through performing good deeds, Buddhists are ensuring a better next life and taking a step closer to reaching enlightenment and, ultimately, Nirvana.

ordained tree

An ordained tree wrapped in the orange robes of a Buddhist monk found in a forest of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

“Making merit is extremely important for Thai Buddhists,” Dr. Darlington said. “They see [tree ordination ceremonies] as an act of making merit, which can help with rebirth and, in some cases, having a better life now.”

One of the primary goals in the Buddhist religion is to end suffering, and the forests of Thailand are certainly suffering.

“There are places in Northern Thailand, particularly in Nan Province, where there has been a lot of deforestation, so the watersheds areas fill the water with mud, silt, and pesticide runoff causing more severe flooding in the rainy season and more severe drought in the dry season,” said Gordon Congdon, the Conservation Program Manager for WWF-Thailand. “In many ways, climate change is amplifying problems that are already existing.”

Leaders of Society

With over 90 percent of the Thai population practicing Buddhism, monks hold an influential role as leaders to whom people look for guidance in all aspects of life.

“They become the leader that people would trust,” said Dr. Chaya Vaddhanaphuti, a geography professor at Chiang Mai University whose PhD studies focused on climate change. “If I asked the farmers who they would choose to trust between government officers and the monks, they would choose the latter.”

thai girl.jpg

A young Thai girl follows three novice monks in the collection of the morning alms, in which they accept donations of food and drink to the temple from residents throughout the village of Chonburi. 

With such an immense amount of influence in villages throughout Thailand, monks are utilizing their position to add a unique moral dimension to the environmental movement. However, rituals alone are not enough.

Although Buddhism is typically a religion famed for its detachment from society, ecology monks believe that their religion is inherently tied to nature. Buddhist monks like Phrakhu Ajan Somkit, who is based in Nan Province in northern Thailand where deforestation is an issue of major concern, are entering the political sphere to consult with government officials on environmental initiatives and rights for rural farmers. Other monks, like Phrakhu Win Mektripop, an ecology monk based in Bangkok, are trying to find more sustainable solutions to everyday problems by implementing solar panels in temples and helping villagers create cheap huts out of mud and natural materials.

“When the Buddha was born, he was born under the tree. He was enlightened under the tree. His first sermon was under the tree. We can see that most of his life was related to the forest,” said Phra Win. With a master’s degree in environmental economics from Chulalongkorn University, Phra Win understands how important agriculture is to the rural population of Thailand.

As Thailand shifted from a low-income to an upper-income society in less than a generation, however, sustainability hasn’t exactly been the focus of the country’s economic development. For instance, big companies like CP All Public, which owns over 10,000 7-Eleven stores in Thailand, are taking advantage of the rapid pace of growth by contracting rural farmers to mass-produce monocrops like maize and rice.


A farm in Surin, Thailand, that only plants rice in its many fields. 

“They plant corn, they harvest it, they sell it to the big company and earn just about enough to pay off their debt,” said Congdon. “It creates this vicious cycle of dependency on the large companies and the farmers never get ahead, which leads to more and more deforestation.”

Seeing no other options, these farmers continue unsustainable practices that are stripping the soil of valuable nutrients and plunging them deeper into debt. However, ecology monks are working to provide an alternative that is beneficial to both the environment and the people.


Another of the most harmful environmental issues in Thailand is simply a lack of knowledge.

“When I lived with the farmers during my PhD studies, they never used the term climate change,” said Dr. Vaddhanaphuti. “However, they knew that the climate had changed from how it was affecting their farms.”


Phrakhu Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsuri, an ecology monk, at his farm in Surin, Thailand, where he follows the philosophy of sufficiency economy by planting many different types of crops.

In order to help teach rural farmers about the environment, Phrakhu Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsuri, a prominent ecology monk based in Chiang Mai, developed an alternative farming school through his temple in Chonburi called the Maab-Euang Meditation Center for Sufficiency Economy. With 49 full-time students this year, Phra Sangkom mixes Buddhist concepts of personal reflection and a theory called “sufficiency economy.” This theory was developed by the previous Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, and encourages subsistence farming, self-sufficiency, and a detachment from material goods.

Along with teaching classes at his school and working in the field, Phra Sangkom often travels throughout Surin and Chiang Mai on speaking tours to bring his philosophy directly to the people. Each speech typically has over 100 attendees, he says.


Phrakhu Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsuri giving a speech on the importance of trees and stopping deforestation to the villagers of Surin, Thailand. 

Enemies and Allies

Ecology monks like Phra Sangkom have been marked as leading environmental advocates in Thailand, but some have also been marked with a target on their back.


Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple found at the top of the Doi Suthep Mountain in Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

As their environmental influence spreads throughout Thailand, monks are helping to obtain more community forest rights for indigenous people and farmers, which takes land away from both the government and logging and oil companies. Some monks have been prosecuted by the Thai government for their controversial activism. Others have been assassinated, like Phrakhu Supoj Suvacano, an ecology monk involved in trying to prevent the land around a meditation center in Chiang Mai from being converted into a tangerine farm.

Even in the face of these threats, many ecology monks continue their work, which has started to receive help and support from other outlets, like local universities and NGOs.

“We are figuring out how we can bring the Buddhists who are just sitting and meditating out into the world to deal with the suffering,” said Somboon Chungprampree, executive director of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, an organization which is working to connect activist Buddhists and non-Buddhists from all over Asia. “There is not just personal suffering; there is social and environmental suffering out there and people need to figure out how they can help as a Buddhist.”


Three monks collecting the morning alms in Chonburi, Thailand.

My reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.