A Summer of Monks, Neuroscience

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Some spend their summers doing research abroad or enjoying family time at the beach — Lena Ting spends hers debating basic principles of neuroscience with Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in India.            

Since 2008, Ting has participated in the Emory University Tibet Science Initiative that aims to educate a cohort of monks and nuns on the basics of math, biology, neuroscience and physics.

“Many of the participants enter the monastery at age nine and only learn Buddhist philosophy,” said Ting, an associate professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering. “But in neuroscience, my area,  we challenge a lot of that philosophy.”

Ting became involved with the program in fall of 2008. Since then, she has volunteered to spend much of her academic years planning lectures for the 60 hours the team spends teaching program participants over two weeks each summer.

“Most of these students are in their late 20s and 30s and have completed at least 10 years of Buddha study — similar to being on a PhD track,” Ting said. “They have a tradition of lively debate in the monasteries, which leads to some of the most engaged in-class discussions I’ve ever been a part of.”

One of the challenges Ting has faced is that these students have centuries-old explanations for things such as pain and negative emotions — explanations that don’t necessarily agree with the explanations that modern scientists, such as Ting, have to offer.

“This leads to the most interesting interactions, because who is to say who is right and who is wrong,” she added. “Both sides offer valid points.”

The program includes two five-year cohorts, one of which graduated this year and the other will next year. Members of the cohorts will go on to start science programs in monasteries.

Recently, The Whistle had an opportunity to learn more about Ting.

What did you want to be when you were a child, and how did you end up at Tech?         
I initially wanted to be an astronaut. In college, I studied mechanical engineering, and gradually I became interested in robotics and animal movement, which translated into an interest in how humans walk and the role the nervous system plays in this process. When it was time to look for a job, Georgia Tech and Emory were two of the places I wanted to work, based on the neuroscience and engineering programs offered. I’ve been at Tech for 10 years now.

Explain your research in a few sentences.    
I study how your brain controls your body, especially when it comes to standing and walking. So a lot of my research focuses on working with people who have Parkinson’s disease or have had a spinal injury or stroke.

Tell us a few things about your research that others might not be aware of.    
I took standing and managing to balance for granted — and used to think “this isn’t even a movement!” But this process is actually a lot harder than a lot of us realize. Also, I find inspiration in what animals are doing. For example, you can learn a lot from how a flamingo or an elephant moves.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
In graduate school, a peer told me to never use an alarm clock. That way, you sleep as much as your body needs to. To this day, I still try to follow this advice as often as possible, and I often share it with my students.

What is your favorite spot on campus?
I don’t leave the office much. But I really like how the green space between Clough Commons and the Student Center has developed. It’s much more open and enjoyable now.

Where is your favorite place to have lunch, and what do you order?
Ribs N Blues, and I order the rib sandwich.  

Tell us something unique about yourself that others might not be aware of.
I play ultimate Frisbee, and my team in grad school won a national championship.



  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Amelia Pavlik
  • Created: 09/05/2012
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 10/07/2016

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