This week, we will hear from Katia Chaterji (left). She’s currently an MA student in History. Her research project traces connections in mythology, performance, and architecture between South and Southeast Asia. Besides research, Katia is interested in conservation, technology and education.
The word “conservation” often conjures the painstaking process of digging, dusting artifacts and restoring them to their splendor. But for Katia, technology has come a long way in conservation. Working in the non-profit sector, Katia used “3D laser scanning and other reality-capture technologies to document and archive high-resolution data of cultural heritage sites as they existed at the time of capture.” And with such data, conservationists can restore, replicate, or 3D print the sites for educational purposes.
The intersection of conservation, technology and education was most interesting to Katia. She loved working with educators to “develop lesson plans for science and math classes” that would “instill an interest or familiarity with cultural heritage sites.” She also believed that with the “appropriate technologies, we can share diverse humanities topics with a larger audience and appeal to both history and tech enthusiasts.”
After working for a few years in the conservation field, Katia wanted “more specialization,” so she decided to pursue a PhD in History. For her BA at the University of Chicago, Katia studied “South Asian archaeology and the often conflicting narratives of cultural heritage at pilgrimage sites in south India.” But she “was always struck by the similarities” between the sites she studied in south India and the “diversity of archaeological remains across the Bay of Bengal in Southeast Asia.”
Katia in fact spent a year teaching English in Malaysia through the Fulbright Program to “explore these interests more” after graduating from college. And when it came time for her to pursue a PhD, she decided upon UW. She hopes to “study the cross-sections between South and Southeast Asia, looking specifically at the effects of this exchange as seen in temple architecture and sculptural iconography in Indonesia.”
Katia, however, was not the only person who was making a connection between two seemingly disparate things. One of her students in Kuala Rompin, “a small coastal town in southeastern Pahang,” kept asking her if she knew the “old man.” Katia thought that her student meant her grandfather. “She was not that thrilled with my answer,” Katia said. “The next time I went into town, I saw the giant KFC sign and slowly realized – she was asking if I knew Colonel Sanders, the old man on the KFC sign.” Katia made sure to explain to the student that she was “not personally acquainted with the Colonel!”
I have heard a lot good things about you. And when we met, we didn’t have time to talk at all. So for this interview, I had to do some “research.” Your LinkedIn profile was very impressive with a nice blend of education and work experience. I saw that you received your B.A. in Anthropology and South Asian Languages and Civilizations from University of Chicago. You also received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant in Malaysia. And after your graduation, you worked for CyArk to scan and preserve international cultural heritage sites. Were these experiences influential in your decision to attend graduate school? Could you talk a bit about your interest in South and Southeast Asia? And how did these experiences lead you to the PhD in History at UW?
Sure. As you mentioned, I graduated from UChicago in 2011 with my BA in Anthropology and South Asian Languages and Civilizations. I focused primarily in South Asian archaeology and the often conflicting narratives of cultural heritage at pilgrimage sites in south India. Being of South Asian heritage myself, and through my practice of classical Indian dance, I was always struck by the similarities I noticed between my sites of study in south India and the diversity of archaeological remains across the Bay of Bengal in Southeast Asia. I took the opportunity to spend a year in Malaysia teaching English through the Fulbright Program to explore these interests more, which marked my first experience in Southeast Asia (first among many, I hope!). When I returned to the US, I wanted to work in the heritage preservation field in order to become familiar with the methods and the concerns most relevant to the profession as practiced today. I loved working with site managers, museums, and teachers to make information to heritage sites more accessible to a more diverse audience. After a few years working, I knew I needed more specialization to become fully versed in current conversations and scholarship around Southeast Asia’s history, cultural heritage, and frameworks for preservation – UW is the perfect place to be to explore these avenues.
I know that you just started the PhD program in Oct. But I’m very curious about your research project and the potential that it has. What do you intend to do for your project? And will you connect South Asia with Southeast Asia? If so, could you talk a bit about your method or how you intend to do so?
I am very excited to join the UW for my graduate studies. During my time here, I intend to study the cross-sections between South and Southeast Asia, looking specifically at the effects of this exchange as seen in temple architecture and sculptural iconography in Indonesia. I have always held an interest in mythology and folklore, and I hope to investigate how heritage landscapes emerge from stories like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In answering these questions, I will focus on how stories are reinvented regionally and how physical structures themselves uphold and sustain such narratives. I am still in the throes of defining my project, but at this juncture, I can say that I intend to engage with literature (from the epics to contemporary writing), oral history interviews, and architecture and art history analysis, among other methods. While my background lies in anthropology and cultural heritage preservation, the History Department is an incredible home department because of its interdisciplinary approach and its strong ties to both the South and Southeast Asia Centers on campus.
Like you, I didn’t go straight to grad. school. I spent 3 years working, volunteering and “figuring” things out. So, when I meet others who did the same thing, I’m always curious about their work experience prior to grad. School I have to admit your work experience at CyArk is very “high-tech.” You used Salesforce! What was it like working for a non-profit that blended technology and education? Do you think there is room for area studies, such as South/Southeast Asian Studies, in STEM? Perhaps, I should rephrase this question a bit. I’m thinking of digital humanities. I came across a project by a graduate student at Berkeley who is applying data mining to the marginalia or notes on the margin of illustrations found in French archives. I thought it was really interesting. What do you think about these new novel ways of doing research with technology or the possibilities of digital humanities? Will your project touch on this aspect at all?
I thoroughly enjoy seeing the intersection of education and technology, and understanding how technology can be adapted to fit current classroom needs. My work in the nonprofit sector was illuminating in many ways. I was trained in 3D laser scanning and other reality-capture technologies to document and archive high-resolution data of cultural heritage sites as they existed at the time of capture. Working with large datasets like this requires precision and planning to ensure that you are using the information in the most efficient and useful way for conservation, reconstruction, management, and for educational use by the general public. It was also an incredible opportunity to use history and heritage as a medium for teaching STEM (or now STEAM, to include art and design) topics in the classroom. My favorite projects over the past few years have been working with educators to develop lesson plans for science and math classes that, alongside teaching the principles of the lesson, also instill an interest or familiarity with cultural heritage sites. I think this value applies to other uses of technology that we are seeing through digital humanities projects. By using appropriate technologies, we can share diverse humanities topics with a larger audience and appeal to both history and tech enthusiasts.
The link you shared from UC Berkeley is an incredible example of this. In the professional world, digital tools are becoming very useful for archiving, organizing, and approaching information in a slightly different way. For me, the primary advantage these resources provide is a new perspective that may, possibly, illuminate information that would not have been noticed through other methods. While I am still in the beginning stages of planning my project, I hope to remain engaged in these methods in some way.
I will make this question open for you. I just realized that my previous questions were pretty serious about area studies and technology. You can share a funny and/or embarrassing moment while you were living abroad.
There are too many embarrassing moments to choose from! I’ll share one situation that, while not embarrassing, always makes me smile. While teaching in Malaysia, I was living in Kuala Rompin, a small coastal town in southeastern Pahang. My school (and where I was living) was about 10 km from the main town itself, and my roommate and I would occasionally go eat dinner at one of the family restaurants in town. The only non-family-owned restaurant in town was a very popular KFC, which was the most common American fast-food chain I saw in Malaysia. One day at school, one of my students asked me if I knew the “old man.” Being on campus and having just finished a class with her on family trees, I guessed that she was asking about my grandfather. She was not that thrilled with my answer. The next time I went into town, I saw the giant KFC sign and slowly realized – she was asking if I knew Colonel Sanders, the old man on the KFC sign. Once I realized this, I made sure to explain to her that I was not personally acquainted with the Colonel!