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Physics professor to teach astronomy to Buddhist monks in India

Julie Ziffer

University of Southern Maine (USM) Professor of Physics Julie Ziffer will spend part of her summer in India, where she will teach astronomy to Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns.

Ziffer departs for India on May 25 to teach with the 2019 Robert A. Paul Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ESTI).

The program, according to its parent institution Emory University, aims to create a comprehensive, sustainable science education program for the Tibetan Buddhist monastic universities. The institute, launched in 2006, is currently in its fourth and final phase of implementation.

“The goal of ETSI is to promote the convergence of science and spirituality,” Ziffer said. “To be among the faculty of ETSI affords me a unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow professionally and personally.”

This will be Ziffer’s first opportunity to teach abroad, she said. She first heard of the ESTI a decade ago and found its mission to be congruent with her own personal worldview, the impetus for her application to the program.

“My own spirituality is rooted in inclusivity, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, universality and secular ethics,” she said, referencing the moral philosophies outlined in the 14th Dalai Lama’s book, "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World."

Ziffer said the astronomy curriculum will be taught in the context of secular ethics.

“In the 21st century, more than ever before, science can be used for humanity's good or for evil,” she said. “For my students, my goal is for them to successfully understand the concepts of astronomy presented, and for them to not only show proficiency in their understanding through course participation and exam, but for them to integrate the concepts learned in the context of their spiritual practice.”

The approach is familiar for Ziffer, who said she approaches physics with an integrated, systemic perspective — something that drew her the Bertha Crosley Ball Center for Compassion, a new center at USM whose role is to educate and train the university and the community in how to deepen compassion.

“Attempts at isolating the human spirit from intellectual pursuits does not advance science,” Ziffer said. “My professional and personal goal is to enhance my conscious mindfulness so that I have new and revived ideas for promoting secular ethics in science, as well as in my daily life activities.”

Ziffer will return from India on June 10, and said she can’t wait to share her reflections and experiences.

“I have a hard time imagining a better and more professionally and personally fulfilling growth opportunity than offered by ETSI,” she said.


By Alan Bennett // Office of Public Affairs