SEARCHING showcases cutting-edge science, from particle physics at CERN in Switzerland to gravitational waves at LIGO in Louisiana and Washington State, from the search for galaxies using the Hubble and James Webb Space telescopes to exploring the human brain using magnetoencelography. But Alan Lightman wanted to demonstrate that science can have life-changing, down-to-earth impacts, and social benefits. As part of his work with Harpswell, an NGO empowering young women across Southeast Asia, Alan had seen those benefits first-hand through “Junlen”, a project turning worm droppings into potent fertilizer that enriches the fields of impoverished farmers and boosts the local economy. That story took SEARCHING to rural Cambodia to meet Sothaerath Sok.
The place where Sothearath Sok cultivates her worms and their byproducts is on the outskirts of a small village named Tramung Chrum in Kampong Chhnang Province, about 60 kilometers from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Tramung Chrum has a population of about 500 people. Its people practice a liberal form of Islam called Cham. They pray only once a week and include ancestor worship and animism in their beliefs. They live mainly on subsistence farming. Until recently, Tramung Chrum had no electricity. Their houses are one-room huts raised on stilts to protect them against the floods of the monsoon season.
Sothearath, a 2018 graduate of Harpswell, decided to base her worm project, Junlen, in Tramung Chrum because of a long-standing relationship that Alan Lightman has had with the village (See “A Short History of Harpswell”). Alan made his first trip to Tramung Chrum in 2003 and raised money for the village’s first school building, completed in 2005.
The village is surrounded by farmland and rice fields. Except for the monsoon season, it is dusty and dry, with scraggly low vegetation, wandering cows, and chickens running helter-skelter. The principal mode of transportation is a small motorcycle called a “moto.” Every family has a moto or two parked in the open-air space beneath their house (which is elevated on stilts and reached by a rickety wooden ladder to the doorway four or five meters above the ground).