Be Heard Online
Vandna Jerath, a Johns Hopkins University junior from Martinez, Ga., has created a Web site to give people with autism a forum for expressing themselves through writing and visual arts. Autism Netverse: A Literary Journey for the Autistic Mind, is online at www.jhu.edu/netverse. Visitors will find poetry, sketches, paintings and photographs by people of all ages.
On paper, Jerath's major and minor, neuroscience and Writing Seminars, are at opposite ends of the academic spectrum. But the two disparate disciplines meet online thanks to funding provided by the Provost's Undergraduate Research Award program, which affords students at Johns Hopkins the unique opportunity to conduct independent research during their undergraduate years.
Jerath was inspired to seek a grant to launch Autism Netverse after conducting research in summer 2002 near her hometown with neuroscientist Manuel Casanova, then of the Medical College of Georgia and now of the University of Louisville where he holds the Gottfried and Gisela Kolb Endowed Chair in Psychiatry. Her assignment was to compile an anthology of poetry by highly functioning autistic individuals.
Jerath found her project rewarding and wanted to take it further by persuading journals and nonprofit groups to dedicate sections of their publications to the creative works of autistic people, but didn't have any luck in the endeavor. Jerath, who also conducts autism research with Stewart Mostofsky at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, didn't want to wait any longer for others to decide her idea had merit. Thanks to PURA, Jerath was able to strike out on her own and create Autism Netverse.
"I realized that I didn't need a degree to make an impact on the autistic community," said Jerath, who intends to pursue a career in medicine. "The provost grant provided me with this opportunity. If I hadn't explored the concept behind the Web site, someone else surely would have in the future."
In its 11-year existence, the Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program has given 483 students grants approaching $1 million to follow their curiosity, thanks to funding primarily from the Hodson Trust. This year's winning students presented their findings in a ceremony on Thursday, March 11 on the Hopkins campus.
With Hodson support, the university is able to offer its undergraduates two opportunities each year to apply for stipends to conduct independent research during the summer or fall. It's a commitment that the university feels is central to its mission, said Steven Knapp, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
"Since its beginnings, Johns Hopkins has always emphasized the value of learning through discovery, and this program is an important opportunity for undergraduates to work in this tradition with our best and most creative faculty at the forefront of their fields," Knapp said.
On the Remarks page of Autism Netverse, Casanova explains that Jerath's Web site "encourages those suffering from autism to write and publish their poetry electronically. After seeking and failing to find other media outlets for this art form, she received grant support to fill this niche herself. Her effort is audacious, akin to building an airplane while flying it."
Jerath said the project took a little while to get off the ground. With guidance from her PURA adviser, Tristan Davies, a senior lecturer in the Writing Seminars, Jerath was soon in touch with Patricia Kramer and Web designer Megan Van Wagoner of the university's Office of Design and Publications and also had secured a Web address through the university. Seeking writers and artists, she sent out letters to physicians and researchers, and after some watchful waiting, ultimately received 30 submissions from as far away as India.
"Vandna is an exceptional person," said Kramer, director of Design and Publications. "Her passion and dedication to her endeavor are impressive. Her genuine enthusiasm is catching, and we caught it. If this is our next generation, we don't have anything to worry about."
In addition to consultations with Kramer and her staff and with Davies, Jerath is working with Doug Basford of the Writing Seminars, who has provided additional insight on the poetic submissions. "Analyzing the works may provide clues about the thought process of individuals with the condition," she said.
Davies said he thinks "the idea can't really lose. It will be of interest to the general public for the obvious reasons. There might even be some interesting writing that gets found there. It's a glimpse into this very confusing world. Certainly, it's got to be a tool for parents [of an autistic child] who are struggling with this, by providing hope that there's something that their child might connect to. Finally, it shows the perfect union of three things: the humanities, scientific research and technology. It's a Web site that might really make a difference."
To speak with Jerath and her advisors, contact Amy Cowles at 443-287-9904. Digital photos of Jerath are also available upon request.
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