This article was written by Amy Cowles, Michael Purdy and Phil Sneiderman, all of the Office of News and Information at Homewood; and Greg Rienzi, The Gazette.
Some people walk down Baltimore's streets and hear nothing but noise--shrill sirens, buses roaring like giant vacuum cleaners and the metallic squink of Light Rail cars grinding into the station.
Rjyan Kidwell walks down the same streets and hears music.
To Kidwell--a Writing Seminars major whose first name is pronounced "Ryan"--this city's wall of sound is its pulse, a sign of urban life he felt compelled to record and meld into the techno-pop he's been making for years.
Unlike pedestrians who carry portable CD players and wear headphones to block out the world, Kidwell set out to do just the opposite.
"I've always wanted to have a magic Walkman that could record sound," Kidwell says.
All that was holding him back was the money to buy the necessary equipment: a special set of microphones that sits in one's ears just like headphones and a portable DAT machine used for digitally recording ambient sounds.
To become one of this year's recipients of a Provost's Undergraduate Research Award, Kidwell, a junior, wrote a proposal that garnered the necessary cash and an opportunity to put an academic spin on his unique take on music.
Since 1993, about 40 students each year have received PURA grants of up to $2,500 to conduct original research, some results of which have been published in professional journals. The awards, begun by then provost Joseph Cooper and funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's commitment to research. In fact, about 80 percent of the university's undergraduates engage in some form of independent research during their four years here, most alongside top researchers in their fields.
On Thursday, March 7, Steven Knapp, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, will host the eighth annual Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards ceremony, which will honor the 42 winners who conducted their projects in the summer and fall of 2001. The entire Hopkins community is invited to the event, which will take place from 3 to 6 p.m. in the Glass Pavilion at Homewood. It will begin with an informal poster session during which the students will display and talk about their research projects, followed by the awards ceremony at 4:30 p.m. and a reception at 5:15 p.m.
The research ranged from the development of salivary glands of fruit flies to film noir as the artistic manifestation of America's post--World War II fears. One student made a full-length film that landed in a prestigious New York film festival. Read about "Jeff Makes a Movie" at www.jhu.edu/~gazette/2002/18feb02/18film.html.
A computer-savvy foursome tackled the creation of JHOP, a database server for Johns Hopkins research opportunities. (A complete list of winners appears below.)
For Kidwell and several other PURA winners, the grant was Hopkins' blessing to pour hours of scholarly attention into passions that aren't typical academic pursuits.
Since he started his research last fall, Kidwell has recorded close to six hours of sounds and turned much of it into music that subtly captures Charm City's clamor. His goal is to create more songs and compile them as a CD.
After nearly seven years' experience making electronic music--using first his parents' home computer in Baldwin, Md., then his own network that is now stacked up in the bedroom of his apartment in the Waverly neighborhood near the Homewood campus--Kidwell, using the stage name Cex, has released two CDs and four vinyl EPs on two independent record labels. As chronicled on his Web site, www.rjyan.com, he's a regular performer in clubs across the country and has also played in England, Germany and Japan.
When the opportunity to blend his musical and academic worlds presented itself in the form of the PURA grant, Kidwell took a chance and submitted his proposal at the suggestion of John Spitzer, a member of the conservatory faculty at the Peabody Institute, who became his PURA adviser.
The grant gave Kidwell a chance to focus on the field he's passionate about. As he says about himself, "I'm not a kid who rips through pages in an organic chemistry book."
But he is the kind of kid who would record the sound of ripping pages and marry it with dance music. Local examples include the instrumental song "Bad Girls," which mixes the high-pitched whine of the Light Rail into the background. The flicking sound of his bicycle's spokes while riding to campus is predominantly featured in "First Glass Cloud," and another song features the whoops and shouts of his Thursday night dodge ball team playing a game in Catonsville. You can even hear the bassy "ping" of the balls pegging the players.
By Kidwell's design, none of the songs are abstract or ethereal, as those in attendance will hear during his scheduled performance at the poster session.
"It would have been disingenuous to take the city that belongs to everyone and paint it so it was accessible only to academics," Kidwell says. "With electronic equipment, it's tempting to use nothing but tricks. But the challenge is to incorporate those tricks and make it into something people can feel."
Like Kidwell, senior Jordan Bear was able to take a personal pleasure--in this case, watching movies--and use it in an academic pursuit. Bear, a dual major in history of art and English, went beyond pulp with a pithy comparison of film noir and the urban paintings of Edward Hopper.
In both the films and Hopper's paintings, "a spirit of alienation, dehumanization and anxiety plays itself out on the stage of an increasingly urbanized America," he says.
"I've always been a bit of a film buff," Bear says of his interest in the dark films of the 1940s. "The fact that students are able to do in-depth research as undergraduates at Hopkins is excellent." Prior film studies courses prepared him well for his PURA project, Bear says. Brigid Doherty, a professor in the History of Art Department, advised him throughout his research.
Bear's goal for his PURA research, which will be submitted as an honors thesis in humanistic studies next month, was to show that both art forms relate how Americans felt about their increasingly urban world after World War II.
"I think in the 1940s, when these films were the most popular, they painted a world in which a lot of people were returning war veterans, and that hardened their world view," says Bear, a resident of East Brunswick, N.J. "When the war collided with the urbanization, it led to a bleak vision that showed up in the art. What I was able to do with PURA was to lay out a system where films and paintings create a way the artists chose to see urban reality."
A highlight of his research was Bear's trip to Los Angeles, where he spent three days sifting through boxes of director Fritz Lang's belongings archived in the Cinema-Television Library at the University of Southern California. Bear says he often lost track of time as he pored through the original scripts and critical reviews of Lang's films. The newspaper clippings were covered with Lang's notes in the margins.
"He corrected the reviews," Bear says. "You don't get to see much of an artist's reaction to his critics, so it was great to have a chance to see what his thoughts were."
Though several scholars have studied Lang, who was the subject in the 1990s of a best-selling biography by Patrick McGilligan called Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Bear says his exploration of Lang's personal papers covered new ground.
"His papers [at the USC library] had not been internally cataloged, so [the staff] have asked for a copy of my completed thesis," Bear says. "During this research, I sort of felt like a detective, which is appropriate to the topic."
Also playing the role of detective with his PURA grant was senior Steven Porter, who added new and potentially decisive evidence to a debate about the identity of one of the first organisms to make the epochal leap from the sea to dry land approximately 400 million years ago.
Although he's a premed student majoring in English, Porter sought out an undergraduate experience in laboratory research that would allow him to explore areas beyond his training in molecular biology and cellular biology. Through a Web site devoted to undergraduate research opportunities at Johns Hopkins, he connected with Hope Jahren, an assistant professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
Jahren's lab analyzes isotopes of elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen in living and fossilized plants to better understand their relationship to contemporary and prehistoric climates. Isotopes are forms of an element that differ only by the addition of one or more subatomic particles known as neutrons. Different isotopes of the same element have different mass, which affects the way plants use them.
Porter chose to study a unique, high-quality fossil specimen of Spongiophyton minutissimum from Jahren's collection of fossils. Kept in a sealed vial, the specimen is a little bigger than a dime and dates from the Devonian Period, a time about 400 million years ago when the seas of Earth teemed with life but the continents were barren wastelands. The sample probably represents a crucial step from life at home only in the sea to the types of life that could spread over land over the course of millions of years.
To learn more about the fossil, Porter resolved to compare it to its nearest modern relatives. But based on studies of the shapes of various fossil samples of Spongiophyton minutissimum, paleontologists were divided into two schools of thought on what those nearest relatives were. Some thought the fossil was an example of a bryophyte, a class of plants comprised mostly of mosses, and some favored the idea that the fossil was a lichen, which is a close association between a fungus and an alga.
Porter conducted an extensive literature search to familiarize himself with the debate and then sought the advice of experts in the field to further firm up his understanding. He relishes the fact that he was able to use his inexperience in the field to get a chance to speak with prominent people in it.
"My naivete paid off," says Porter, a resident of Cherry Hill, N.J. "Had I known how prominent these people are in their fields, I probably would have been much more intimidated about talking to them."
Thanks in part to the advice and assistance of people like Paula DePriest, an associate curator in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Institution, Porter was able to select a range of contemporary species of mosses and lichens to test with the fossil. Using training and equipment from Jahren's lab, he looked at the isotopes of carbon found in each group and in the fossil, and found that the types of carbon in the fossil more closely resembled those found in modern lichens.
"It's very clear from these results that the fossil cycled carbon in a manner that much more closely resembles that of the lichens than it does the bryophytes," Jahren comments. "Why does that matter? This is one important piece of how we go from sterile land to what we have today. This tells us the type of biology that was most effective, at the very beginning, was the strategy of the lichen, not the moss."
Porter and Jahren hope to present the results at an upcoming meeting of the Geophysical Society of America. Both agreed that Porter has come away with valuable insight into what the process of scientific research is like.
"He's learned that it's labor-intensive work, but that there's a lasting effect to birthing a new piece of knowledge," Jahren says. "I think he also recognizes as a result of his provost project the amount of luck, in addition to good planning, that goes into research."
While his friend Jordan Bear was researching the birth of America's postwar identity, senior Samuel Spinner, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, was using his PURA grant to study of the importance of personal identity.
Spinner's research took him to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, a research center with comprehensive documentation for the study of German Jewish history. There Spinner researched the need to belong as reflected in the writing of early-20th-century novelist Joseph Roth, a German-speaking Eastern European Jew from the Austro-Hungarian empire.
To understand Roth's work is to understand his love of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Spinner says.
"Of all countries, institutions and events in modern Europe, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the most ethnically, religiously, racially and culturally diverse," Spinner says. "It was in every sense a place of crossed borders and mixed-up categories. There were numerous infringements of borders, and the diversity of the empire was in large part due to the creation for the first time of a cosmopolitan culture. This culture was one independent of ethnicity or race and was determined solely in the sphere of culture, so that Eastern European Jewish writers could become Austro-Hungarian novelists."
When the empire Roth loved began to crumble at the beginning of the 20th century, people experienced a feeling of loss that was evident in the work of Roth and his contemporaries, says Spinner, who is majoring in German.
As an Orthodox Jew whose mother is from Long Island and whose father is from Czernowitz, a city in the former Austro-Hungarian empire that is now part of the Ukraine, Spinner says he was drawn to Roth's novels.
"I knew I wanted to work on this author and go beyond a typical course of study," Spinner says. "Obviously, when someone has a personal interest, he is willing to do something above average. There has to be some tie to it. Initially, when you discover you like an author, you might read one or two of his books. But I became so interested in Roth that I read them all."
Roth's attention to detail in creating his characters also called out to Spinner.
"His novels have a strong focus on Jewish elements,"says Spinner, whose twin sister, Sarah, also was granted a PURA award. "Incidental characters, plot, they were all treated lovingly, with painstaking detail. Many Jews felt lost, not knowing where to go culturally after World War I. But it was atypical for these themes to appear so strongly."
Christy A. Comeaux's PURA grant enabled her to breed mutant fruit flies and study their offspring to help find a gene responsible for thwarting the bug's development. A biomedical engineering major, the junior from Houston has been working with Deborah J. Andrew, an associate professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy at the School of Medicine and a prominent cell biologist whose research into the way fruit fly embryos create salivary glands could shed light on the development of human organs.
"Many of the genes in fruit flies are very similar to human genes," Comeaux says. "By studying how these genes work, we can come to a better understanding of how genetic mechanisms work in humans."
Comeaux gained her first genetics lab experience by working at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston during the summer of 2000. When she returned for her sophomore year at Hopkins, she looked for a related research job and joined the lab team directed by Andrew. "Because of my summer job, I'd had some training in genetic research techniques, but I had never worked with fruit flies," Comeaux says. "Luckily, I was surrounded by many people in the Andrew lab who were very patient and willing to answer my questions."
Comeaux soon learned how to breed flies that carry a genetic mutation. The bugs meet inside a plastic bottle. The underside of the bottle's stopper is coated with a sticky substance that collects the fertilized eggs. Comeaux learned to apply an antibody stain to these fly embryos to identify the cells that are forming the insect's salivary gland. Under a high-powered microscope she was able to see how a genetic mutation can distort the shape of the developing gland and impair its ability to move into proper position within the growing embryo.
The PURA grant allowed her to spend the summer working in Andrew's lab. She assisted Pamela L. Bradley, then a doctoral student and now a postdoctoral fellow, in experiments aimed at identifying and studying a mutated gene that prevented normal development of the fly embryo. "We found that a gene mutation led to the production of a protein that's shorter than it should be, so it couldn't function properly," Comeaux says. "That's why the salivary gland, and more importantly the fly itself, didn't develop properly."
The research also yielded new insights into how a developing salivary gland moves into its proper location within a fly embryo. Comeaux likely will be listed as one of the authors on a future scientific journal article based on these findings, her lab director said. "The work Christy carried out contributed significantly to our understanding of how cells within organs use surrounding tissues to position themselves," Andrew says.
While completing her junior-year courses and playing flute in the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, Comeaux has continued to work about 20 hours a week in Andrew's lab. Next fall, she plans to apply to rigorous M.D.-Ph.D. programs. Based on the rewarding experience in Andrew's lab, she hopes to focus on genetic research. "I never expected to be running to a research lab almost every day as an undergraduate," Comeaux says. "But it's become a major part of my education here, and it's an experience that students at other institutions may not have an opportunity to pursue."
Sometimes, the research pursuit is guided by the old real estate adage: location, location, location.
Baltimore has its rowhouses and crab cakes. Seattle gave us grunge rock and Starbucks. The "hot spot" for a student interested in the music education of special needs learners is, well, Manchester, England, according to Victoria Fabinski, a senior music education major at the Peabody Institute.
Fabinski's PURA allowed her to spend nine weeks in Manchester, where researchers are studying the relationship between music, science and medicine. Using the University of Manchester as her base of operations, Fabinski set out to do a comparative study of the British and American models for educating people with physical or mental handicaps. Her mentor there was Penelope Gouk of the University of Manchester's History of Medicine Department and a leading researcher on the history of musical healing and use of musical models in medical and scientific thought. Her sponsor at Peabody was Susan Weiss of the musicology faculty.
British educators are at the forefront of this relatively young discipline, Fabinski says, and she wanted to learn more about alternative methods of teaching special needs learners in the music classroom.
"Simply, I thought I was going to discover amazing techniques or strategies that the British have developed," says Fabinski, a percussionist who has done supervised teaching of special needs learners through Peabody's music education program. "I thought there could be a real exchange of ideas. I have already seen what goes on in a U.S. classroom, and I thought I had a fair basis for comparison."
What she discovered, however, was that many of the British educators were in the midst of a sort of "identity crisis." In the early 1980s, legislation had been passed in the United Kingdom that mandated that special needs learners be mainstreamed into traditional schools. One result of this legislation, according to Fabinski, is a blurring of the role of music educators: Should they be teachers, therapists or both? Fabinski says the two disciplines have very different goals.
"I saw that as the problem," says Fabinski, who is from Warren, Mich.
Switching gears, Fabinski opted to aim her research on how music education had changed in Britain following the passage of the laws, focusing on the university training of students.
She spent the majority of her time overseas ensconced in university and public libraries, poring over two decades of publications that cited the emerging practice of "educational music therapy." In addition, Fabinski interviewed music professors who focused on therapy and others with an educational bent.
The result of her work is a paper titled "Transformation of Identity: Music Education in the United Kingdom."
Fabinski says she hopes that what she has learned in England will help create a dialogue here at home.
"All of the issues that I found in the U.K. transfer to the U.S.," she says.
Paul Han, a junior from Riverside, Calif., has conducted original research that adds to scientists' understanding of the special circumstances under which nerve cells in the central nervous system may be able to regrow damaged branches. His faculty sponsor was Paul Hoffman from the Department of Neurology and Ophthalmology at the School of Medicine.
Researchers had thought for many years that mature nerve cells either wholly or partially located in the brain or the spinal cord could not regenerate after damage to their branches, which are known scientifically as axons. They had identified a family of proteins known as myelin-associated proteins, prevalent in the brain and spine, and shown in vitro that these proteins blocked growth of new axons in mature nerve cells.
However, those same inhibitory compounds couldn't block the growth of new axons on immature nerve cells. And scientists have found a couple of circumstances that seem to push mature nerve cells toward states where their regenerative ability returns.
While many researchers in the field emphasize the inhibitors in the central nervous system and other environmental factors as the main roadblocks to regeneration, Hoffman and Han suspect intrinsic differences between mature and immature nerve cells may be key contributors. Han used his PURA to further probe how closely mature neurons that had been newly enabled to regenerate in the central nervous system resembled the immature neurons that could always do so.
He did this by testing rates of axon regeneration in the optic nerves of rats. Other scientists had shown that regeneration rates of axons outside the central nervous system could be increased by physically squashing another axon of the same nerve cell, a stimulus known as a conditioning lesion.
Although there are still many more unanswered than answered questions about nerve cell regeneration in the central nervous system, Hoffman says Han's results are an important step forward for researchers who hope one day to be able to develop new clinical treatments for optic disorders involving nerve degeneration or injury, or for spinal cord injuries.
Pamela K. Douglas, a senior, has spent months analyzing DNA from children suffering from a rare but devastating disease. Her PURA allowed her to do important lab work for a team that is trying to understand and produce a treatment for the disease, which kills more than half its victims before their second birthday.
Douglas, a biomedical engineering major from Winter Park, Fla., has been working in the lab of Nancy Braverman, a pediatric geneticist in the School of Medicine. Braverman's team has been studying children affected by rhizomelic chondrodysplasia punctata. Children with RCDP commonly suffer from cataracts, shortened arms and legs, and mental retardation. Braverman identified the defective gene, known as PEX7, that causes this disorder. To learn even more about the cellular processes that go haywire when RCDP occurs, Douglas has been helping Braverman find the specific PEX7 mutations in skin and blood cells collected from 75 patients with the disease.
"Characterizing these changes in the PEX7 gene helps us to understand both the normal biological function of the protein and how disruptions in it can result in different severities of disease," Braverman says.
Braverman often visits with RCDP patients and their families and, on occasion, Douglas has accompanied her. "I've seen children with this horrible disease, and it's so sad," Douglas says. "Dr. Braverman's team is building a thorough understanding of this protein and its interactions. We have to do that before we can come up with a possible treatment."
Douglas met Braverman two years ago when the undergraduate began looking for work in a Johns Hopkins research lab. "She looked at my resume and hired me practically on the spot," Douglas recalls. "I had a superficial understanding of genetics, but she taught me a lot more about it, especially the experimental procedures. It was intimidating at first, but Dr. Braverman is an excellent teacher and is very patient."
Her grant allowed Douglas to remain in Baltimore last summer to continue working in Braverman's lab. Douglas spent the time analyzing DNA sequence readouts from more than a dozen RCDP patients, looking for significant mutations. She also studied the case of a rare patient who exhibited four mutations, none of which appeared to come from her parents. As a result of her work, Douglas is expected to be listed as one of the authors on an upcoming scientific paper based on the team's findings. Meanwhile, Douglas has taken on another challenge in a nearby biophysics lab, where she is building a computer model of PEX7 that demonstrates how these mutations can affect the shape of this protein.
The lab experiences have caused Douglas to shift gears in her academic plans and apply to master's and doctoral programs in biomedical engineering. "This has really sparked my interest in going to grad school," she says. "Working in a genetics lab has given me a focus. This has been a huge part of my Hopkins experience, and it's been really exciting. There's an element of creativity involved in a research lab because you have to design your own experiments. That doesn't always happen in a classroom course."