Many a clever person has tripped over the spellings of
sergeant, Mississippi and fuchsia at one point or another.
Ever had to accommodate a conscientious psephologist on
your calendar, or write a sentence with such thorny
For some, however, the spellings of seemingly
straightforward words like "listen" and "crook" can be
Niklas Krumm, a neuroscience
major in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, set out
three years ago to study the cognitive functions associated
with spelling and, more specifically, the understudied
field of developmental dysgraphia. During his freshman
year, Krumm had befriended an ideal subject to investigate
and applied for the Woodrow Wilson fellowship that gave him
$7,500 to delve into his topic.
Since 1999, the Woodrow Wilson fellowship awards have
allowed undergraduates like Krumm the opportunity to pursue
an independent research project over the course of his or
her college career in the Krieger School. Krumm is one of
20 seniors who on Friday, April 20, will display and
discuss the results of their research at a poster session,
sponsored by the university's Second Decade Society, to be
held from 3 to 5 p.m. in Homewood's Glass Pavilion.
Krumm began his project in earnest his sophomore year,
a single-subject study on a fellow student he refers to as
"AP" in his research.
AP, he says, is a healthy young female with no
outstanding mental disorders or physical disabilities. In
fact, she is considered extremely bright and advanced
normally throughout most of her education. At one point,
however, it became clear that she had a profound spelling
deficit. While words not commonly used often present
spelling challenges to everyone, Krumm said that AP has
trouble with everyday vocabulary. She would, for example,
spell enough, "enuff," and conquer would become
She also has difficulty orally spelling words and
identifying words orally spelled to her. Her deficit
predominantly affects her written work, as her speech is
considered at or above average, as are her reading and
verbal comprehension abilities, Krumm said.
For his research, Krumm set out to identify his
subject's underlying cognitive deficits, better understand
the neural basis of these deficits through the use of
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and extend the
cognitive testing and functional imaging to her immediate
family. He compared his findings to tests he performed on
subjects with "normal" spelling abilities.
"Basically, I wanted to look at [AP's] poor spelling
and narrow down the cause," he said. "I wanted to
understand what is the cause and effect here and why it
does not impact her reading ability."
While more study needs to be done in this case, Krumm
said that his preliminary findings are compelling. What
stood out in particular was AP's inability to identify two
words that rhyme or don't rhyme. She could not match low
and toe, for example, or grasp why glove and wove don't
"She can read these words just fine, but she relies on
the spelling to determine the rhyme," he said. "AP may have
a developmental difficulty organizing words by rhyme. It's
been shown that is how children learn words, which is why
nursery rhymes are so effective, and she might have had to
find an alternative, less effective way to organize her
Krumm said that it was interesting to note that AP's
sister is also poor at rhyming, as is her mother.
"Of course, it makes you wonder if there is something
biological, some genetic deficit that we are seeing," he
said. "But it is too early to tell, and there is still a
lot [of study] needed."
Krumm is eager to do more and will continue to study
psycholinguistics next year in Germany, having received
both a Fulbright graduate scholarship and a DAAD study
scholarship. He said the Woodrow Wilson fellowship
immeasurably helped get him to this point.
"The flexibility of the fellowship is really a key
aspect. It allows the fellows to focus on the research and
their passions," he said. "For me, I started out with a
lukewarm interest in language processing and linguistics,
but the fellowship really allowed me to explore the
The annual Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research
Fellowship Program allows students to delve into
unconstrained research during their undergraduate
experience, mentored by distinguished Johns Hopkins
faculty. Each Wilson fellow receives a grant of up to
$10,000 to be distributed over four years to support
research expenses, including costs associated with travel,
equipment and use of archives.
The fellowships are given to incoming freshmen of
outstanding merit and promise and also to rising
sophomores, who receive up to $7,500 for three years. For
high school seniors, a Woodrow Wilson brochure is included
in the application packets mailed out by the Office of
Undergraduate Admissions. Current freshmen, however, must
submit a two-to-three-page proposal, a resume, a
second-semester transcript and a letter of recommendation
from a JHU faculty member who would become the student's
The award is named after the former U.S. president,
who received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins. The program
was developed for the School of Arts and Sciences by
Herbert Kessler, then dean of the school and now a
professor of art history; Steven David, vice dean for
centers and programs; and university trustee J. Barclay
Knapp, who funded the fellowships through the school's
James B. Knapp Deanship, named for his late father.
The individual research projects are designed by the
fellows, and each student has the choice of focusing on a
single long-term project, exploring several aspects of a
particular discipline or working on various short-term
undertakings in an array of fields. Students can opt to
pursue research in their own major or, if they wish, branch
off into a totally unrelated discipline.
Amy Oppenheimer, an international
studies major, switched gears three times. Her final
project is a documentary about marriage in the Jewish
Students can also switch gears several times, as was
the case with Amy Oppenheimer, an
international studies major.
Oppenheimer's first proposal was a bit, in her own
words, "grandiose." She wanted to develop an economic plan
for a region of Israel. That project turned into one
focused on the evolution of the Israeli economy from
socialism to capitalism. Wanting something a bit more
hands-on, she morphed her project yet again, this time
studying the dual identity of an Israeli-Arab community.
She intended to spend a year living in Haifa, but war broke
out and the violence precluded her following through on her
Quite literally, faith intervened. She opted to study
the evolving state of marriage in Israel.
"I have always been interested in matters of state and
religion, and I have been very involved in the Interfaith
Council here," Oppenheimer said. "Marriage touches upon
every element of Israeli society, and since the majority of
people get married, everyone has something to say about the
Her final project is an hourlong documentary called
Faces of Israel: A Discussion About Marriage, State and
Religion in the Jewish Homeland. In the film, the viewer is
introduced to various Israelis who come from different
backgrounds and espouse markedly different beliefs about
the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, the meaning of Israel as a
Jewish state, civil unions, the future of the Jewish
homeland and other related topics.
Oppenheimer said that she's glad she had the
opportunity to change her project. For one, she never knew
she had a filmmaker inside her.
"One of the strengths of the program is that there is
no pressure to begin something as a freshman and continue
with that one line," she said. "I kept starting things, and
sometimes it would turn into something, and sometimes it
wouldn't. But [the Woodrow Wilson advisers] were just
constantly there as a support to help brainstorm new
In fact, Oppenheimer said that the Woodrow Wilson
fellowship was the reason she chose Hopkins.
"Johns Hopkins has a really strong International
Studies program, but the opportunity to do my own research
and have that sort of support is what pulled me to Hopkins
in the first place," she said.
Subjects of other Woodrow Wilson projects on display
at the Friday poster session include how the mentally ill
are treated in China, school lunch reform, the ethics of
organ transplantation and "Bollywood" cinema.
For current freshmen, the deadline for fellowship
applications is May 16. For more information, go to: