Provost Grant Gives Students Research Data By Steve Libowitz Last summer, then-sophomore Saminaz Akhter did some jail time. For her, it beat getting a job. Akhter wasn't serving out a sentence, though. She was spending hours conducting university-sponsored research, interviewing teen-age boys--some at the Baltimore City Detention Center--about what incentives would motivate them to practice safe sex and help avoid teen-age pregnancy. Their answers, hardened by an unforgiving life on Baltimore's urban streets, infused her research with a bitter truth. "The boys in the detention center laughed," said Akhter, a junior majoring in sociology and public health. "Most of the boys I talked with have lost any sense of long-term goals and only think about getting out. They don't care about getting a girl pregnant or getting AIDS. Their sexual habits often reflect their own hopeless sense of themselves and their future." Akhter, a native of Bangladesh, conducted her research during her sophomore summer, supported by a Provost's Undergraduate Award for Research and Excellence. She was one of 35 students from across the university to receive the cash prize created in 1993 to encourage freshmen, sophomores and juniors to engage in research activities. She will be one of two students who will present findings during a recognition ceremony at 3 p.m. on Wednesday in the Glass Pavilion on the Homewood campus. "The hallmark of Johns Hopkins University is research, and research needs to be a part of an undergraduate's experience here. The Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards help make this possible," said Provost Joseph Cooper. Working with a faculty sponsor--Akhter chose sociology professor Andrew Cherlin--these skills are nurtured and fine-tuned. Students receive up to $2,500 to conduct research during the summer or fall semester. They also have the option of conducting their research for academic credit. Akhter received $2,100. "I took the money," she said, "because it gave me the chance to focus on the study without having to take some menial job." Part of her funding was used to pay teen-agers $10 each to take part in focus groups: four included middle school boys, two were held at Healthy Start Centers and included boys between the ages of 15 and 18, and one was held at the City Detention Center. Did the boys agree with Akhter's premise that a proper incentive would motivate them to take greater responsibility in curbing teenage pregnancy? "The younger boys thought incentives could work, the boys at the Healthy Start Centers were more ambivalent," she said. "The boys in jail were totally negative." That, in itself, did not particularly suprise her. What did, however, was what young boys would consider a proper incentive. "I was thinking about money," she said. "But they wanted the neighborhoods to re-open recreation centers. They wanted sports camps and field trips. They're bored, and with nothing to do, they said, it's easy to find a party and have sex." Akhter also found the young boys wanted sex education in schools, but not the sort that most of them were exposed to. "Many of these boys have had some kind of contact with prostitutes and transvestites and are having sex before sex education is introduced. So seeing charts and movies in school about body parts is just stupid to them," Akhter said. "They want to see more realistic things, like how to go into a store and buy a condom." Akhter, who plans to pursue a doctorate in public health, is now looking for a publisher for her 21-page research report. In the meantime, she is weighing whether to continue her research into the male role in teen-age pregnancy in America or switch to an interest closer to home: the effects of diarrhea on child mortality in Bangladesh.
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