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Vital Signs
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"Autism is a part of me but doesn't reflect whom I really am inside. / Some say I am broken and that the core of me has died." So begins Sondra Williams' poem "Oddly Portrayed," published on the Autism Netverse Web site. Johns Hopkins junior Vandna Jerath, a neuroscience major and Writing Seminars minor, created the site to give people with autism, who have difficulty with language and communication, a venue for artistic expression. Funded by the Provost's Undergraduate Research Award program, the site features poetry, paintings, and photographs ranging from works by established writers and painters to 7-year-old Charles Muller's "Prayer for a Lost Cat." The writings especially — some sweet and funny, others profound and sad — offer unexpected and moving insight into this often-misunderstood condition.
—Catherine Pierre

Vital Signs

Americans Not Getting Their Medical Money's Worth

Americans spend more money on health care than do people in any other country in the world. But, according to a new study by an international team of researchers, they're not always getting better medical care. Published in the May/June issue of Health Affairs, the study compared the quality of health care in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. "The results of our study show that the United States performs better than other countries in only a few areas," says Peter S. Hussey, A&S '97, the study's lead author and a doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "This raises the question of what Americans receive for all of the money devoted to health care." Tracking 21 health care indicators, the researchers found that the United States scored highest in breast cancer survival rate and cervical cancer screening rate, and had the lowest smoking rate (tied with Canada). However, the U.S. did not do so well on survival after kidney and liver transplants and on asthma mortality rates — in fact, the U.S. is the only country that is seeing an increase in asthma rates. — CP

Parents: Exercise Helps-Not Hurts-Kids With Asthma

A study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center says that many asthmatic children don't get the exercise they should, partly because their parents believe that exercise would do more harm than good. The report, published in the April issue of Pediatrics, surveyed the parents of 137 asthmatic children and 106 healthy children. The researchers found that almost a fifth of the parents thought exercise was dangerous for children with asthma, and that those parents' children were likely to be inactive. "Despite medical advances and a better understanding of asthma, we found that beliefs still exist that exercise is dangerous for asthmatic children and that children with asthma should not exercise," says lead researcher David Lang, a former pediatric fellow at the Children's Center. "In reality, physical activity has important benefits for all children, including those with asthma." — CP

Arsenic and an Old Leukemia Question

Scientists have known for more than a century that arsenic can be used to treat various forms of acute myeloid leukemia. But no one has ever understood why. Recently, a team of Hopkins investigators led by Chi Van Dang, professor of medicine, solved that mystery and may have found a new therapeutic approach to treatment. Dang and his team discovered that arsenic triggers genes producing an enzyme complex called NADPH oxidase, which, when switched on by the arsenic, induces destruction of cancerous cells without harming normal cells. The researchers also found that arsenic, combined with a substance called bryostatin, works synergistically. Only a tenth of the usual dosage achieves the same results obtained by application of the two substances individually. This is promising because arsenic's toxicity can induce severe side effects, such as neuropathy. The new findings appeared in the March 16 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. — DK

April 24, 2004

While thousands rode carnival rides and noshed on funnel cakes at the Spring Fair on the Homewood campus, the Department of Physics and Astronomy offered up another kind of fun: the first Physics Fair. Held at the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, located on the north end of campus, the free event was intended to introduce physics — and Hopkins — to local high school students.

12:30 p.m. Nine high school teams compete in Round One of the Physics Bowl in the auditorium, answering questions like, Which of the following particles is the heaviest-A) electron, B) proton, C) photon, D) neutron, E) neutrino? [Answer: D]

1 p.m. The first of Inge Heyer's Hubble Space Telescope presentations begins in room 361. Visitors wander up to the roof to search for sun spots using the telescope.

1:15 p.m. Grad student Ting Yong Chen helps Scavenger Hunt teams use a scanning electron microscope to inspect a fly's 10-micron compound eyes and answer the question, How many eyes does a fly have? (Answer: 20,000!)

2:15 p.m. The Hopkins Blue Jay mascot shows up for Cal Walker's lecture on quirky events and principles, which includes footage of the ill-fated Tacoma Narrows Bridge twisting and swinging in the wind.

2:45 p.m. The High Rise Contest begins in the second-floor rotunda. Baltimore Polytech teacher Jamie Rittner hands out toothpicks and mini-marshmallows. Contestants have 20 minutes to build the highest tower that can stand on its own for 60 seconds. The winner: a triangle-based geodesic structure 45 centimeters high, built by the Anderson family of Ellicott City: Katherine, 12, Chris, 14, and their scientist parents, David and Vilma.

3:15 p.m. In the Rotunda is a popular attraction: a liquid nitrogen demonstration. Grad students use the compressed liquid to create a frothing volcano that spills across the linoleum floor, while visitors dip fresh flowers into the liquid and shatter them like glass.

3:30 p.m. Three Physics Bowl teams assemble in the auditorium for Round II.

4 p.m. The awards ceremony honors Physics Bowl winners and other of the day's participants with trophies and gift certificates.
— Martha Thomas


Eureka! They've Found It

Airborne pathogens, body armor, and quantum computing were central to the Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory's 2003 Inventions of the Year, bestowed by APL at a ceremony in April. A review panel considered 139 inventions created by APL researchers and selected three for recognition. Richard Potember and Wayne Bryden won for developing a system to destroy biological agents as they circulate through heating and air-conditioning ducts. The system, which does not impede air flow, could be applied to scrub bacteria, viruses, and spores from air in hospitals, cruise ships, and airplanes. Jack Roberts and Paul Biermann were recognized for using overlapping layers of ceramic composites to create lightweight, flexible body armor. The armor encases the composite material in a polymer that stiffens on impact, to repel bullets or shrapnel. James Franson, Bryan Jacobs, and Todd Pitman won for a new method of reducing errors in quantum computing operations — used to perform ultra-complicated calculations involving subatomic particles. -DK

Bringing Stability to the World of Peptides

Two Hopkins scientists have overcome a major hurdle in the development of new drugs by figuring out a simple way to make vast quantities of druglike peptides. In the body, peptides act as important messengers and hormones, but are unstable because their building blocks — amino acids — are quickly recycled. Peptides made from the 20 naturally occurring amino acids don't act long enough to be useful as medicines. But by using a simple chemical reaction first reported in the early 1980s, Chuck Merryman, a Hopkins postdoctoral fellow, and Rachel Green, associate professor of molecular biology and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, were able to convert en masse the naturally occurring amino acids to ones that form more stable peptides. "In an afternoon," says Merryman, "we'll be able to make literally millions of millions of different peptides with medicinal potential." Merryman and Green reported their findings in the April 19 issue of Chemistry & Biology. — SD

The Shape of Stem Cells to Come

The development of cellular therapies will depend on the ability to grow cells of specific types. New research at Hopkins has increased scientists' understanding of the variety of cues that regulate differentiation of stem cells from bone marrow into fat or bone cells. Rowena McBeath, a Hopkins MD/PhD candidate in stem-cell biology, has demonstrated that an integral cue is the shape of the stem cells before they differentiate. McBeath used a technique called micropatterning, developed by Hopkins biomedical engineering professor Christopher Chen, to create microscopic islands big enough to contain one stem cell each. These islands were of two sizes. Controlling for all other factors that affect cell differentiation, McBeath found that when stem cells had room to elongate, they formed the precursors to bone cells. When confined to smaller islands that forced them to remain more spherical, the stem cells differentiated into fat-cell precursors. McBeath's research appeared in the April issue of Developmental Cell. — DK


The dainty Mixtec mask is beautiful but flawed. Some of the tessera, the small gleaming tiles that coat the surface of the sculpted clay face, have fallen off in the 500 years since it was crafted. Turquoise tiles are missing from the nose and mouth. Two tiny black obsidian pupils still sparkle and glimmer, but the slivers of shell that once formed the whites of the eyes are long gone.

Where one person might see imperfections, Lisa DeLeonardis, a lecturer in Hopkins' Department of the History of Art, sees teaching possibilities. Using the mask, students could create a virtual model of how they think the mosaic might have looked when it was pristine, she says. And since Hopkins has some of the tessera that fell off the mask, students could also examine the tiles.

"This is more representative of archaeological remains than some of the perfect examples now in museums," DeLeonardis says of the mask, which was created around the 5th century by the Mixtecs, who were known to have produced the finest mosaics in all of Mexico. The 5-1/4 by 6 inch mask is too tiny to have been worn by a person. It may have adorned a statue or been placed in a tomb as an offering, DeLeonardis says.

Recovered from a cave in Mexico, the mask is part of a collection of 59 pieces of art of the ancient Americas gifted to Hopkins by John A. Stokes Jr., A&S '52, director of the Austen-Stokes Ancient Americas Foundation. (Two other pieces are on renewable loan from the foundation.) Since January, the Art of the Ancient Americas Collection has been on display in Gilman Hall as part of the Archaeological Collection, Hopkins' collection of Greco-Roman and Near Eastern art and artifacts.

The collection "enables us not only to talk about the social history of various civilizations but to also have the objects on hand," says DeLeonardis. "A slide just doesn't reproduce the dimensions or give a sense of how large, weighty, and detailed these objects can be." — MB


A term like "gene swapping" — which is what takes place when viruses infecting a person or an animal recombine their genes to form hybrid viruses — can make a complex idea simple to understand. Donald Burke, professor of international health and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is an expert on emerging infectious disease. With recent outbreaks like SARS and avian flu — not to mention HIV/AIDS — it's a topic that's on a lot of minds. For those of us who aren't experts, Burke has created a few neologisms that resonate a little more than the standard technical jargon:

Viral Chatter: If this sounds like "terrorist chatter," it's meant to. It's when there is frequent cross-species infections but no major epidemic. "There's something going on," says Burke, "but it really hasn't exploded. You just know something is up."

Bio-Bungling: The unintentional release into the human population of a laboratory virus that is extinct. For example, the H1N1 flu epidemic hit in 1918 but became extinct in humans after 1956 (though it continued to circulate in pigs). It was accidentally released from a lab — bio-bungled — and re-emerged in humans in 1977. The most recent SARS outbreak was a case of bio-bungling, but the epidemic was quickly contained.

"Self-Fulfilling Prophecy" Epidemic: When fear of a virus re-emerging leads to bio-bungling. It is believed that H1N1 was released when scientists in Asia reopened vials of the extinct virus as part of their efforts to create a vaccine against the swine flu of 1976. "The swine flu epidemic fizzled," explains Burke, "but the previously extinct H1N1 virus was released, causing a re-emergence." — CP

Forever Altered

Mentor, hero, inspiration: Hopkins teachers who have left their mark

"As a bachelor's student at the School of Nursing, I was fortunate to have my budding nursing future shaped by instructor Lori Edwards in community health. Lori has extraordinary patience and kindness, especially when dealing with patients with a host of challenges. The high-risk pregnant mothers we visited in East Baltimore come to mind immediately. Many were faced with psychosocial and medical issues, coupled with a lack of financial and social support. With her gentle spirit, tolerance, and respect for all people, Lori helped us understand that these mothers were doing the best they could — even if it didn't always appear that way.

"I'll always remember one particular family: a pregnant mother, expecting twins, who already had many children, including a toddler with sickle cell anemia. During the time I made weekly visits, he was admitted to the hospital. I scheduled a time to meet his mother over the weekend, when she was planning to visit him. She never showed up. I still visited this little boy, who desperately soaked up my attention and cried when I left. How is it, I wondered, that this mother did not come to see him? Lori later talked with me, and said, 'Michelle, this mother is very overwhelmed. It may be a great relief and comfort for her that her son is in the hospital; she knows he is being taken care of when she feels like she can't.' That was an important perspective I just hadn't considered.

"Today, I continue to work with a similar patient population at Boston Medical Center. The complex challenges each child and family brings to the clinics remind me of my days in East Baltimore, and of the lessons I learned from Lori. Her influence continues to permeate my practice."

Michelle Barrella, BSN '97, is a clinical nurse in primary care at Boston Medical Center's Asthma Allergy Specialty Clinic and project manager for the hospital's Magnet project.

Bottom Line

Since 1972, Spring Fair has brought Hopkins students and the local community together for a weekend of carnival rides, food, art, and cheap beer. This year, Howard Chang, A&S '04, and Janet Chang, A&S '04 (they're not related), worked with 40 other student volunteers to make the 2004 fair a reality.

170: Number of Spring Fair vendors, which included 85 arts-and-crafts vendors, 50 nonprofits, and 35 food vendors. Items for sale ranged from fudge and dog biscuits to hand-made soaps and imported scarves.

3: Vendors hawking that perennial Spring Fair favorite, chicken-on-a-stick.

97.5: Kegs sold (and presumably drunk) at the Beer Garden, an annual Spring Fair fund-raiser in the President's Garden. About 10 student groups sold beer, including students from Sigma Alpha Mu, the JHU Tutorial Project, and The Johns Hopkins News-Letter.

1: The number of intoxicated students who jumped into the President's Garden pond this year. According to Howard Chang, there is "usually no more than one a weekend because the students realize it's a very old gag and that they get kicked out right away."

15-20: Approximate number, in thousands, of people who attended the fair this year. Over the same weekend, an estimated 8,651 people visited the Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

1,800: Number of people cheering the rock band Guster Saturday night in a sold-out Spring Fair concert at the Newton H. White Athletic Center. On Sunday, about 300 to 400 people stopped in front of Shriver Hall to hear and ogle Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's band, O'Malley's March.
— Jessica Valdez, A&S '04


Course: Do You Want Fries With That? A History of Food and Eating in America

Instructor: Felicity S. Northcott, a senior lecturer in anthropology and the associate director of the Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power, and History. (Northcott was named outstanding teacher in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences in 2002 by the Johns Hopkins Alumni Association.)

Course Description: Do You Want Fries With That? explores anthropological perspectives on food consumption in contemporary America. The course covers topics such as how public transportation affects eating habits and access to fresh foods, how to address the illusion that fast food is cheaper than home cooking, and how powerful nations exploit developing countries for their natural resources. Students participate in field projects such as surveying the buying and eating habits of customers at local grocery stores in two Baltimore neighborhoods. They write a paper on their favorite processed comfort food, and they keep a food diary that tracks their eating habits over a five-day period. They also give an eating-history questionnaire to a friend or relative over 60 and do a soy-food inventory at a grocery store in their hometown over spring break.

Reading List:

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Sidney Mintz (1985).

Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, Marion Nestle (2003).

Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, Greg Critser (2003).

Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (Hagley Perspectives on Business and Culture), Warren James Belasco and Philip Scranton (2001).

Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (2001). The Jungle, Upton Sinclair (1906).

Up & Comer

Name: James Potash
Age: 41

Position: Assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences

Stats: BA '84 in English from Yale College, MPH '89 in epidemiology and international health from Hopkins School of Public Health, and MD '93 from Hopkins School of Medicine

Scouting Report: "He is a classic triple threat — he is a clinician trained as a physician and a psychiatrist, he is trained in research, and he is a gifted and dedicated teacher," says Raymond DePaulo, chair of Psychiatry.

Research: Potash is searching for the genes that cause bipolar I disorder, a severe form of the illness with psychotic symptoms like hallucinations and delusions. Specifically, he's trying to find suspected "overlap" genes that make people susceptible to both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. (One such gene has already been identified.) "When we have definite genes in hand, we hope that we'll be able to correlate having a particular form of one of these disease genes with response to a particular medication," says Potash. "[Right] now, although our medications sometimes work well, too many people are started on a medicine only to find six months later that that medicine didn't help. By the time you get to the right medication, time may have elapsed and a lot of suffering may have occurred."

Alternative Career: As managing editor of the Yale Daily News, Potash thought he'd become a journalist — until a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in West Africa. "While I was there I decided to be a doctor because I saw so many people with medical needs and thought that this was a great way to help people."

When He's Not Gene Hunting: "I play basketball with my sons in the backyard, listen to college courses on tape (History of Ancient Greece, History of China), and go to plays at Theatre Hopkins."

Here and Abroad

The Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan has given the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health a three-year, $3.9 million grant to create an evaluation system that will monitor and assess the nation's health care, which is largely provided by non-governmental organizations. As part of the program, Hopkins researchers also will help the Afghan government develop a health care finance system to sustain health services in the future. The grant is part of the $60 million in aid given to Afghanistan by the World Bank.

In April, Sidney Mintz, Hopkins professor emeritus of anthropology, addressed the International Association of Culinary Professionals at its first conference, held in Baltimore. Mintz, the IACP Scholar-in-Residence, spoke about the global diffusion of food; the emotional meaning it has for people; and how it can bring people together or drive them apart, depending on cultural mores. "By our experimenting with what we eat and with our rules for eating it," said Mintz, "we humans created a thousand different food universes, each populated by people who were utterly convinced that what they ate was the only real food, fit for real human beings."

The School of Public Health has established the Center for Public Health and Human Rights. Funded by a grant from the Development Fund for the Open Society Institute, the new center will examine the impact human rights violations have on the health of populations. Researchers at the school are currently studying such topics as how rights violations contribute to the spread of HIV and hepatitis C in Russia's sex industry and the way ethnic cleansing campaigns affect the health of minorities in Burma.

Return to June 2004 Table of Contents

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