The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 29, 1999
Mar. 29, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 28


Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards

Provost's Research Awards enrich undergraduates' learning experience

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

When Adam Morris and Omar Alquaddoomi, then juniors majoring in mechanical engineering, first learned of an international competition to build, design and operate a small robotic submarine, their enthusiasm meter went well into the red.

Louis Whitcomb, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, remembers when the two students approached him a little over a year ago to tell him how excited they were about entering the competition, which would be held in August in Panama City, Fla.

Provost's Award recipients Omar Alquaddoomi, Joshua Apgar and Adam Morris were part of a Hopkins student team that built JANUS, a small robotic submarine that they're shown testing in the swimming pool at the Newton H. Athletic Center at Homewood.

"They asked, 'Well, can we build one?'"

"I said, "Sure, it sounds like a great idea,' " Whitcomb recalls.

Then he had to bring them down to earth. "I told them first they need to get some money."

Whitcomb advised the two to consider the option of applying for Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards.

As winners of the awards, approximately 50 students each year receive up to $2,500 to carry out a proposed research project. The two were awarded grants, which they used to help a team of Hopkins students design and build a small robotic submarine to represent the university in the competition.

But shortly into the project, Morris and Alquaddoomi realized they might have some problems completing their objectives.

"We had simple solutions for how to propel it and make it buoyant," Alquaddoomi says. "But navigating the sub was something different altogether."

Alquaddoomi, familiar with the marine science industry, knew of a Doppler radar system that would be ideal for their purposes. Once again, they approached Whitcomb, who had signed on as their faculty sponsor for the research awards.

"He said he could get us one--that was the thing we needed," says Alquaddoomi, adding that Whitcomb also allowed them to use his home pool to test the submarine. "That was so gracious of him."

Although Morris and Alquaddoomi still had problems to solve--like how to integrate the sonar device into the submarine's on-board computer and adapt its capabilities to suit their purposes--Alquaddoomi says just having access to the $33,000 piece of equipment put the project on another level.

Whitcomb says that his two undergraduate researchers would have figured out another solution without his help, but he was more than happy to lend them a hand.

"They are so wonderfully gung-ho," Whitcomb says, "that they break your heart."

On March 30, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Steven Knapp, university provost and vice president for academic affairs, will host the sixth annual Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards ceremony, which will honor Alquaddoomi, Morris and 43 other winners of 1998 grants. The event, which will take place in the Glass Pavilion of Levering Hall on the Homewood campus, will be preceded at 3 p.m. by a poster session during which the students will display and talk about their research projects.

The awards, begun in 1993 by then provost Joseph Cooper, are an important part of the university's commitment to research and to allowing undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct meaningful study alongside some of the nation's top researchers. Since the program's inception, students have explored a multitude of research topics, some of whose results have been published in professional journals.

Knapp says the research projects have consistently maintained a high standard.

"Every year, the poster session reminds us how talented and inventive our students really are. To me, what is most remarkable about these projects is their intellectual sophistication and maturity," Knapp says. "I'm always delighted when a colleague turns to me and says with awe, '"You know, these are publishable results."

Theodore Poehler, vice provost for research, says that roughly 70 percent of all Hopkins undergraduates will participate in research at some point in their academic career. These undergraduate awards, he adds, are an ideal way to introduce students to the research process.

"If you talk to these students after their projects are completed, they have a totally different perspective on their education," Poehler says. "By doing research, they have connected what they have learned and will learn to a practical application of that information. They now have a better understanding of the material. It transforms them and makes them much better students."

Just ask the robotic-submarine builders.

About six months before the competition, biophysics major Joshua Apgar, now 21, of Newton, Mass., had learned about the event and recruited Alquaddoomi, 20, of Glendale, Calif.; Morris, 21, of New Albany, Ohio, and several other students to construct a Hopkins entry. "We spent about a month designing it," Apgar recalls. "We only had time to build it once. There was not enough time or money to redo the project if it didn't come out right. It forced us to come up with some very creative solutions."

The sub's motors, for example, were actually designed for fishing boats. The students also modified and used some circuitry made for remote-controlled cars, not underwater vehicles.

"So much of this was home-made," Alquaddoomi says.

"It was a lesson in engineering," says Morris. "We learned the tricks of the trade for building marine vessels--which none of us had experienced."

The result was a 210-pound device, about 50 inches long and 20 inches in diameter, dubbed JANUS, short for Johns Hopkins Autonomously Navigating Underwater System. Under the rules of the contest, JANUS had to steer itself around an underwater course and through six submerged gates without help from anyone watching on the sidelines. In other words, this could not be a remote-controlled vehicle.

JANUS' "belly" was a water-tight aluminum alloy cylinder that housed the sub's computer, batteries and other electronic gear. With the help of Whitcomb, the team was able to borrow an expensive Doppler Vehicle Log navigation system from San Diego- based RD Instruments.

When JANUS was finished, Alquaddoomi, Apgar, Morris and five other members of the Hopkins team drove it to the competition. But as the students tested the vehicle in a hotel room, an ungrounded electrical outlet "fried" some crucial circuits, causing JANUS to place last among four entries.

Undaunted, an expanded Hopkins student team is improving the vessel and preparing to enter it again in this summer's competition. "We've been through the process once," Morris says, "and we know how it works."

How the awards program works is that a six-member selection committee, made up of representatives from each of the undergraduate divisions, has the difficult task of deciding which students will be awarded the grants.

Poehler says the program has become a "growth industry," as each year the committee receives more applicants. Last year more than 100 applications were submitted.

The research projects can sometimes be timely

Tom Noone, a graduate of Regis High School in New York City, delved into welfare reform and workfare programs in New York and Wisconsin from a constitutional law angle. Titled "Helping Hands or Sticky Fingers?" Noone's research has explored whether requiring work as a condition for benefits can go too far and actually intrude on liberty interests of poor people.

His research took him to New York and Wisconsin, and he studied more than 100 court cases in attempting to analyze the constitutionality of workfare programs. He declines to give his conclusion prior to the public presentation, but he does say the experience taught him a lot.

"More than anything else, this has shown me what research is like," Noone says. "It's long hours in the library. There have been nights when it's 10 o'clock and you've been in the library for seven hours and your eyes hurt from reading all these old cases, but at the same time, it's exciting."

Joel Grossman, a professor of political science and an expert in constitutional law, sponsored Noone's application. Because the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on workfare programs, Noone's research could be important, Grossman says.

"We are now at the point that we want to see how well welfare reform is working," Grossman says. "Somehow, there is a gap between promise and performance. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with."

Other students are on the cusp of medical advances

Niharika Bansal (pictured at right), 20, a senior biology major from Bethesda, Md., studied a molecule that allows sperm to attach to eggs and probed the possibility of developing a new form of contraception with her project, "The Role of Fertilin in Mouse Fertilization."

In her research, Bansal focused on fertilin, a protein on the surface of the sperm that helps bind the sperm to the egg surface. The fertilin molecules will only attach to specific areas of the egg, like a key in a lock, says Bansal's sponsor, Janice Evans, an assistant professor of biochemistry in the School of Public Health.

Bansal looked into taking small parts of the fertilin molecule and testing whether those pieces would bind to the egg and thus block sperm from attaching to the egg, says Evans. If this were so, Bansal hypothesized, it could be the basis for a new kind of contraception.

To test her theory, Bansal planned to develop proteins that mimic fertilin on sperm, determine if they would attach to mouse eggs and see whether that would result in sperm being blocked from attaching to the eggs during in vitro fertilization, says Evans. Bansal completed the first two parts of the project and demonstrated that these proteins bind to the surfaces of eggs.

Because it took more than four months to develop the proteins, Bansal was unable to carry through the third part of the project. Her work, however, provided important groundwork and set the stage for the in vitro fertilization experiments, says Evans.

Even though she didn't complete her original plan, Bansal says she is satisfied with the experience. She got to work closely with her faculty sponsor, and a graduate student in the lab has since shown that these proteins do reduce the binding of the sperm to eggs.

"I was lucky to get some real positive results that I think will help [the research]," says Bansal. "I broadened my expertise in research techniques and got to see the thinking behind the science."

Kevin Janes (pictured at right) needed a high-powered lens to see his tiny research subjects.

Janes, a 21-year-old senior from Ridgewood, N.J., has been using his research award to conduct experiments in gene therapy. The biomedical engineering major works with polymer nanospheres--microscopic globs of plastic surrounding bits of DNA. After the spheres are injected into the bloodstream, the plastic disintegrates, leaving behind DNA that may produce a protein missing in the body. This could help restore normal function to diseased cells.

Using laboratory mice, Janes has been trying to trace where this corrective DNA settles in the body. If it is the liver, for example, this technique might be useful for treating liver diseases. Janes' faculty sponsor is Kam Leong, a biomedical engineering professor who pioneered the use of these nanospheres.

Mahesh Shenai, on the other hand, took a more visual approach to fighting disease.

Shenai, a 21-year-old senior from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., is using his award to create an advanced two-dimensional computer model depicting a common heart disease called myocardial ischemia.

By using a computer to simulate the electrical activity that takes place in diseased heart tissue, the biomedical engineering major hopes to help pinpoint the cause of spontaneous and fatal cardiac conditions called arrythmias. He is working with Nitish Thakor, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Sarvenaz Zand (pictured at right), a 20-year-old junior from Northridge, Calif., is using her grant to assist School of Medicine researchers seeking a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

This team is studying drugs that could cause the body to produce more of a substance called nerve growth factor. Spurring the body to produce more nerve growth factor could halt and possibly reverse the brain damage caused by Alzheimer's, the scientists believe.

The team has studied a vitamin D compound that appeared to increase the production of nerve growth factor in the brain but was toxic to the rest of the body. For her project, Zand tested a variation of this drug on cell cultures in the lab. The biomedical engineering major found that the alternative form of vitamin D also increased the production of nerve growth factor but was non-toxic.

Next she tested the drug on lab rats, but the results were inconclusive. She is now trying to determine whether this compound can slow the growth of cancer. Her sponsor was Henry Brem in the Department of Neurosurgery.

Like Zand, other students are still knee-deep in their research

For Teddy Chao (picutred at right), just about every spare minute these days is spent remembering his summer vacation, which is usually relived in frame-by-frame real time.

"We've got over 100 hours of film to cut down to 60 minutes," says Chao, a computer science major, who grew up in Houston.

Chao is producer of Yardsale, a humorous 30-minute documentary about the planning and carrying-out of a yardsale, shot last summer in Gettysburg, Pa. The film explores the main character, Liz, and her accumulation of junk; small town life; womanly bonding; the American pasttime of bargain hunting; clutter vs. order; and other themes.

Chao's grant went toward the $13, 473.50 budget of the film, which was directed by Jake Boritt, who graduated from Hopkins last year. It is being edited by sophomore Sam Clanton, who received a provost's award to digitize the film.

The film, which is still in production, is made up of location footage; interviews with people ranging from Goldie, the local Rastafarian, to a Hopkins economics professor discussing capitalism; and a "rootsy, bluesy-grassy soundtrack by local musicians," says Chao.

"Every other weekend, we would leave Baltimore at 4:30 in the morning to get to all the different yardsales going on that summer," he says. "It would be the same group of people at each sale, and by the end of the summer, we had some great footage of this small cast of characters."

Clanton, a double major in biomedical engineering and computer science from Worthington, Ohio, is directing the film's post-production phase. Both he and Chao were sponsored by Jerome Christensen, then director of Film and Media Studies.

This is the first Hopkins film to be completely digitally post-produced.

"Non-linear digital editing is a recent technological breakthrough in the film industry. It is the future of the medium," says Clanton. "It is rare for undergraduates to work on a feature film using state-of-the-art equipment like this. It's an exciting opportunity."

Not all the award winners stayed so closed to home, however

A simple course in infant massage in America led Nadine Rosenblum (pictured at right) to the exotic backwaters and villages of the Kingdom of Lesotho.

The nursing student had a basic belief, based on pioneering research, that mothers who massage their babies for only a few minutes a day can improve the health and nutrition of their children. The benefit for poor, developing countries with high rates of infant mortality, like Lesotho in southern Africa, could be significant. Here was a public health tool that could be easily taught, that cost nothing and could potentially have a direct impact on helping poor children survive those first, often precarious, months of life.

"Although there have been a few studies about infant massage, I hadn't seen any having to do with the application of the research outside the clinical setting. That was interesting to think about," Rosenblum says. "If we could teach a group of mothers to massage their infants, would they continue to massage them at home--and would they go on to teach other mothers? And if word gets around, what would be the long-term effect on a village?"

With only a couple of months to institute a program, Rosenblum took the $2,400 from her provost's award, made the trek to the mountains of southern Africa during the summer of 1998 and started a pilot project on baby massage that will continue when she returns after graduating from nursing school this spring.

In Lesotho, she joined a health and nutrition project funded by the Near East Foundation and traveled regularly to three villages to teach 19 mothers infant massage techniques. Because traditional health care costs are often prohibitive, and travel to clinics quite difficult, Rosenblum's project met with enthusiastic acceptance among the women.

Her research depended on dividing the mothers into two groups, in which half were given instruction in baby massage, while the rest were taught more traditional methods of infant nutrition. Even though the sample was small and the study lasted for only eight weeks, Rosenblum discovered that the massaged babies gained weight far more rapidly than the other infants--an indication of potential health benefits.

"Studies show that along with the weight gain comes an improvement in neurological development, improved digestion and elimination functions and a healthier immune system," says Rosenblum, whose sponsor was Nancy Glass, an instructor in the School of Nursing. "It may be a stretch to say that massage actually improves nutritional absorption, and as far as I know, there's no scientific evidence of that. But I do think it's a totally thrilling and perfectly applicable concept. Steady weight gain is a good indicator of infant health. The steadier and more sustained the gains, the better health an infant will enjoy--hopefully, helping the baby stave off common, potentially fatal illnesses."

When she goes back to Africa after graduation to work full time, Rosenblum will continue her study by returning to the mothers and their children to see if weight gains have been sustained and if there have been long-term effects.

It remains an exciting prospect for a nurse with a newly minted Hopkins degree.

"If we can get babies to gain weight, they're more likely to survive that first year,"she says. "It's a broad, optimistic projection, but that's the goal. That's what I'm hoping we can get to eventually."

Linda Chang (pictured at right) had to travel even farther east to complete her research.

Chang has often wished there were more good novels written in English and set in 20th-century China. An author could certainly choose from an abundance of dramatic historical events in which to place a character.

With her provost's award, Chang, of Millbrae, Calif., bought a plane ticket and spent a summer traveling around Taiwan and China to conduct background research for writing a series of short stories set there. She learned about important Chinese historical events of this century, like its war with Japan, its conversion to communism, the cultural revolution and modern Chinese life. To gather this information, she studied original historical archives and gathered first-person narratives from scholars and ordinary people who lived through some of China's most dramatic historical periods. The final form of her project will be a collection of about 20 historically based pieces of fiction.

"I believe that there is not enough literature about Chinese history that is readily accessible to the average person, and fiction is an extremely effective way of communicating information," says Chang.

A public health major and budding writer, Chang says that traveling to China to conduct this research "was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

"So far, I have written several short stories, which are under constant revision, and have a few more brewing in my mind, waiting for those breaths of inspiration that will give them life and form," says Chang.

A Writing Seminars major was interested in nonfiction.

Katy Hsieh (pictured at right) used her provost's award to pay for a plane ticket and a place to stay in Alaska, where she studied the change in the area's literature as it moved from a frontier state to a residential one.

When you grow up in Taiwan as she did, Hsieh says, you learn what it is like to live in a fringe community. Hsieh left Taiwan at 14 to attend an American boarding school, and it wasn't until she visited Alaska that she would again sense that feeling of being part of and foreign to a mother country.

"Secluded from the lower 48, Alaska represents an unrivaled source of inspirations, an amalgam of cultural world-views and stimuli for nonfiction and fiction that is unparalleled anywhere else," she explains. "The relationships Alaskans have with the rest of the country are difficult for [those in] other states to imagine. Yet very few studies researched this relationship, and an insignificant percentage has been dedicated to the exploration of literature concerning this relationship," says Hsieh, whose sponsor was Writing Seminars professor Stephen Dixon.

While in Alaska, Hsieh studied historical archives, worked with professors of English and anthropology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and gathered interviews with Alaskan residents. She looked at the history of the state over the span of several eras, from its heyday as a fur-trapping territory, to its development into mining, to World War II, to the rise of the oil industry.

"I found the people in Alaska to be very self-sufficient and self-reliant, and there are a wide variety of views Alaskans have toward the continental United States," she says. "There are a lot of parallels between the attitudes of Alaskans and those of people from Taiwan. Some people are very receptive to what is happening in the rest of the country. They maintain ties; they follow the national news. Others feel they have little in common with the rest of the country and want to remain for the most part separate from the continental U.S."

Tanya Merchant (pictured at right) knows more about a country that wanted to be separate from the world.

It wasn't that long ago that her research would have been illegal. For her project, the Peabody student wanted to pay some long overdue attention to one style of music: Russian baroque music for woodwinds.

Today little is known about the music of baroque times, and it is rarely performed, says Merchant, a junior majoring in bassoon performance. During that period, Europe was uninterested in Russian music because it typically viewed Russia as a primitive, pagan country. As a result, that form of music never really made it out of Russia. And for nearly a century, until a few years ago, the only way to obtain copies of Russian music of that period was to smuggle it out of the Soviet Union.

"Now, with the walls down, there is a unique opportunity for research and open forum with Russian experts," says Merchant. "This is an especially significant project because the time is now ripe to do research in Russia and create ties between the early music communities of both countries."

Merchant, whose sponsor was Peabody faculty member Susan Weiss, spent two weeks last summer searching for archival information and meeting with music-history experts in Moscow and St. Petersburg in the hopes of bringing this forgotten music to the United States in the form of a lecture and recital.

But it wasn't until the day before she left to return to the United States that Merchant hit pay dirt: In St. Petersburg she met a professor who was the country's expert in the baroque musical period and knew just where to find the historical records she was looking for. Fortunately, she hadn't spent her entire stipend and was able to return to St. Petersburg over this past spring break to finish her project. She returned to Baltimore last week and plans to display some of her finds at the poster session.

Gary Dorsey, Leslie Rice, Glenn Small, Phil Sneiderman and Robyn Thorpe contributed to this article.

The Sixth Annual Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards Ceremony
Tuesday, March 30
Glass Pavilion, Levering Hall
Homewood campus
3-4:30 p.m. Poster session
4:30 p.m. Recognition ceremony

Welcoming remarks

Introduction of sponsoring organization
Introduction of selection committee

Introduction of honored guests Steven Knapp, provost

Certificate presentation
Theodore Poehler, vice provost for research and chair of the selection committee

Special presentation by award winners

Closing remarks Provost Knapp

5:15 p.m. Reception

Follow these links to...
Undergraduate Provost Awards -- Fall 1998 Projects
Undergraduate Provost Awards -- Summer 1998 Projects