Water. It is essential to life, but in many parts of
the world access to clean drinking water is an immense
Louisiana native Melissa Floca says that
growing up near the Mississippi River gave her an
appreciation of water-related issues. In fact, Floca's high
school senior project focused on river conservation and
environmental racism along the Mississippi corridor, a
waterway beset with pollution problems.
So, when the then 17-year-old Floca received in the
mail an application for a $10,000 fellowship award to
pursue an independent research project of her own design at
Johns Hopkins, two things became clear: Water would
certainly be entwined in her topic, and JHU had suddenly
risen to the top of her college wish list.
Floca says that grant application would become a
passport for the adventure of her young life, allowing her
to conduct meaningful field research in Bosnia, Cuba and,
primarily, South Africa.
Floca, now a senior majoring in
political science and
that the term research has an entirely new meaning in her
"When you're 17, the kind of research that you do is
science fair stuff. You put milk, water and Coke in the
freezer to see which one expands more. But [my Woodrow
Wilson project] was definitely on a much different level,"
Floca says. "Having this grant gave me the opportunity to
spend my energy outside the academic year learning how to
do research, and understand what meaningful research is. My
project evolved immensely, and that evolution has been a
phenomenal learning process for me, because to arrive at
the point that I am now, I have learned so many things not
directly related to water."
Floca is one of 28 Woodrow Wilson fellows who on
Friday, April 30, will display and discuss the results of
their research at a poster session to be held from 3 to 6
p.m. in Homewood's Glass Pavilion.
Founded in 1999, the annual Woodrow Wilson
Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program allows students
in the Krieger School of Arts and
Sciences 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 awards 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, associate dean for
academic affairs; 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
Wilson 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.
Floca's initial proposal was to examine water scarcity
and violent conflict in developing countries. The more she
researched, however, the more it became clear that she
wanted to focus on the privatization of water service in
Floca says that she decided to zero in on this
particular nation because it has the most private-sector
involvement in water provision of any African nation. Also,
the end of apartheid brought about a new political and
socioeconomic system there, which made the evolving
situation ripe for research purposes.
In South Africa, as is the case in many other
developing countries, the state has handed off the control
of water infrastructure to multinational for-profit
corporations due to the increasing demand for water and the
inability of the government to administer the service
"Many people think this is a good thing. Poor,
developing countries can't provide water to their citizens,
and they feel that multinational companies can do it better
and cheaper," says Floca , whose faculty mentor was Siba
Grovogui, an associate professor of political science. "On
the other side, you have poor people saying, 'I can't pay
my water bill because this French company is making these
huge profits on the price they're charging for water, and
it's morally reprehensible because water is necessary for
For some South African citizens, water bills amount to
30 percent of their income. In addition, some communities
face upward of 75 percent unemployment, Floca says.
Simply unable to afford the service, hundreds of
thousands have been cut off from water service, being
forced to beg for water from neighbors, with some
ultimately turning to untreated water sources.
Subsequently, the untreated water these citizens consume
has led to massive cholera outbreaks and other public
The title of Floca's project is "Privatization of
Water in South Africa: Price, Paucity and Protest." Floca
says that she wanted to see how the water demands were
being met in the country, and how grassroots groups in
opposition to water privatization were trying to influence
The short answer, Flora discovered, was that they
"I learned that these social groups don't have the
ability to really influence government policy. They are
only reactionary," she says. "If a private company starts
cutting off people's water, the citizens resort to violent
conflicts or other methods of pressure. They react to the
event, but they can't take it to the next level."
Subjects of other Wilson projects on display at the
Friday poster session range from Jane Austen's life and
works to detergent-based spermicides, the history of
traditional Taiwanese cooking and the eating behaviors of
PHOTO BY HPS/WILL KIRK
Patricia Chan, a senior
used her fellowship to explore her passion, graphic design.
She focused on the graphic design scene in London, the
epicenter of the field and home to many cutting-edge design
Chan says she literally immersed herself in the
subject during her four years. She interviewed several
leading graphic designers, picking their brains on
techniques and what inspired them. She also extensively
researched the history of graphic design and endeavored to
learn the tools of the trade, namely the latest in design
software and printing methods. In London, when she wasn't
reading, designing or interviewing, Chan says she was
either taking photographs or looking for inspiration in
every nook and crevice of the city.
When she returned to Baltimore, Chan used the hundreds
of photographs she took and the knowledge she gained to
create her own graphic designs for posters, book
illustrations and a Macromedia Flash presentation that
utilized many of her London street scenes. Chan's mentor
was Joan Freedman, director of JHU's Digital Media
An exhibit of Chan's work that resulted from her
Woodrow Wilson project will be on display until May 2 in
the Mattin Center's Ross Jones Building.
Today, Chan clearly has graphic design running through
"The Woodrow Wilson grant gave me the chance to pursue
something creative and artistic that I probably otherwise
wouldn't have gotten to do in such depth," she said.
Like Floca, Chan has a newfound understanding of what
research is all about.
"When I started, I had a preconception of what
research was. I needed to have a hypothesis, prove it and
come up with a conclusion," she says. "My big realization
was that it was OK to get completely immersed in the whole
thing and not focus on one specific detail. At one point, I
just let go and dove into everything about graphic
Says Chan, she's found her calling.