Asking Questions, Big and Small
PURA grants in hand, 45 undergrads search for answers here
The greatest of breakthroughs often begin with a
simple question. How about that fellow who asked, "What
happens when I rub these two sticks together?"
Even a relatively small step forward in human
knowledge can be traced back to someone who stops to ponder
the world around him.
Do males and females respond differently to pain? Can
we improve the potency of an existing DNA vaccine to treat
cervical cancer patients? How does Bangladesh fight
domestic terrorism? Really now, can film do justice to
This year's recipients of Provost's
Undergraduate Research Awards asked these questions and
others as they explored the research world.
On Thursday, March 8, Steven Knapp, university provost
and senior vice president for academic affairs, will host
the 14th annual PURA awards ceremony, which will honor the
45 projects carried out by students in the summer and fall
Since 1993, about 40 students each year have received
PURA grants of up to $3,000 to conduct original research,
some results of which have been published in professional
journals. The awards, funded through a donation from the
Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's
mission and its commitment to research opportunities for
The awards are open to students in each of the
university's four schools with full-time undergraduates:
the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School
of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of
The 2007 ceremony will be held in the Glass Pavilion
at Homewood. The entire Hopkins community is invited to the
event, which begins at 3 p.m. with an informal poster
session allowing students to display and talk about their
projects. A recognition ceremony hosted by Knapp will begin
at 4:30 p.m. and will include a presentation by PURA
recipient Kevin Clark of Peabody. A reception follows at
approximately 5:15 p.m.
Whether students found the answers they were looking
for or uncovered another research road to travel, the path
to discovery was dotted with valuable learning lessons. A
sampling of the winners follows.
A literary tour of Europe, literally
Back from his "grand tour,"
Patrick Kennedy strolls with adviser Jean McGarry past
Rodin's 'Thinker' at the BMA.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS
Patrick Kennedy's PURA grant furnished his
first trip abroad, where he staged a one-scholar revival of
the European "grand tour" popular with newly minted college
graduates in the 19th century.
Traveling through cities like London, Venice, Florence
and Paris, Kennedy focused on experiencing firsthand the
classical West that captivated "the most potent literary
minds in generations past," while also exploring his own
American upbringing and livelihood in contrast to life in
Under the guidance of his PURA adviser, novelist Jean
McGarry, and another close adviser, poet and critic John
Irwin, both of the Writing Seminars, Kennedy immersed
himself in his host cities' culture and customs. He
simultaneously studied expatriation testimonies by American
writers like Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings, Henry Miller,
Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, reading their
accounts while traveling through the places they wrote
"When I applied for the PURA, I envisioned myself
writing autobiographical fiction, a format that very
strongly mirrored their writing," Kennedy said. "On a
stylistic level, I find that I have learned much from
well-traveled poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. Both
Americans used abundant allusions and 'ventriloquized'
speakers. But both Eliot and Crane were very intimate
writers, who gave intellectual thrust to their most
meaningful, even painful personal experiences."
Kennedy, a junior who is triple majoring in Writing
Seminars, English and History of Art, is distilling all he
absorbed during last summer's sojourn into several works of
personalized fiction, taking the project beyond a simple
historical re-creation or literary criticism. McGarry calls
Kennedy "a spectacular student."
"Using himself as a test case, he absorbed what he
could and has written his own first-person testament on the
grand tour as an intensive and highly personal cultural and
intellectual education," McGarry said. "He finds that
contemporary fiction has ignored this interesting subject,
and he wants to jump-start a reinvestment in art and
culture as the substance of stories and novels."
Kennedy's first trip abroad had its share of Hollywood
moments: During his travels, he randomly bumped into both
McGarry and Irwin, who were in Europe attending
conferences. A journal he'd been keeping was lost somewhere
in Brussels. A taxi strike led to an epic, sleepless search
for lodging in Florence — but also gave him a
breathtaking city view he would otherwise have missed. Then
Kennedy was robbed by some Paris street toughs, who
employed an elaborate ruse to distract him and somehow
drain his bank account while he was using an ATM.
Luckily the majority of his PURA funds were safe in a
separate account back home, and his parents wired him some
cash — he even managed to stay on budget. But all
told, Kennedy is a strong advocate for the American
student's need for foreign travel.
"Study abroad has to be something that is spontaneous
and synthesized on a very individual level," Kennedy said.
"Seeing in person for the first time the great works of art
I had previously only read about was amazing."
Kennedy's first trip abroad won't be his last: He
hopes to head overseas again this summer, perhaps with his
Woodrow Wilson fellowship funds, to study the impact of
expatriate Russian modernism on painting and sculpture in
Western Europe during the 1920s.
— Amy Lunday
Working on a vaccine to fight cervical
Under the guidance of T-C Wu at
the School of Medicine, Chih-Ping Mao is part of a team
working on a vaccine to treat cervical cancer.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS
Though he's not quite 20 years old, Chih-Ping
Mao is well on his way to becoming a highly respected
While still a high school student in Austin, Texas, he
spent two years getting lab experience at the M.D. Anderson
Cancer Center. Last year, as a freshman at Johns Hopkins,
while many of his classmates were still getting comfortable
on campus, Mao and a friend were contacting faculty
members, looking for someone to sponsor their idea of using
a bacterial compound to fight cancer.
Although that project did not pan out, Mao found a
sympathetic ear in T-C Wu, a professor in the departments
of Pathology, Oncology, Gynecology and Obstetrics, and
Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the School of
Medicine. Wu offered Mao a place in his lab training
program last summer and sponsored him in a research project
In that project, supported by his Provost's
Undergraduate Research Award, Mao set out to improve the
potency of a DNA vaccine that Wu's team is developing to
treat cervical cancer patients.
While proceeding with the project, Mao produced three
lead-author research articles for medical science journals.
Two have already been published, and a third is in press.
He has also contributed to data that will appear in an
upcoming research study by Wu's team.
"It's pretty cool," Mao said. "I'm having a lot of fun
in this lab."
In a letter of support last spring for Mao's PURA
application, Wu wrote, "Chih-Ping is one of the most
creative and energetic young scientists whom I have had the
pleasure of mentoring. He has an extraordinary passion for
research and discovery, and his scientific abilities are
Wu's team is using a device called a "gene gun" to
fire gold particles coated with DNA into dendritic cells,
key players of the immune system, which reside in the skin.
This activates the dendritic cells to teach the body's
killer cells to attack the cervical cancer cells. Although
current vaccines are aimed at preventing cervical cancers,
Wu's medication is designed to combat the disease in women
already diagnosed with cervical cancer or its precursor
In this process, however, some helpful cancer-killing
immune cells can be destroyed during activation. Mao's goal
was to use a technique called RNA interference to reduce
the loss of helpful killer cells. "We're trying to prevent
the killer T cells, the cancer fighters, from dying," he
said. "It's a strategy to enhance the potency of Dr. Wu's
In his experiments, Mao said, this technique led to
two-to-three times more tumor-fighting cells. Further
experiments, including tumor treatment experiments in
animals, are needed, but Mao is optimistic about his
As a freshman, he was a biomedical engineering major,
but Mao recently switched his major to biology. He was
pleased to get a chance to work with Wu's team so early in
his academic career. "I think this is a very rare
opportunity," Mao said. "I feel lucky and very honored to
work in such a great lab. Hopkins has wonderful faculty
members doing very exciting things."
— Phil Sneiderman
Lights, camera, opera
Can an opera successfully be made
into a movie? Kevin Clark found out by filming his own
original 20-minute production.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS
The list of operas successfully made into films could
probably fit on a postage stamp, according to Kevin
Clark. OK, maybe a Post-it note, depending on who you
Clark, a double-degree major in composition at Peabody
and philosophy in the School of Arts and Sciences, said
that he's not alone in this harsh assessment, and theories
abound as to why the two artistic media don't mix.
"Some people think that opera is unfilmable, that it
just doesn't transfer at all," Clark said.
One mistake often made, he said, is hiring theater
people to take charge of the production, as they're
somewhat out of their element. Case in point: You're likely
to see people in a movie version of an opera with the same
level of makeup they would have on stage.
"[The makeup] can look dreadful in a camera close-up,"
said Clark, adding that the amount of eye shadow and face
treatment was intended for viewers some 100 yards away in a
theater. The same logic applies to painted backdrops and
exaggerated movements, Clark said, which look fine on
stage, but not so much under the scrutiny of a camera
Clark used his PURA grant to prove that opera could
indeed work on film — if you use the right
"I treated the project as a film first and an opera
second," said Clark, who studied opera directing with
Peabody faculty member Roger Brunyate, his PURA adviser.
For the project, Clark used his own original chamber
opera, Some Ado, which is based on characters from
Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing. The opera
features a four-person cast — three singers and one
percussionist, who also takes part in the action. Clark
said that the small cast allowed for quick pacing and a
He filmed the 20-minute opera, which premiered in May
2005 at the Theatre Project in Baltimore, over two grueling
days in May in Peabody's Cohen-Davison Theater. For the
set, Clark went very minimal and surreal.
"We don't talk about where they are [in the film], and
that is very intentional," he said. "We only made a few
changes to the theater for the production." The intention,
he said, was to show that theater and film effects can be
accomplished with no props or set pieces foreign to a
recital hall. The only props he used were percussion
mallets and music stands.
Clark edited the movie at Homewood in the Digital
Media Center, where he attended workshops to learn how to
use film-editing software.
The money from the PURA grant paid for the hall
rental, film equipment, many spare light bulbs (for filming
purposes) and food for his dedicated cast of fellow
students. He said they worked 15 hours the first day of
filming and an amazing 22 hours on day two, which happened
to be the day before graduation for some of them.
"I had no idea these people would be so dedicated to
the project," he said. "They took it like pros."
How did the film come out? It might not rival Ingmar
Bergman's version of The Magic Flute — one of the
rare successes of opera made into film, according to Clark
— but Clark was very happy with the results.
All those who attend the PURA ceremony can see for
themselves. The full film will be on display during the
poster session, and Clark will show excerpts of the
production during a presentation at the reception.
— Greg Rienzi
Looking for a way to reduce seizures
Jason Chiang spent last summer in
the School of Medicine lab of Marek A. Mirski, who is
looking for a way to reduce epileptic seizures.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS
A few months ago, Jason Chiang found himself at
the annual meeting of the American Neurological Association
in Chicago, talking with prominent researchers about the
brain seizure studies he'd participated in at Johns
Hopkins. He described how he'd helped measure serotonin
levels in rodents during induced seizures. The research, he
told conference attendees, could lead to more effective
medications for epilepsy patients who don't respond to the
current array of anti-convulsive drugs.
"They asked if I was a postdoctoral fellow, a resident
or some other kind of full-time researcher," Chiang
recalled. "They seemed surprised to find out I was an
With support from his PURA, the senior biomedical
engineering major gained much of this expertise last summer
working in the lab of Marek A. Mirski, an associate
professor in the departments of Anesthesiology and Critical
Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery in the School of
Mirski is a leading researcher in the use of deep
brain stimulation to prevent seizures. This technique
involves the implantation of a type of pacemaker in the
brain that sends electrical current into a structure called
the anterior thalamus. Mirski and his team found that this
technique reduces the occurrence of seizures. They are now
trying to determine why this occurs.
The work is important because more than 50 million
people worldwide have epilepsy, and about 7.5 million of
them suffer from seizures that don't respond to current
Mirski's team discovered that higher levels of
serotonin, a neurotransmitter, were apparently released
during electrical stimulation in that particular region of
the brain. Was this the reason for the reduced seizures?
To find out, the researchers administered drugs in the
anterior thalamus that mimicked the action of serotonin in
rodents experiencing seizures. Chiang participated in these
experiments and helped determine that serotonin produced a
significant protective effect. If more serotonin can lead
to fewer seizures, he said, doctors could treat epilepsy
patients with existing FDA-approved drugs that increase the
levels of this neurotransmitter.
"Jason was very successful, and his work generated an
abstract presentation at the prestigious annual meeting of
the American Neurological Association," Mirski said.
He added that Chiang's work was incorporated into an
article that has been submitted to the leading
peer-reviewed epilepsy medical journal, with the
undergraduate listed as a co-author.
"I'm really excited about that," Chiang said. "I was
really privileged to be able to work with Dr. Mirski. These
kinds of opportunities, I don't think they exist at a lot
of other schools. I have friends at other universities, and
they don't have this kind of access to important faculty
researchers and labs."
His experience with Mirski's team led Chiang to look
for new ways to measure serotonin levels. Currently, he is
working on nanosensors in the lab of David Gracias, an
assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular
engineering. "These sensors could help us clarify the role
of serotonin in epilepsy," Chiang said. "That could lead us
to better treatments for people suffering from intractable
After graduating this spring, Chiang hopes to conduct
epilepsy research in Germany and eventually become a
— Phil Sneiderman
A snapshot of wage inequities
Altair Peterson, here with adviser
Melanie Shell-Weiss, used a camera and interviews to
capture a snapshot of wage inequities in Charm
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS
With a PURA-funded digital camera in hand, Altair
Peterson set out last summer to create a photo
documentary of the women behind the labor statistics she'd
picked up in courses on economics and women and gender
studies — figures showing that, in general, a man's
paycheck still goes much further than a woman's, even
though women make up more than half the country's labor
"I'm a math major, and I've taken a lot of courses on
economics, but I wanted to go behind the numbers to show
the human side," Peterson said. Her PURA grant afforded her
the opportunity go beyond her major and buy the camera and
digital voice recorder to gather the stories behind the
stats. "That's what I love about Hopkins-it enables us to
be flexible that way."
Peterson soon zoomed her ambitious working title,
Women at Work in Charm City, into a sharper focus, choosing
to spotlight women who work at the Johns Hopkins Medical
Institutions because she wanted to learn more about Hopkins
life outside the Homewood campus.
The oral histories and photos, six to eight of which
will be featured in her PURA presentation, cover a wide
range of women in all levels of the medical professions,
including a nurse, a janitor, a security guard and a senior
physician, according to Peterson's PURA adviser, Melanie
Shell-Weiss, a visiting assistant professor in the
Department of History.
In addition to conducting one-on-one interviews,
Peterson pored over historical photographs in the Alan
Mason Chesney Medical Archives to spot early images of
women at work in the hospital, allowing her to conduct a
comparative study between the historical and contemporary
"This is a very exciting research initiative that
promises to make significant contributions to our
understanding of women's wage work," Shell-Weiss said. "By
focusing on relationships among women, this work promises
to go beyond simple comparisons of men's and women's work
or the wage gap and provides a unique window onto racial,
ethnic, class, age and national differences that shape
women's experiences in the contemporary labor market."
Peterson spent one to three hours with each profilee,
and used a portion of her PURA budget to buy thank-you
gifts for participants, typically choosing a book Peterson
thought they would like based on personal interests gleaned
during the interviews.
For the first two years after commencement, Peterson
is committed to the Teach America program and will be in a
Washington, D.C., classroom. But creating this snapshot of
Baltimore women has reinforced her desire to return to the
"So many people take their education and leave and
never have a chance to give back the community that
educated them, the community that hosted them for four
years," Peterson said. "I think I could ultimately have a
role in city government."
— Amy Lunday
Pain and anxiety, oh rats!
Chase Gray wants to know what
makes one person more susceptible to pain than another. She
uses this open field apparatus in her experiments with
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS
Millions of people suffer from chronic pain, whether
it be as a result of injury, medical condition or other.
Relatively little, however, is known about what makes one
person more susceptible to pain than another.
Anxiety disorders and chronic pain have long been
associated, but whether anxiety is a result of the pain or
renders an individual more susceptible to pain is not
known. This gap in knowledge was the starting point for
PURA winner Chase Gray, a student in the Bachelor of
Science Program at the School of Nursing.
Gray, under the guidance of Gayle Page, professor and
director of the Center for Nursing Research and Sponsored
Projects, set out to study the development of and
persistence of chronic neuropathic pain in male and female
rats using the sciatic inflammatory neuritis, or SIN,
model. The model allows for pain bouts to be under the
direct control of an investigator.
Specifically, Gray wanted to see if pre-SIN anxiety
behaviors were predictive of neuropathic pain behaviors,
and if female and male rats differ in responses to anxiety
and pain testing.
Gray first used two behavioral tests to measure the
animals' baseline anxiety levels, placing the rats in an
elevated plus maze and in an open field apparatus. Prior to
testing, the animals were kept in a darkened testing area
for 20 minutes.
For the tests themselves, Gray videotaped the animals
for five minutes to see what behaviors they demonstrated in
each setting. For example, she wanted to observe if the
animals were unwilling to venture out into the middle of
the open area, or if they would exhibit some confident
behavior while traveling the maze, such as rearing up on
their hind legs.
"I wanted to see, for example, if they were more
willing to explore the open areas or stay in the enclosed
areas, as a way to determine [the rats'] levels of
anxiety," Gray said.
The animals next had catheters inserted to allow for
injections that would cause an inflammatory response
mirroring chronic pain.
A week later, the animals began a series of injections
and mechanical sensitivity testing to measure paw
sensitivity, which was then compared to the anxiety levels
determined by the behavioral tests to determine what
effect, if any, chronic pain had.
Gray said she expects that the final results from a
statistician will show some anxiety-level differences based
While hers was only a pilot study, Gray said that
these sorts of experiments could lead to more research in
this understudied area, and ultimately better pain
treatments for humans.
"I think we can do better," she said. "Perhaps we can
design different pain treatments for men and women. Working
with animals like this is a way of building evidence to see
what potential there is for treating humans and perhaps
developing more individualized pain treatment plans."
Gray, who graduates in May, said that she found the
research very rewarding.
"This experience has really turned me on to the world
of research and the significance of this kind of work," she
said. "For me personally, conducting any level of research
at Johns Hopkins is extremely satisfying."
— Greg Rienzi
Targeting a child killer in Ethiopia
Working with R. Bradley Sack at
the School of Public Health, Rishi Mediratta is hoping to
combat childhood deaths from diarrheal diseases in
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS
Rishi Mediratta is playing an important role in
combating childhood deaths in Ethiopia from diarrheal
diseases, a leading cause of mortality in developing
African nations. His original research, focusing on how
best to educate Ethiopian mothers so that they can prevent
— and manage — diarrheal diseases in their
young children was funded by his PURA.
A public health studies major, Mediratta became
interested in the terrible toll that diarrheal diseases
take among the East African country's children when he
witnessed the problem during his sophomore year
intersession, when he volunteered at Mother Teresa's
Mission in Addis Ababa and at clinics in Gondar.
"I was extremely shocked at the severity of the
conditions of the children I saw there," he said. "It was
not uncommon to find them experiencing diarrhea for two
weeks continuously. They came to the clinic with sunken
eyes, poor skin turgor and poor thirst: all signs of severe
dehydration. They were malnourished, were not receiving
adequate fluids, and their mothers were not taking the
steps to prevent diarrhea in their children. I wanted to do
something about this problem."
Mediratta decided that the best way to ascertain how a
successful public health initiative might be launched was
to study how mothers there handled the disease, and then
compare their habits and methods to those of moms in
Bangladesh, home of the International Center for Diarrheal
"I chose Bangladesh because the International Center
is the 'gold standard' for treatment of diarrheal diseases
in developing countries, so it can be considered a model
for how diarrhea might best be managed in Ethiopia, too,"
Mediratta decided that a clinic in Gondar, a small
rural town in northwestern Ethiopia, was the ideal setting
for his study because "my research would have greater value
in an area where diarrhea is a major community health
With IRB approval, he carefully designed a survey that
assessed several risk factors known to contribute to
diarrheal disease in children, including socioeconomic
level, child nutrition, maternal hand-washing hygiene and
latrine and water use. The goal, he said, was to "identify
those determinants that could be modified by mothers to
reduce morbidity associated with diarrhea."
Mediratta then trained 13 health facilitators to
administer the survey to mothers who sought care at their
clinic. Other members of the community were selected to
question approximately 500 mother-child pairs.
Analysis of the data that Mediratta collected —
interviews, stool samples and medical records revealing
treatment recommended by the physicians — revealed
that a "large proportion" of the mothers in this community
did not have even a rudimentary understanding of how best
to either prevent diarrheal disease or to manage it.
"Many of them withheld food, fluids and breast milk
from their children during diarrheal episodes, which is
contrary to the accepted guidelines for the management of
diarrhea," Mediratta said. "Mothers may have the
misconception that providing fluids to their children can
exacerbate the condition. However, rehydrating is the most
effective treatment for children with diarrhea and should
be the first treatment administered."
Mediratta hopes that his study's results will help
public health workers develop a curriculum to help
Ethiopian mothers understand the risks associated with
diarrhea and the very simple measures they can take to
prevent and manage the illness in their children.
"In a country where there is, on average, one
physician per 40,000 people, it is unlikely that everyone
in Ethiopia will have access to health centers," he said.
"Equipping mothers with the knowledge and skills to manage
the disease is a critical means through which to mitigate
the potential harmful effects of diarrhea."
Mediratta's faculty mentor, R. Bradley Sack, professor
of international health and medicine at the Bloomberg
School of Public Health, credits his student with designing
an "important" study that could have meaningful
repercussions for Ethiopian child health.
"Rishi has done a remarkable job in designing and
carrying out a study determining risk factors for Ethiopian
children, all in a few months' time," Sack said. "The data
will be important in suggesting interventions for the
prevention of childhood diarrhea in this population."
Mediratta hopes to continue his involvement in that
"I am strongly committed to this research because
diarrheal disease can be cured," he said. "Eradicating one
of the most nefarious and preventable public health crises
— one that afflicts 2 million children every year
worldwide — is within our reach."
— Lisa De Nike
Not a 'blicket' in the bunch.
Meredith Brinster uses nonsense words to determine how
toddlers acquire and comprehend unfamiliar
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS
Meredith Brinster is playing an important role
in understanding how toddlers learn words. Brinster's PURA
research focused on how 3-year-olds best acquire and come
to comprehend unfamiliar vocabulary. Specifically, she was
interested in how very young children learn to attach names
She designed a study to measure which word-learning
strategy was more effective: direct instruction, in which
an adult "directly" points to and names an unfamiliar
object, or inference, in which toddlers use reason (such as
process of elimination) to mentally "fasten" an unfamiliar
word to an unfamiliar object. Based on previous research,
Brinster posited that the young children would learn words
more quickly via inference.
According to her preliminary results, she was
"We found that our hypothesis was true, and that
inference is better than instruction," said Brinster, a
Over the summer, Brinster worked with 100 children,
ages 36 months to 42 months, who came to the Laboratory for
Child Development on the Homewood campus. One trial tested
how well children learned words through inference, and the
other how well they learned through direct instruction.
During the inference trial, Brinster showed the
youngsters both familiar and strange objects (for instance,
a ball and a plumber's "t") and after saying a nonsense
word ("blicket," for instance) asked them to either point
to or grab hold of the "matching" item.
In the direct instruction trial, the child was shown
an unfamiliar item and heard the nonsense word.
A short while later, Brinster would invite the
children to play with typical, familiar toys in the lab's
waiting area. During the relaxed play period, she would
bring out the "blicket" or the "dax" that the children had
seen during the trial, and ask the youngsters a
"For instance, I might say 'I think one of these is
called 'blicket,' but I can't remember which one it is. Can
you help me? Do you know which one is the 'blicket?'"
Brinster said. "This way, I could ascertain how well they
learned the word. Once we analyzed all of our data, it was
clear that inference worked best."
Justin Halberda, assistant professor of psychological
and brain sciences and Brinster's mentor, called his
student's results "important."
"One of the things that is particularly exciting about
the work Meredith is doing is its potential to change the
way we think about education and learning," he said. "While
we know that active engagement is the key to rapid
learning, Meredith's result suggesting that knowledge
gained via a child's own inferences is sometimes more
powerful and longer lasting than knowledge gained through
instruction may have powerful repercussions for how we
teach new material. These implications have yet to be
explored, but this first result is tantalizing."
— Lisa De Nike
Bangladesh's fight against terrorism
Adnan Ahmad, a native of
Bangladesh, keeps current on the country's politics and
traveled there to learn more about its strategy to combat
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS
Adnan Ahmad has always been interested in the
domestic politics of his native country, Bangladesh.
"I'm addicted to going back," said Ahmad, who moved to
the United States when he was just 7. "I get sucked into
the politics there."
But the senior political science major didn't think of
relating his knowledge about Bangladeshi politics to world
affairs — that is, not until the U.S. Patriot Act
came up for renewal. Then, he began to see a connection
between the ways the U.S. and Bangladeshi governments
responded to Islamic terrorism.
"It's eerie how in step both countries are," he said.
Supported by a PURA, Ahmad returned to Bangladesh last
summer to investigate the government's strategy to combat
domestic terrorism. Through interviews with journalists,
government officials and civilians, and archive research,
Ahmad examined the recent rise of Islamism in Bangladesh
and the government's movement toward oppressive state
policies in response to security threats. He also explored
the trade-off between liberty and security in the fight
Ahmad conducted more than 30 interviews while he was
in Bangladesh, many of them lasting longer than two hours.
Sometimes, he said, he felt like he was being led down a
blind alley by people not answering his questions fully.
"But in the process," said Ahmad's PURA adviser,
Waleed Hazbun, an assistant professor in the Political
Science Department, "he learned a lot about how politics on
the issue played out."
Through his interviews, Ahmad found that the
government had established a rapid action battalion, which
operated by executive decree without internal
investigation. He compared the justifications for this
action to those of the U.S. Patriot Act.
"They are circumventing procedural actions to fight
terrorism," he said. "[They claim] you need to violate
democracy in order to protect it in the long run, and we
see the same arguments in the Patriot Act."
He learned that although the Bangladesh government had
killed more than 1,000 people in the past two years, these
killings were not officially recognized. Instead, the
government announced that, in the process of being
detained, these people were "caught in the crossfire." Yet
Ahmad found little public outrage or public awareness of
"There's no political discourse that allows criticism
on the public level," he said. "Broad political awareness
is almost nonexistent."
This wide public acceptance of the government line
made his own investigation difficult: When interviewees
were willing to talk, they all gave him the same
prepackaged, government-sanctioned story. Sometimes after a
day of unsatisfying interviews, he'd visit his cousins and
vent his frustrations about the obstacles he faced.
But Ahmad learned from these research problems, he
said. He came to realize the difficulties a researcher
faces while working in a foreign country, particularly when
dealing with government information.
"It cured me of the naivete that all aspiring
investigators have," he said.
Based on his findings, Ahmad has produced a 20-page
study and contributed an editorial to a Washington Post
Ahmad is a finalist for a Fulbright Fellowship to do
research in Tunisia and, after graduation, he plans to
continue studying international affairs. He eventually
intends to earn a master's degree in international studies
and to attend law school, where he will focus on academic
— Jessica Valdez
The 14th Annual Pura Ceremony
Check Out Their Results
To recognize the recipients of the 2006 Provost's
Undergraduate Research Awards, an event will be held on
Thursday, March 8, in Homewood's Glass Pavilion.
A poster session in which students will have an
opportunity to display the results of their research begins
at 3 p.m.
At the 4:30 p.m. recognition ceremony hosted by Steven
Knapp, provost and senior vice president for academic
affairs, the honorees will be introduced by Theodore
Poehler, vice provost for research and chair of the
Provost Knapp will present the students' certificates,
and PURA recipient Kevin Clark will show an excerpt from
his project, Some Ado: An Original Opera Film."
A reception will follow at approximately 5:15 p.m.
The entire Johns Hopkins community is invited.
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