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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 18, 2008 | Vol. 37 No. 22
'USA Today' Honors Star Students

Carmen Kut, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Two from Johns Hopkins among 20 nationally on Academic First Team

By Lisa De Nike

Even on a campus overflowing with bright, motivated overachievers, Kurt Herzer and Carmen Kut manage to stand out.

In addition to earning nearly perfect grades, both undergraduates not only have conducted demanding and important research projects but also have organized and participated in a plethora of extracurricular activities, both on and off campus.

Herzer, 20, a junior public health studies major who works in quality improvement management at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, has prepared reports on patient safety and risk management for the World Health Organization, organized a service-oriented student group dedicated to tackling public health issues, volunteered at a National Institutes of Health summer camp for children with cancer and earned gold and silver medals at the 2006 Maryland State Taekwondo Championships as a green belt, despite the fact that he has been legally blind from birth as a result of a genetic condition affecting his retina.

Kut, 22, a senior biomedical engineering major, is founder and president of Educational Perspectives, an international student volunteer group dedicated to providing community-based preventive health care and HIV/AIDS education worldwide. As part of this endeavor, she has traveled to rural China, India and Africa. Closer to home, she delivers hygiene and home safety programs to refugee children and elderly people within Baltimore City. She also founded and organized the Johns Hopkins Student Research Group, which matches the internship and research needs of JHU students and faculty, promoting cross-university collaborations. In her little bit of spare time, Kut takes voice lessons at the Peabody Conservatory.

According to those who know them, both Herzer and Kut are very "outer-directed" people, always looking for ways to help their fellow human beings. Last week, however, they each took a few moments to enjoy recognition of their extraordinary achievements, when on Feb. 14 they were named to USA Today's 17th annual All-USA College Academic First Team. Only 20 students from around the country were chosen for this honor, which recognizes young people for academic excellence and also community service.

Another Johns Hopkins senior also was recognized by the national daily newspaper. Sonia Sarkar, a public health and international studies major, earned an honorable mention.

This is the second time that two Johns Hopkins students have placed on the First Team. In all, 28 Johns Hopkins students have been honored during the course of the 17-year-old program.

This year, nearly 500 college juniors and seniors competed for First Team honors, which include $2,500 cash awards. (As in years past, USA Today also selected second- and third-team members, as well as honorable mentions.)

Kurt Herzer, a junior majoring in public health studies
Photo by Keith Weller

Both Herzer and Kut were modest when asked for their reactions to making the First Team, noting that the honor really belongs to all of those who have helped and worked with them.

"I am really excited about this award and deeply grateful to the team of people that made it possible, namely my professors, advisers, mentors, family and friends," said Herzer, who hails from Melville, N.Y. "It was entirely the result of our collective efforts, and for me that was the best part of all. I think this is really an award for teamwork, and certainly a credit to the exceptional faculty at Johns Hopkins. They excited me about the world but, more important, taught me how to change it. I don't think education can impart a greater gift."

Kut, who spent her early life in Hong Kong and now lives in Baltimore, said, "I am deeply honored for this award. I should stress that this All-USA honor belongs to the hundreds of [Educational Perspectives] members and volunteers whose hard work and passion in serving have been instrumental to EP's success."

Herzer's and Kut's teachers were quick to credit the students themselves.

In his recommendation, James Goodyear, chair of Public Health Studies, called Herzer "one of the two best students I have ever worked with in 22 years of advising and mentoring undergraduates at Johns Hopkins University." Lynette Marks, also of the School of Medicine, called Herzer "the most extraordinary student that I have had the opportunity to mentor in my 20-year academic medical career," and states that he "represents what we all hope the future of health care and medicine will become."

Herzer brushes such praise aside, but sheepishly admits that he came to Johns Hopkins as a public health studies major because he "wanted to save the world."

"I recognize that it is sort of a naive thing to say--that I want to save the world--because the reality is far more complex and difficult. But we must begin by believing we can. And we need to have the humility to recognize that we may always fail, that when one health and safety problem is solved, another will come along," said Herzer, who plans to attend medical school. "The key is not losing your enthusiasm along the way."

Herzer said he recognizes that his eyesight problems mean that he probably won't be able to become, say, a surgeon. But other than that, the sky is the limit. "My philosophy is pretty straightforward: Anything is possible until proven otherwise," he said with a smile.

That attitude may have derived from overhearing an eye doctor give his parents some sobering news when he was only 4 years old: "Your son will never be able to go to a normal school or play normal, competitive sports like other kids. Adjust your expectations."

Turns out they didn't have to. "I am proud to say that I went to a regular school and did sports and everything," said Herzer, an avid cyclist whose parents enthusiastically supported endeavors ranging from oil painting and horticulture to nautical and aeronautical engineering.

Kut, too, takes on challenges that others might find daunting.

In a recommendation for his mentee, Biomedical Engineering Professor Aleksander S. Popel calls Kut "highly and genuinely motivated" and praises her for being a "compassionate individual with a sense of obligation to society."

That obligation is, in fact, the driving force behind Kut's public health service group, Educational Perspectives, which she founded in 2004 as a freshman.

Being "on the ground" in different countries delivering health care and health care information has taught Kut a great deal about what makes for a successful program, she said.

"[It's] made me understand that health education campaigns require more than just the communication of knowledge," said Kut, who also plans to attend medical school. "To be effective, we must value local customs and gain the trust of the community." Indeed, she learned that walking barefoot and eating with her hands in India and wearing a headscarf in Tanzania were more than just nods to local customs: They were gestures of respect that allowed her and the health care information she was bringing to be accepted into the local community.

Even before high school, Kut knew she wanted to pursue a medical career, which was why she was so attracted to the biomedical engineering program at Johns Hopkins. But it was her experience tutoring a visually impaired child named Yvonne during her freshman year in high school that really solidified her desire to become a doctor.

"Although her severe nearsightedness made reading an ordeal, Yvonne had developed a passion for reading," Kut remembers. "As a result, I made magnified copies of the relevant pages and bought her audio books to reduce the strain on her eyes. These efforts reduced her suffering and enabled her to dig deeper into her favorite literature. I found fulfillment in helping [Yvonne] achieve her goals and desires. She taught me to use my knowledge [to care for] others."

Later in high school, Kut was further inspired to help as she traveled to rural China with nongovernmental organizations that evaluated children's needs for education and financial aid.

"[The people's] stories were often tragic. Frustrated at my limited ability to help, I began to pursue sustainable methods that would better equip me to address these inadequacies," she said, explaining how Educational Perspectives was born.

Since its founding, EP has become an international movement, with eight chapters and 600 volunteers in five countries on three continents: the United States, Canada, Tanzania, India, China and Hong Kong.

"Our aim is to create an ever-expanding team of volunteers, and I think it's working," she says.


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