Johns Hopkins Gazette | April 6, 2009
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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 6, 2009 | Vol. 38 No. 29
Game On!

PURA grants in hand, 51 JHU undergrads take on the great unknown

There's nothing like a challenge to get the juices going — whether it's a matchup with an athletic rival, a "dare you" from a buddy or, in the case of would-be researchers, a steep and possibly treacherous cliff that begs to be scaled.

At Johns Hopkins, undergraduates are encouraged to take on what others might consider the impossible: an electrode-conrolled prosthetic hand that grips and grabs, room-mapping robots that make their moves with $8 worth of equipment and some computer code, finding the key to how irregular heartbeats can lead to death.

Those are just three of the 48 projects carried out in summer and fall 2008 by 51 students who received Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards to support their work.

On Thursday, April 9, Scott Zeger, acting provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, will host the 16th annual PURA ceremony to honor their achievements.

Since 1993, scores of students or student teams each year have received PURA grants to conduct original research, some results of which have been published in professional journals or presented at academic conferences. 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 undergraduates. For 2009, grants will be given in amounts up to $2,500.

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 Nursing.

The 2009 ceremony will be held in the Glass Pavilion at Homewood. The entire Johns 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 Zeger will begin at 4:30 p.m. and will include performances by two recipients, Rebecca Orchard and Lisa Rosinsky. A reception follows at approximately 5:15 p.m.

Here, 11 students and their faculty sponsors talk about what they learned from their PURA experiences. A complete list of recipients appears on page 11.


The goal: See if stimulating activities improve cognition

Yoonah Chi and Jill Lasak, photographed in Charles Commons, traveled to Seoul to determine whether elderly Koreans who often play Baduk, a challenging board game, have better cognitive function than peers who don't play as often.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Seniors Jill Lasak and Yoonah Chi are playing an important role in determining whether elderly Koreans who frequently play a challenging board game called Baduk have better cognitive function than do older people who don't play the game as often.

Supported by a PURA, Lasak, a psychology major from Broomall, Pa., and Chi, a neuroscience major from Bethel, Conn., hypothesized that the more a participant played the ancient Chinese game (also called Go), the better that participant's processing speed, short-term memory and executive cognitive functions would be.

To find out if they were right, the pair traveled last summer to Seoul, South Korea, to test 100 Korean male elders at senior daytime recreational centers, which are popular destinations for fans of the game. (The duo took care to ensure that their test subjects came from geographically and economically diverse areas, in order to control for education and wealth.)

Before heading out, they consulted Sung Jin Cho, a South Korean clinical researcher visiting Johns Hopkins, about the study's cultural appropriateness, and once they arrived in Korea, they had in-country assistance from Dae-guen Jeon, a physician at the Korea Cancer Center Hospital in Seoul.

"We wanted to make absolutely sure that the questions and tasks we were asking the elders to perform were culturally sensitive and appropriate," Lasak said. Also, Chi's Korean background and ability to speak the language were an asset, the pair said, especially when administering the verbal part of the test.

Once they analyzed their data, the research team concluded that at least part of its hypothesis was correct: Elderly Korean men who played Baduk and other games had better working memories than those who did not engage in those brain-stimulating activities.

"We can't say that one causes the other, but we can say that there is a correlation," Chi said. "We also didn't find any correlation between what we call 'greater engagement' — higher frequency of playing Baduk, doing crossword puzzles and card games, and reading — and processing speed and executive function. This was a bit of a surprise, as most of us would think that greater engagement would improve all aspects of cognitive function. But that doesn't seem to be the case."

Lasak said that the next step will be to conduct an experimental study introducing people to cognitively stimulating activities, having them engage in them for a period of time and then seeing if their cognitive test scores increase. "That would tell us more about the ability of stimulating activities to affect cognitive function, which we really don't know now," she said.

The team's faculty mentor, Justin Halberda, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, said the study has important implications.

"This is an interesting topic which has a high probability of revealing important differences between individuals who regularly engage in cognitively challenging games and those who do not," Halberda said.

George Rebok of the Bloomberg School of Public Health also served as a mentor to Lasak and Chi.
— Lisa De Nike


The goal: Use low-cost robots to map their environment

Avik De has devised a navigation program that could allow low-cost robots to use simple sensing equipment to map a building or better clean a room.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Avik De, a mechanical engineering major from Kolkata, India, has devised a navigation program that could allow low-cost robots to use simple sensing equipment to figure out their own location and assemble a landmark-based map of their environment, without help from a human operator.

The software was described in a paper presented at the Workshop on the Algorithmic Foundation of Robots, a conference held recently in Mexico. De's program is slated to be tested this summer in an autonomous robot that relies on an insect-type antenna to "feel" its way along walls.

If the technology operates as expected, De and his faculty adviser say it could lead to cheap robots that can create simple maps of the interior of buildings. It could also lead to "smarter" robotic cleaning equipment, such as an autonomous vacuum that could remember a room's layout well enough to avoid retracing its footsteps.

"This is a relatively inexpensive way for a robot to make a rudimentary map of the perimeter of its environment," said De, a 20-year-old junior who developed his program with support from his PURA. "As the robot is moving around the room with a feeler-type antenna or some other simple sensor, it's building a graph. The walls are represented by lines, and when the robot bumps into a corner, it records a node. It knows the distance between these nodes and remembers the route between these points."

This program would not yield the detailed pictures provided by more elaborate robots that use high-resolution cameras or laser light, De said, but the mapping machines he envisions would be much cheaper and far simpler to deploy.

His faculty sponsor, Noah Cowan, estimated that equipping a basic robot with De's system would require only a $5 microprocessor, a $3 antenna sensor and a couple of hundred lines of software code. Cowan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering who studies robots inspired by biological models, said he suggested that De develop a navigation program based on a probabilistic approach, one that produces answers that are not "exact" but rather that take into account inherent uncertainties to create maps that are highly probable.

"It's not my primary field of expertise," Cowan said. "I provided the basic structure, and he did all the work. Avik is an exceptional student. He's mathematically brilliant and easy to work with."

Before De's paper could be presented at the recent robotics conference, it had to undergo a review by experts in the field. "The reviews were quite positive," Cowan said, "and the paper was quite well-received at the conference. Many people commented on how poised Avik was in presenting it. It's actually quite unusual for an undergraduate to be able to present a paper at a prestigious conference like this."

De said he has enjoyed the opportunity to do hands-on research. "I think I've definitely learned more from doing research here than I have from any of my classes," he said. "When you're doing homework for a class and you make a mistake, it's not a big deal. But when you're doing research and presenting it at a conference, it has to be right."
— Phil Sneiderman


The goal: Prevent workplace violence for nurses

Callie Vincent's findings weren't what she expected--but they could lead to greater focus on overall mental health services for nurses.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Nursing student Callie Vincent expected her research to confirm what seemed like a logical connection: Nurses who are bullied and verbally abused at work are more likely later to suffer depression.

But her results weren't quite what she expected. Instead, Vincent's findings revealed a very different relationship between depression and psychological violence that could lead to more mental health services for nurses.

"I was disappointed at first," Vincent said of the realization that her hypothesis was proving incorrect. "Then I realized that's how research works, and it's interesting to look at what you do have and figure out what is really going on."

Vincent, whose research was funded through her Provost's Undergraduate Research Award, became interested in the connection between depression and psychological workplace violence while working as a research assistant on the Safe At Work study being conducted at the School of Nursing. The ongoing study, led by Jacquelyn Campbell, looks at both physical and psychological violence against nursing staff.

Using that available data, Vincent wanted to take a closer look at the mental health outcomes of psychological violence with the hopes that her findings could add to the conversation about preventing workplace violence.

As her adviser, Campbell helped Vincent formulate her questions and expectations for her research.

"One thing that makes a good nursing researcher is being able to take your clinical knowledge and course work information and help it to both inform your research questions and help you know what to do with the results," said Campbell, who called Vincent an "outstanding student with unlimited research potential."

Vincent analyzed data from questionnaires completed in summer 2007 by 1,623 nursing staff at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, Bayview Medical Center and Howard County General Hospital. The questionnaires examined the type of violence experienced and measured depression.

Rather than determining that depression was an outcome of the psychological violence, Vincent found that it was instead a possible predictor for the violence.

Those who were depressed at the time of the baseline study were nine times more likely to be depressed at a follow-up survey. Of the 20 participants who were depressed at the time of the follow-up survey, 65 percent were already depressed.

This could mean that the depressed staff is more at risk of being a target for psychological violence, or that those who are depressed view certain situations more negatively, Vincent said.

Although more research must be done, Vincent said the results could lead to greater focus on overall mental health services.

"The point of intervention may not necessarily be at the final step of workplace violence occurring but looking back to make sure employees have good mental health to begin with," she said.

Campbell said that it's just as important for Vincent to find out why her hypothesis wasn't accurate, and that "her findings can really change the kinds of services nurses get."

The findings also gave Vincent a chance to experience the challenges and joys of research, which Campbell hopes will compel Vincent, who graduates in May, to pursue her doctoral degree.

"It's not as easy as it appears," Vincent said. "You have to sit back and let your project show you what is actually happening."
— Sara Michael


The goal: Add dexterity to prosthetic hands

To build a better prosthetic hand, David Huberdeau uses a "cyberglove" to help his computer program learn which muscular signals operate particular motions.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Supported by a PURA, David Huberdeau is developing a control system that could enable some amputees to regain hand and finger motions in high-tech prosthetic limbs.

Huberdeau, a junior biomedical engineering major from Woodbridge, Va., has teamed up with a graduate student to devise a computer program that turns electrical activity in an amputee's remaining arm muscles into instructions to move the wrist and fingers of a prosthetic limb.

"This approach is less invasive than a system that requires major surgery to have a microchip implanted to pick up signals from the brain or the nervous system," Huberdeau said. "Our system uses surface electrodes to pick up signals from muscles. We envision a routine in which an amputee would wake up each day and have a new set of electrodes attached to control the prosthetic arm and hand."

Significant work still remains. The system, developed by Huberdeau and Ryan Smith, a doctoral candidate in Biomedical Engineering, now exists only in a computer. It is being tested on a prosthetic arm computer simulation, not an actual limb. Recently, the students have shown that the program can produce dexterous finger movements in the simulated prosthetic limb. The next step is to work with a real multifingered dexterous hand and equip it as a prosthesis for trans-radial amputees, meaning those who retain a portion of their arm below the elbow.

Huberdeau got his first research experience as a sophomore in the laboratory of Nitish Thakor, a professor of biomedical engineering, where he worked with graduate students to learn about the field of brain-computer interfaces. Last summer, while working as an intern at the university's Applied Physics Laboratory, Huberdeau became involved in a major federally funded project to develop the next generation of prosthetic arms and hands. When he returned to school in the fall, he joined Smith in fine-tuning their own control system for a prosthetic limb in Thakor's lab. The students presented a live demonstration of their muscle-controlled prosthesis system at a Control Society Conference in Cancun, Mexico.

Huberdeau and Smith's system is specifically designed to help trans-radial amputees. The students used a "cyberglove" to enable their program to learn which muscular signals are associated with particular wrist and finger motions. With the students' system, amputees use their remaining muscles to control their prosthetic hands.

Other researchers are working on implanted systems that tap into signals from the brain or the nervous system. "It's not that one approach is better than the other," Huberdeau said. "It's just that different systems might be better suited to people with different types of injuries."

Huberdeau said the opportunity to work on the prosthetic limb project with leading researchers in Thakor's lab has been a highlight of his education at Johns Hopkins. "I've learned a lot of important things in my classes," he said, "but it's here in the lab that I've had a chance to see how it all comes together, how the research and design process actually works."
— Phil Sneiderman


The goal: Shed light on lethal heartbeats

Working with adviser Natalia Trayanova, Grace Tan is using a computer model that mimics the behavior of cardiac cells to study irregular heartbeats.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Using a computer model that mimics the behavior of cardiac cells, Grace Tan is studying life-threatening irregular beats in patients with a common condition called heart failure. In such patients, the heart is weakened and cannot pump efficiently.

Tan, a junior from Singapore majoring in biomedical engineering and mathematics, conducted her study with support from a PURA. In February, she presented her findings at the Gordon Research Conference on Cardiac Arrhythmias Mechanisms, held in Italy. Of the 160 participants at the conference, Tan was the only undergraduate. Competing against graduate students and postdoctoral and clinical fellows, Tan presented a poster that received the first-place award in its category.

"The entries were all so outstanding, so I really didn't expect it," Tan said.

When she received her research grant last year, Tan followed up on a 2003 study conducted by scientists at Case Western Reserve University. That team tested canine organs and determined that having the condition of heart failure increased the risk of cardiac arrhythmia — abnormal electrical activity that leads to irregular heartbeats. Without prompt intervention, these irregular heartbeats can lead to death. Tan's goals were to replicate this work in a computer model and identify the mechanism by which the cardiac arrhythmias arose.

Using a Johns Hopkins-developed computer model of canine heart cells, Tan was able to perform the same experiments digitally and obtain the same results. Canine hearts have been found to behave very much like human organs, so these findings have implications for humans with heart failure. Having a computer model of the abnormal electrical activity allowed Tan to take a closer look at what might be causing the heightened risk of deadly heartbeats, without the need to sacrifice lab animals.

"With a living heart, it's hard to study how the electrical waves spread throughout the heart and form a dangerous pattern. You can only study the cells near the surface," she said. "But with the computer model, we can slow down the movement of the electrical wave so that we can look at it in greater detail. We can also look at what's happening below the cells on the surface."

Tan's original project was based on a two-dimensional heart model, which allowed her to identify certain cells in the heart's middle layer that appear to play a key role in causing the deadly heartbeats. She is now trying to assemble a three-dimensional model that could yield even more insights. By using these models to study the cellular, molecular and structural changes that contribute to heart failure-induced arrhythmias, Tan hopes to find a target for medications that could prevent this ailment.

Natalia Trayanova, a professor of biomedical engineering who focuses on computational cardiac electromechanics and electrophysiology, served as Tan's faculty sponsor in the research projects. Tan also has received guidance from Raimond Winslow, director of the Institute for Computational Medicine at Johns Hopkins.

After taking courses taught by Trayanova and Winslow in 2007, Tan decided to move from traditional biological lab research to computational biology. "The computational work was more appealing to me," she said. "With traditional lab experiments, when something goes wrong, you don't always know why because there are so many factors you can't control very well. But when you're working with computer code and something goes wrong, it's easier to figure it out and correct it."
— Phil Sneiderman


The goal: Bring music to cochlear implantees

Joseph Heng surprisingly learned to play the piano after a cochlear implant. Working with Charles Limb, he's trying to determine how implantees perceive music.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Born profoundly deaf, Joseph Heng remembers sitting down at the piano in his family's Singapore living room one day when he was 13 and pressing the keys. Heng, now a sophomore studying biomedical engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, could discern the sounds of various notes because he had just been surgically fitted with a cochlear implant, a device designed to process and deliver sounds to the auditory nerve, allowing deaf people to hear.

Within days, the teenager — working his way through his younger sister's discarded piano books — had taught himself to play various songs, and his amazed mother signed him up for piano lessons. Ten years later, Heng is an accomplished pianist who has performed in several concerts, making him one of the very few people worldwide who has learned to play a musical instrument after receiving a cochlear implant.

So it's not surprising that Heng spent several months last summer researching how other cochlear implant recipients perceive musical timbre, a term used to describe the tone color of a musical instrument that allows a listener to distinguish different instruments, such as a trumpet and flute, from one another. Heng's research was funded by a Provost's Undergraduate Research Award.

Based on his personal experience with deafness and cochlear implants, Heng knew that timbre recognition is extremely difficult for an implant user — the challenge was to figure out exactly why this is the case. Heng hypothesized that cochlear implantees did not have access to a component of sound known as its fine structure (a property that relates to extremely high-frequency temporal content) but could access a sound's envelope (a property that relates to low-frequency temporal content).

To study this hypothesis, Heng worked under the supervision of faculty mentor Charles Limb of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to synthesize 150 different musical "chimeras," instrumental hybrids that combine the acoustic fine structure and envelope of distinct instruments, such as a piano or violin.

Heng then asked his study subjects — 12 cochlear implant users and 14 people with normal hearing — to spend 45 minutes each day listening to the music and identifying the instruments involved.

"It's a pretty demanding test that requires a lot of concentration, and all of the subjects came out looking more than a little haggard!" Heng joked.

The results revealed that the study subjects with cochlear implants relied heavily (and more heavily than their counterparts without cochlear implants) on envelope cues — the "shape" of the sound — while being largely unable to utilize fine structure information.

"But revealingly, we also learned that when we reduced the value of the envelope as a cue, cochlear implantees are actually able to extract some degree of fine structure information even though their devices are unable to process fine structure," Heng said.

That's quite a remarkable conclusion because it suggests that the auditory systems of people with cochlear implants are somehow — and the researchers don't know how, exactly — able to reconstruct the missing fine structure cues from the limited information produced by the cochlear implants, Heng said.

"Our next step will be to explore how this happens, how the cochlear implantees can do this, even when their devices do not transmit that kind of information. It's a mystery," Heng said.

Limb, an otolaryngologist and cochlear implant specialist who studies music perception in cochlear implant users, calls his young student and his research nothing short of remarkable.

"Joseph's study is both fascinating and important," Limb said. "Cochlear implants have revolutionized the medical care of individuals with hearing loss, but music perception remains extremely poor in these individuals, particularly the ability to distinguish between musical instruments. Joseph's work is a step toward understanding, and eventually overcoming, the limitations that people with cochlear implants face."
— Lisa DeNike


The goal: Correlate education and earning potential

To determine whether more costly private higher education secured a better financial future, Lucas Kelly-Clyne surveyed JHU and University of Maryland alums.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Lucas Kelly-Clyne's project was sparked by a conversation with his father about the value of private education. Playing the role of devil's advocate, Kelly-Clyne's dad wondered whether it would be worth it to send Luke's younger siblings to a private high school and university like their older brother. He wondered, Does a more expensive private education secure a better future?

Kelly-Clyne, a junior majoring in political science with a minor in the Whiting School's W.P. Carey Program in Entrepreneurship & Management, decided to apply for a PURA grant for fall 2008 to settle their friendly debate. Under the guidance of his PURA adviser, Karl Alexander, professor in the Department of Sociology, Kelly-Clyne planned to poll the classes of 1997 from Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland to compare their socioeconomic backgrounds, educational history, career paths and current financial situations to find out whether a private education gives students a leg up or whether other factors are more influential.

After reviewing 300 responses from an online survey sent to alumni of both schools, Kelly-Clyne found that the Johns Hopkins alumni made more money than their counterparts who graduated from the University of Maryland, and that attending a private high school didn't appear to make a difference in determining future financial success because many of those surveyed graduated from public high schools. A likely explanation for the higher salaries, Kelly-Cline said, is that more Johns Hopkins alumni go on to earn advanced degrees than do Maryland alumni.

Kelly-Clyne then went beyond the simple question posed by his dad to look deeper into the data he had gathered. Beyond the question of public versus private education, the survey results suggest that the level of parental education might be a better indicator of a student's future financial success.

"A factor that did not change across comparisons of Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland populations was a higher degree of JHU graduates' parental education, no matter what the parental income level," Kelly-Clyne said. "This may mean that JHU graduates hailed from families that looked at education in a different way than UMD graduates' families," he said. "JHU's family population may have viewed college as a starting point on a long road of educational experiences rather than the final destination. Johns Hopkins may attract a population of specific students who are motivated toward extended graduate education in preparation for careers as professionals, as evidenced by very high rates of graduates who became professionals."

He also looked at family income. Even if his or her household had less money, a Johns Hopkins alum is likely to earn more than a comparable student at the University of Maryland. "Johns Hopkins graduates whose parents made under $70,000 per year still proved to attend graduate school at higher rates and earn higher incomes — from their first job to their present position — than their UMD counterparts," Kelly-Clyne said. "On the other hand, wealthier University of Maryland graduates — those whose families made over $90,000 per year or who had paid higher out-of-state tuition — still attended graduate school at lower rates and earned lower salaries."

All of those factors aside, Kelly-Clyne noted that one that's hard to quantify might carry the most weight: the power of peer influence among Johns Hopkins students, many of whom are involved in multiple extracurricular activities and academic endeavors like PURA projects, and doing them all really well.

"Twenty percent of JHU graduates [surveyed] currently make over $140,000 per year, while only 2 percent of UMD graduates [surveyed] make that much," he said. "JHU parents achieved graduate education at a rate that is about 8 percent higher than UMD parents. It is unlikely that such a large income disparity is totally attributable to an 8 percent edge in parents' graduate education," he said. "In this case, it is not unreasonable to consider the power of peer influence. High-achieving students, whether wealthy or not, set in a school with a large number of wealthy students from highly educated families may very well channel talents in different, more profitable directions."
— Amy Lunday


The goal: Compose a 21st-century opera

William Hays took an interdisciplinary approach to studying opera under the guidance of Hollis Robbins, who teaches in Peabody's Humanities Department.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

On the way to writing a 21st-century opera, one young composer's path has led, so far, from Georgia to Maryland to East Anglia.

William Hays, of Flintstone, Ga. (on the Tennessee border), came to the Peabody Conservatory in 2006 as an undergraduate composition major. During his first two years, he studied with Christopher Theofanidis, writing a piece for chorus and several works of chamber music. Toward the end of his sophomore year, he began to wonder if there might be an opera in his future.

The title of the project for which Hays received a PURA grant is "The State of Modern Opera: A Technical Examination and Cultural Investigation." His faculty sponsor is Hollis Robbins, who teaches in the Humanities Department at Peabody. His main composition teacher is now Michael Hersch. (Theofanidis joined Yale's composition faculty last fall.)

Hays' research had several goals, one being to serve as a springboard for his first opera. Another was, as he wrote in the proposal, "To familiarize myself with the relationship of opera to society, which includes the function of opera in culture, opera's impact on culture, and culture's evolving expectation and reception of opera."

This interdisciplinary approach is what Peabody humanities classes are meant to encourage, says Robbins, a Johns Hopkins alumna who earned a master's degree in public policy at Harvard and a doctorate in English at Princeton. Hays took her class 20th-Century Aesthetics and Politics in his freshman year.

Robbins says she has been pleased to find that Peabody students "are really interested in the larger political questions of their lives as musicians." In connection with Hays' project, she points out, "Simplicity as an economic aesthetic is the story of the 20th century, not just in opera but in everything else."

Hays says that his historical research gave him a new appreciation for the chamber operas of British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), who essentially invented the genre. "Opera had grown to a point where it was just blocked," he said. Until Britten, "no one had considered how to tell a story with as few people as possible."

Last summer, instead of traveling to the Glyndebourne Festival in England to hear the premiere of Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos' Love and Other Demons, Hays decided to visit the archive at the Britten-Pears Library in Aldeburgh, East Anglia, where Britten started the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. (Britten's chamber opera Albert Herring, which was premiered at Glyndebourne in 1947, will be performed by Baltimore's Opera Vivente next month.)

Hays also studied scores and recordings of more recent operas, such as Powder Her Face by Thomas Ades (b. 1971), about the scandalous behavior of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, in the early 1960s, and Little Women by Mark Adamo (b. 1962), inspired by the Louisa May Alcott novel. Both were written in the 1990s.

He credits Roger Brunyate, director of Opera Programs, with making a home at Peabody for modern opera, including new works. Hays attended Peabody Chamber Opera's spring productions at Theatre Project in 2007 (The Rape of Lucretia by Britten) and 2008 (The Yellow Wallpaper by Catherine Reid). This year's production, Dora by Melissa Shiflett and Nancy Fales Garrett, based on one of Freud's famous cases, will be presented April 23 to 26.

These days, Hays often asks himself, Would that make a good opera? Choosing a subject will be the next major step on the multiyear journey that his PURA grant has helped to advance.
— Richard Selden


The goal: Find out why chemo fails in some melanoma patients

Jaeyoon Chung worked with faculty sponsor Rhoda Alani to help researchers better understand why traditional chemotherapies fail in some melanoma patients.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

Jaeyoon Chung, a senior from Okemos, Mich., is conducting research that promises to help clinicians and researchers better understand why traditional chemotherapies fail in some patients with melanoma, a disease that kills about 8,000 Americans each year.

Chung, a molecular and cellular biology major, used a PURA to work under the tutelage of Rhoda Alani of the School of Medicine to investigate the role that a gene called TRB3 may play in that scenario.

"In the lab, I noticed that this gene was expressed in a much lower amount during the metastatic phase of melanoma, when the cancer is spreading and becoming more deadly," said Chung, who plans a career in some aspect of medicine. "This suggested to us that the gene might provide an important protective function to the normal human cells that become malignant in melanoma."

To test his hypothesis, Chung and Alani created a metastatic melanoma cell line that expressed elevated levels of TRB3. They found that adding TRB3 to melanoma cells did, indeed, slow down the cancer's growth. "Though this doesn't necessarily prove that TRB3 inhibits the proliferation of melanoma," Chung cautioned.

But it's a good start, according to Alani, his mentor.

"The expectation is that these studies will eventually help us to better understand why traditional chemotherapies fail in patients with melanoma and what the molecular pathways are that may be manipulated in order to achieve better responses to treatment in patients with advanced melanoma," she said. "Jae is extremely dedicated to this important project and is passionate about his work."
— Lisa De Nike


The goal: Understand the Fifth Amendment's 'takings clause'

Wesley Sudduth, who's now studying abroad and was photographed in Spain, took a Constitutional Law class at Homewood that led to research on eminent domain.
Photo courtesy of Wesley Sudduth

Wesley Sudduth didn't know much about eminent domain or the Fifth Amendment's "takings clause" until he took Joel Grossman's two-semester Constitutional Law class. His interest piqued, and with Grossman on board as his faculty sponsor, Sudduth applied for PURA funding for an in-depth study on the history of such cases in the American courts since the 19th century.

The project unexpectedly led him to a familiar place: Michigan, where his family moved in 2001.

"I started researching the topic and realized that one of the most important fronts in the legal interpretation of eminent domain had taken place not only in my home state but in an adjacent county to mine," said Sudduth, a junior majoring in international relations and economics. "So one way to look at this project was as a chance to learn more about something pertinent nationwide that took place in my own backyard."

In 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court, in the case of County of Wayne v. Hathcock, ruled in favor of private property owners.

A similar case in Connecticut, Kelo v. City of New London, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. In that case, the court went in the opposite direction, deciding in favor of the city's plan to rejuvenate an aging area by seizing private properties, ruling that it amounted to a permissible public purpose and was valid under the public use requirement of the Fifth Amendment.

Studied side by side, the cases illustrate how the "takings clause" has been broadly interpreted and reinterpreted since its creation, Sudduth said.

"Put very simply, Kelo was a U.S. Supreme Court case in which the majority made a ruling based on a relatively broad interpretation of eminent domain powers," Sudduth said. "At the same time, this majority stated that it made its ruling based on legal precedent, and that individual states have the freedom to tighten controls on eminent domain powers if they desired.

"My research question was to figure out where one such state supreme court ruling fit into all of this — in this case, the Michigan Supreme Court's decision in Hathcock, which had taken place shortly before Kelo," he said. "My analysis was that, despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court did not follow the strict interpretation of Hathcock, Hathcock retained its importance in the current debate over eminent domain powers because it became in effect a template that other state courts could use if they, too, wanted to strictly interpret the eminent domain clauses found in their own state constitutions rather than follow Kelo's line of reasoning."

Based on his research, Sudduth said he thinks that the era of municipalities' broad interpretation of the takings clause could be waning after its heyday in the early 20th century with a boom in development zoning laws.

"It is quite possible that this sort of broad interpretation has hit its high-water mark on a state-to-state basis," Sudduth said. "Many state legislatures have created or are creating new laws that narrow their government's eminent domain powers. In tandem, many state supreme courts are reinterpreting eminent domain powers more strictly. Most of this tendency, especially on the part of lawmakers, has occurred as a direct result of the high-profile controversy that surrounded Kelo and increasing public awareness of the issue."

Sudduth learned about the PURA program as a freshman, when it was presented as one of the many research opportunities on campus, "especially for undergraduates in the social sciences and humanities, who might sometimes feel like their majors get the short end of the stick when it comes to research."

He said that he had always planned on doing research during his time here, "but it took some time to discover my interests and develop my research skills — and I think that that is a good thing," Sudduth said. For future PURA scholars, his advice from the field is to "perhaps look for something of nationwide interest that took place where you are currently residing. That way, you learn more about your area or your 'roots.' More practically, you already have a system set up that makes doing research easier, like a place to stay, a local phone number and, most important, contacts with local researchers and scholars and experts in the topic."
— Amy Lunday


The 16th Annual PURA Ceremony
See What They Found Out...

To recognize the recipients of the 2008 Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards, an event will be held on Thursday, April 9, 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 Scott Zeger, acting provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, the honorees will be introduced by Theodore Poehler, chair of the selection committee.

Zeger will present the students' certificates, and PURA recipients Rebecca Orchard and Lisa Rosinsky will perform. Orchard will play a short piece by Gliere on the horn, and Rosinsky will read poetry in a range of styles and play recordings by a variety of poets, from W.B. Yeats to Robert Frost.

A reception will follow at approximately 5:15 p.m. The entire Johns Hopkins community is invited.


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