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Matters of note from around Johns Hopkins

University: Daniels elected president

Capital Campaign: The final tally is in

Computational Science: A big idea for big data

Books: Memories no longer silent

Africana Studies: Recording a neighborhood

Chemistry: Circuits from peptides

In Memoriam: Elaine Stotko

Bioethics: The right pandemic response

Sports: Never better

Public Health: A mysterious rise in suicides

Daniels elected president of Hopkins

Next month, Johns Hopkins will welcome Ronald J. Daniels as the university's 14th president. In November, the board of trustees announced that it had elected Daniels, 49, currently provost and chief academic officer of the University of Pennsylvania, from a field of nearly 300 candidates. He succeeds William R. Brody, who, after 12 years as Johns Hopkins' president, is heading to La Jolla, California, to take the helm of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. The Canadian-born Daniels has been praised by colleagues at both Penn and the University of Toronto, where he was dean of the Faculty of Law for 10 years, as a distinguished scholar, an inspiring leader, and a very capable fund-raiser.

Ronald J. Daniels takes office on March 2
Photo by Will Kirk
"Ron is a strategic thinker, known for articulating and implementing bold and visionary academic ideas and initiatives. He impressed the committee with his passion for the academic enterprise, his record of academic entrepreneurship, and his commitment to building excellence in both the basic sciences and multidisciplinary research centers and institutes," Pamela P. Flaherty, SAIS '68, chair of the board of trustees, said in the announcement of his election.

Daniels, whose father emigrated to Canada from Europe as a young man and was part of the family's first college-educated generation, has demonstrated a deep commitment to making higher education accessible. While at Penn, he worked with the administration to create a financial aid program that would provide undergraduate students with grants rather than loans, so they could graduate without debt, and he increased financial aid for graduate students as well. He enhanced the quality of education through faculty mentorships, programs that got students involved in solving policy problems, and community service and social advocacy programs. He also focused his attention on Penn's global relationships, bringing international scholars to campus, creating a program that enabled students from developing countries to study at the university, and working with the government and university of Botswana to fight HIV and AIDS. During his tenure at the University of Toronto, he doubled the size of the faculty, cut the student-faculty ratio, and dramatically increased the endowment-from $1 million to $57 million. He also started a program to teach law and justice at inner-city high schools, co-founded International Lawyers and Economists Against Poverty, and founded Pro Bono Students Canada, which places law students in community-based organizations.

In his scholarly work, Daniels focuses on law, economics, and public policy. He has said that the most important moral challenge of our time is "to think about how to deal with the disparity in levels of wealth, education, health, political freedom, and violence between the first and third worlds." His most recent book, Rule of Law Reform and Development: Charting the Fragile Path of Progress (Elgar Press, 2008), co-authored with Michael Trebilcock, investigates the role legal institutions might play in the economic development of Third World countries. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, Daniels organized a national conference on policy issues surrounding the storm and its aftermath, resulting in a book, On Risk and Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). He has written or edited seven books in all, plus dozens of scholarly articles. At Hopkins, he will have an appointment in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences' Department of Political Science.

Born in Toronto, Daniels received his BA in 1982 and his JD in 1986, both from the University of Toronto. He also earned an LLM from Yale University in 1988. When he arrives at Homewood this spring, he will take up residence in Nichols House on the Homewood campus, where he will be joined by his wife, Joanne Rosen, a human rights lawyer and a lecturer in Penn's Annenberg School for Communication, and their four teenage children. —Catherine Pierre

The final tally is in

After eight years and gifts from 251,031 donors, the Johns Hopkins Knowledge for the World fund-raising campaign came to an end on December 31. The grand total: $3.74 billion-the second largest capital campaign in U.S. higher education history, according tothe Chronicle of Higher Education. (Stanfordhas raised more than $3.8 billion toward its 2011 goal of $4.3 billion, according to the Chronicle's database.)

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"The support from our alumni and friends has been inspiring," says Michael C. Eicher, vice president for Development and Alumni Relations. "The generosity of these individuals and their determination to help shape the future of Johns Hopkins is an extension of our founder's legacy, and I think Mr. Hopkins would be very proud to see just how far we've advanced his vision."

The campaign began in July 2000, with the goal of raising $2 billionby 2007. After that target was met two years early, the Johns Hopkins trustees extended the goal to $3.2 billion by the end of last year. The campaign attracted four of the five largest gifts in Hopkins history, three of them commitments of $100 million or more.

What does all that generosity permit, and what has it already accomplished? Financial aid to undergraduate and graduate students through programs like the Sommer Scholarships at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore Scholarships for graduates of Baltimore City public schools, and Hackerman Polytechnic Scholarships for engineering students from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute — more than 550 fellowships and scholarships in all. Support for faculty through endowing the deanship of the Whiting School of Engineering, as well as 92 professorships throughout the university's academic divisions. The launch of the Kimmel Cancer Center, the Malaria Research Institute, the Carey Business School, and other centers and programs throughout the university. The funding of major construction projects, including the Peabody Institute's renovation, the Decker Quadrangle on the Homewood campus, new buildings at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies' Nanjing and Bologna campuses, and the Charles Commons residence hall (all completed); the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan tower and the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children's Center on the medical campus (under way); and the Brody Learning Commons at Homewood (planned). Support for research projects in population health, basic sciences, information technology, nanobiotechnology, and other areas. (For more information on the campaign, visit

"More than a quarter-million individuals and organizations from around the world gave to Johns Hopkins during the past eight years," university President William R. Brody said in an announcement. "Each gift, regardless of size, was an affirmation from our friends and alumni that Johns Hopkins is a sound investment. Each gift was a vote in support of our determination that the work we do at Johns Hopkins — in teaching, discovery, and healing — will make the world a better place." —CP

A big idea for big data

As scientists gather massive amounts of new, raw data — images from thousands of galaxies, digital bits of the human genome, even measurements of winds worldwide — research universities face challenges of how to store, protect, and continually update and augment ever-larger databases. What's more, they must find ways to pay the high costs of creating the computational hardware and software required to delve into a universe of information and produce knowledge.

Illustration by
Bruce Rosch
A group of Johns Hopkins physicists, mechanical engineers, and a digital library expert think they have found a way to do all that. Last July they formed the Institute for Data Intensive Engineering and Science, or IDIES, to develop new ways of building and analyzing huge sets of data, as well as raise the money to pay for them. IDIES came about after an informal group of Hopkins researchers from a wide range of disciplines looked to find ways to take advantage of Hopkins' leadership in the nascent, yet burgeoning fields of digital curation and research, says Alexander Szalay, professor of physics and astronomy at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and director of the institute. "We've been trying to do this for four years — to create something with very much an applied focus," he says. "It's very important for the whole university, including the School of Medicine."

In the past decade, Hopkins scientists and engineers have broken new ground in producing interactive Web sites for ancient texts, amassed a database on windborne turbulence, and served as leaders for the Virtual Observatory, an ever-growing, collaborative repository of images of huge stretches of the universe. Now, the task for IDIES is to apply the knowledge of Hopkins faculty to all kinds of computer-based scientific investigations, as well as find ways for them to link up in cyberspace with other researchers and databases.

IDIES' first round of projects includes the construction of a database for a federal telescope program that scans the universe in search of killer asteroids; a collaboration with the School of Medicine to make a program that will analyze reams of data to be used in radiation oncology research; and the creation of simulations to help determine how earthquakes occur. With more faculty joining, the project list is certain to grow. "We've had at least 30 faculty members sign on so far," says Sayeed Choudhury, Eng '88, '90 (MS), associate dean of the Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries and director of the Digital Research and Curation Center. Choudhury also serves as the director of operations at IDIES. "We're here for people who wonder, among other things, how they can do database-centered research and share what they know with other people via these databases." He also envisions IDIES as a conduit through which scientists can achieve breakthroughs by viewing and using databases from a wide variety of fields — not just their area of specialty.

The advent of IDIES comes at a time when researchers worldwide say the growing mountains of data on the natural world are flipping conventional scientific method. Instead of forming hypotheses, testing them by experiments, then examining the resultant data for conclusions, scientists now often work in reverse, exploring petabytes (roughly 1 billion megabytes) of data first to develop hypotheses to test.

Later this year, the institute could be named to play the lead role in a federally backed consortium of 12 research universities — called the Data Conservancy — that will be designed specifically to aid cross-university, multidisciplinary investigations. The consortium, which is currently awaiting word on its proposal for a $20 million grant, will conduct research on how best to link the databases of all these schools, develop those links, and develop training methods for digital curation students. Choudhury will oversee the prospective project.

An effort similar to IDIES to create and maintain scientific databases at Harvard University was started with $100 million several years ago. By contrast, Hopkins programs, pre-IDIES, worked off of about $200,000 "scraped together from deans," says Szalay.

"We came up with the institute as a way to develop a cohesive approach to funding," Choudhury adds. "You're really better off seeking out federal and state grants if you can write your proposals as a university instead of as individuals."

Szalay says that projects like IDIES and the Data Conservancy are coming online none too soon: "The 21st century will be the century of information. The discoveries of the future will be made from much more information, used much differently than what we have now. We feel like we have to do something-the scientific world is choking on data." —Michael Anft

When the Wells Run Dry

"Clean water is a scarce commodity almost everywhere. Two billion people live in water-stressed areas. More than half that number have inadequate access to drinking water and are extremely poor — living on less than $1 per day. About 40 percent of the world's population, some 2.6 billion people, mostly in rural areas of poor countries and in the slums of their large cities, lack basic sanitation."
—Pieter Bottelier, senior adjunct professor at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, from his essay "Getting to the Bottom of Water Security," included in the new issue of SAISPHERE. SAIS has proclaimed 2009 the "Year of Water."

Memories no longer silent

The crux of Azar Nafisi's new memoir begins with a toy story. When Nafisi was young, her mother, Nezhat, would lock all her favorite toys in a home closet. Little "Azi" was allowed to play with them briefly before they had to be returned to their dark quarters. One such prized possession was a blue-eyed porcelain doll with long blond hair and a turquoise dress. Nafisi, director of Cultural Conversations at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies' Foreign Policy Institute, vividly recalls the first time she was allowed to play with this doll. She repeatedly threw it up into the air until it inevitably fell to the ground. The doll's face smashed into fragments. In Things I've Been Silent About (Random House, 2008), Nafisi writes, "Over the years I will lose or destroy objects that are dearest to me, especially those given to me by my mother."

Azar Nafisi Nafisi's fractious, chilly, combative, yet loving relationship with her mother lies at the heart of the book, a moving narrative of family life, layered with all its joys, secrets, silences, and turmoil. For her follow-up to Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2003), which has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide and been translated into 32 languages, Nafisi returns to Iran and her childhood. The new book details growing up in the shadow of her intelligent and complex mother and powerful yet flawed father, Ahmad, the former mayor of Tehran. She reveals the pain associated with her mother's disappointment at never achieving a romantic and rewarding life, her father's four-year imprisonment on trumped-up charges of political dissent, Nafisi's doomed marriage to her first husband, and the loss after the 1979 Islamic Revolution of the more nuanced and cosmopolitan Iran of her youth.

Nafisi says she began working on the book right after she wrote the acknowledgments for Reading Lolita. Her mother, a housewife and one of the first women to be elected to the Iranian parliament, had died in January 2003, shortly before that book came out. Her father died the winter of the following year. Nafisi says, "I thought I would never write a memoir about my parents, but when I tell stories about Iran, I always think of them. I had hoped I would write something less personal, but this story would not allow me to do that. That is one of the things about books. They make their own demands and tell you where to go. I had to be candid and open, otherwise it would not work." Nafisi describes the creation of Things I've Been Silent About as painful. She went places she thought she would never go, such as describing a 5-year-old's naive attempt at cutting her wrists to attract her mother's attention. At one point in the writing process, she considered abandoning the "too-difficult" project, only to be urged by a friend to continue.

Interwoven in her family's story are Nafisi's memories of Iran and the political upheaval in her home country. "I told my editor from the onset that I don't want this to be an Iran book," she says. "You wouldn't categorize a Jane Austen book as a book about England. But to be successful, a book needs to be open and honest about the spaces its characters dwell in. So to talk about what was happening in Iran at the time, I hope, will give my readers a better sense of my experiences in that country." —Greg Rienzi

Recording a neighborhood

When African Americans migrated to Baltimore in the 19th and 20th centuries, they frequently landed first in neighborhoods on Baltimore's east side. Baltimore was a segregated city, and the eastern part of town around the Johns Hopkins medical campus was one area where blacks were allowed to live. Now, some 88 acres of the east side are about to be radically transformed by urban redevelopment, and before the old makes way for the new, a corps of Johns Hopkins faculty and students are working to preserve as much of East Baltimore's African American history as they can.

Images (at right and below) from Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood, from the Baltimore Afro-American Newspaper archives. Johns Hopkins faculty and students are working with the community to record its history. Their instrument is the East Baltimore Oral History Project, an initiative out of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences' Center for Africana Studies. Last semester students began recording the remembrances of people in the Middle East neighborhood — as the name implies, in the middle of East Baltimore and just to the north of the medical campus. During the next few years, much of Middle East will be demolished and redeveloped by East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI), a nonprofit partnership in which Johns Hopkins has played a major role. Before that happens, the oral history project wants to preserve a record of the original neighborhood.

The project began in 2007 when Nia Redmond, an East Baltimore resident and activist, approached Africana Studies with the idea. Ben Vinson III, director of the center, saw an opportunity not only to begin assembling a history of East Baltimore but to engage students. "Students really like to get messy, in terms of research," says Vinson. "They want a hands-on experience." He worked with Melanie Shell-Weiss, visiting assistant professor of history at Hopkins and an associate research scholar in Africana Studies, to create an undergraduate research seminar, The Power of Place: Race and Community in East Baltimore. Students received instruction in how to conduct and record an oral history interview. Redmond provided a list of older Middle East residents whom she thought were most likely to have interesting stories to tell. Students then went to those residents' homes and recorded conversations with them.

"A lot of the stories are the recollections of African American families who moved from the South, coming to Baltimore with the hope of getting wage-work, becoming working class, and owning a home for the first time," says Shell-Weiss. The project plans to digitize the recordings and make them available online. Shell-Weiss also hopes to create an electronic map of Middle East as it existed before redevelopment, with each oral history embedded at the spot where it took place. The students also gathered photographs. Says Shell-Weiss, "The idea is to recreate this neighborhood digitally, so that anyone who grew up there will be able to show it to their children or grandchildren."

Africana Studies is offering the course again this semester, gathering more oral histories, and hopes to sustain the project for three years. Vinson sees the students' research intersecting with the center's Diaspora Pathways Archival Access Project, which is sorting and cataloging the 116-year-old archive of Baltimore's Afro-American Newspaper. Africana Studies also plans to operate an oral history booth at a conference, "The Civil Rights Century: The NAACP at 100," which takes place this month on the Homewood campus. People attending the conference will be invited to record their memories of the civil rights movement in Baltimore and their comments on the NAACP's impact.

Vinson describes oral history as central to the Africana Studies enterprise: "This is really important because we're starting to lose a generation. We have to capture these stories while that's still possible." —Dale Keiger

Circuits from peptides

For more than 40 years, scientists have been fascinated by organic electronics: unique, carbon-based, self-assembling molecules that, much like metal, conduct electrical current. They can be used to create ultra-thin, flexible electronic circuits that researchers have used for readouts on cell phones and, most recently, as the technology for flat-screen displays. While scientists have imagined various medical applications — for example, organic pacemakers that the body regards as its own tissue — they have been hindered by the fact that organic electronics do not self-assemble in fluids like those found in the body, but rather in harmful chemical solvents.

Illustration by
Scott Roberts
Now, a team of Johns Hopkins chemists has found a way to apply small, naturally occurring chains of amino acids known as peptides to construct organic, electrically conductive "nanowires" inside the human body. The key, as the team explained in an article in the October 22 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, is that the chains are soluble in water. The discovery could have profound benefits for medicine. "Our goal was to create artificial conduits that could guide and promote [electrical] currents that would have an effect on biological systems," says John D. Tovar, assistant professor of chemistry in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "That's the bridge to potential medical applications."

Those "artificial conduits" were developed as Tovar's team attempted to replicate processes that happen in the human body, such as the way proteins fold themselves into enzymes to make molecules of a particular shape. Tovar says his team mimicked the body's method of building complex shapes from small molecules, focusing on how beta-amyloid plaques, the protein deposits that form in the brains of people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease, develop. By imitating the way plaques assemble themselves — typically, by turning soluble proteins from globules into straight rods, which then stack upon themselves and ultimately deposit in brain tissue — Tovar and his team created a peptide whose structure encourages individual molecules to gather amid a water-based medium. The molecules then form electrically charged strands 10,000 times smaller than a human hair.

Such research could one day change the practice of regenerative medicine, which is working to re-engineer damaged spinal cords, heart tissue, and other tissues and organs in need of repair or replacement. Currently, electronic devices such as pacemakers must be implanted, repaired, or replaced during surgery. Peptide-based nanowires one day might provide a less invasive way to maintain a device's electricity. Their existence might also encourage the development of new cells that could restore functions of the body, such as muscle activity in patients suffering from paralysis.

But Tovar warns that the research is too new to be sure of such applications. "We need to see what kind of three-dimensional structures we can fashion and what magnitude of electrical currents we can guide at the nanoscale before we can say what can be done," he says. "We're just getting started, and that's what's exciting." —MA

Elaine Stotko

The School of Education lost a beloved faculty member and friend in October when Elaine M. Stotko, chair of the Department of Teacher Preparation since 2001, succumbed to brain cancer. She was 54.

Elaine Stotko Stotko's colleagues considered her an outstanding and dedicated educator who worked within the division and across the university to improve the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. That effort included collaborating with faculty from Arts and Sciences and Engineering to create special courses in math, science, social studies, and English; advancing partnerships with Baltimore City public schools; and expanding programming by adding a master's in English for speakers of other languages. Her research interests included the impact of teacher education on teacher quality, linguistics for teachers, and children's understanding of language.

Early last year, she garnered national media attention for her study, authored with Margaret Troyer, Ed '05 (MA), and published in the Fall 2007 American Speech, on the use by some inner city Baltimore middle and high school students of the term "yo" as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. The study, which grew out of her Linguistics for Teachers course, discussed the fact that previous attempts by grammarians to create a gender-neutral pronoun in English had failed to catch on. It further pondered whether "yo," which has come into use more spontaneously, might persist, or die out.

"Elaine was an outstanding educator who cared deeply about her students and the quality of our programs," Ralph Fessler, dean of the School of Education, told The Gazette in October. "Her loss is felt deeply by those who worked with her. We will miss her." —CP

The right pandemic response

When the Bloomberg School of Public Health planned a one-day symposium in 2006 to explore the best ways health providers could respond to a flu pandemic, it asked Nancy Kass, SPH '90 (ScD), to give a talk about how a proper response system might work. Researching the topic in preparation for her speech, Kass, who is deputy director of the school's Berman Institute of Bioethics, became appalled at existing disaster plans. Those plans gave high priority to treatment of emergency response workers, all health care providers, people most likely to become ill (such as infants and the elderly), and vaccine manufacturers. They virtually ignored workers who would be needed to keep vital public services up and running if the unthinkable happened. In the event of an epidemic like the one that killed tens of millions of people worldwide in 1918 and 1919, efforts to deliver everything from electricity to food to water would be hampered because as many as 40 percent of workers would be too sick, or worse, to punch in.

"Communities should take care of people who are less fortunate.... If communities can make things better for the least fortunate, they can avoid civil disturbances like we saw in New Orleans, where people often weren't looting to loot but because they were hungry or needed clean water."
—Nancy Kass

"I couldn't understand why this hadn't become an issue after what we witnessed during Hurricane Katrina, which has become a sentinel in this country," Kass says. "For months, people there didn't have electricity or water. There was a dearth of planning. The only thing they had in abundance was finger pointing."

Kass says she realized then that she needed to write a paper that would alert public health researchers and government response planners to the inadequacy of current plans and the need for a system more effective and fair. That paper, written by Kass and three officials representing federal, local, and state governments, was published in October in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice and Science. Its introduction says, "While some have sug-gested that scarce medical countermeasures be allocated primarily to first responders and then to the sickest, we suggest that an ethical public health response should set priorities based on essential functions."

Kass and her co-authors argue that hospital support staff and workers who maintain a community's infrastructure — such as public employees in sanitation and water treatment — should be given priority for preventive anti-viral drug treatments and vaccines over certain medical personnel, such as podiatrists, who have little if any role to play in fighting an epidemic. Echoing a recommendation made last year by the Centers for Disease Control, the article asserts that the federal government's planning needs to be expanded to prevent a second wave of calamity. It argues that a botched or incomplete response, plus a lack of food, heat, power, and water that follows an outbreak of disease, could result in "widespread social chaos, significant outbreaks of other infectious diseases, and severe anxiety, with the possibility of social degeneration, looting, or even violence."

"I thought that if people turned on their computer screens to see what they should do during this pandemic that was all around them, but their screens were blank because essential services weren't being provided, then the result would be at least as disastrous as whatever the flu could do," says Kass, who is also a professor in the Bloomberg School's Department of Health Policy and Management. In addition to making sure society continues to run, community leaders should look after people too poor to fend for themselves, she adds. "Communities should take care of people who are less fortunate — and I don't mean that as a political statement. If communities can make things better for the least fortunate, they can avoid civil disturbances like we saw in New Orleans, where people often weren't looting to loot but because they were hungry or needed clean water."

The article achieved some resonance in November when a bipartisan federal commission claimed in a separate study that a bioterrorism attack is "likely" to happen somewhere in the United States within the next five years. A subsequent report, released in December by two national health nonprofits, found that a majority of states lack comprehensive or workable plans to deal with such a disaster. —MA

Sports: Never Better

There is one word for Johns Hopkins' fall 2008 sports season: best. As in best ever. Hopkins athletes excelled in one sport after another, vaulting Hopkins to ninth in the 2008-2009 Directors' Cup standings, which ranks 180 Division III athletic programs. Never before has Hopkins ranked so high at the end of the fall season. —DK

Women's Cross Country: Centennial Conference champions; 13th at NCAA national championships. (Centennial Conference champ Laura Paulsen)
Football: Finished with record of 8-3; made fifth post-season appearance in last seven years. (All-American Andrew Kase)
Men's Soccer: Advanced to Sweet 16 of NCAA national championships. (Matty Carlson, two-time all-American)
Water Polo: No. 1 in final Div. III national rankings; Div. III Eastern Champions. (Josh Kratz, Eastern Championships MVP)
Women's Soccer: Undefeated regular season; Centennial Conference champions; Sweet 16 of NCAA national tournament. (All-American Jenn Paulucci)
Field Hockey: Ranked as high as third nationally; 16-5 record; qualified for NCAA national championship tournament. (Leah Horton, first-team all-American)

A mysterious rise in suicides

Kelly Gifford's heart sank on a Friday morning in August 2006 when she checked her e-mail and no message popped up from her older sister, Linda. For decades, Linda, 42, had suffered from bipolar disorder, depression, and eating disorders, and had checked in and out of several rehabilitation clinics. Although she lived alone in Denver, 1,800 miles from Kelly and the rest of their family in Arlington, Virginia, the two sisters were close. On the previous Friday, Linda had admitted to Kelly that she had called a suicide hot line. Kelly talked to her constantly that weekend, begging her to call a doctor. When last they had spoken on Monday, Linda had assured Kelly that she was feeling much better. But now there was no word.

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During the next four days, Kelly called and e-mailed Linda repeatedly — with no response. Friday morning, Kelly finally called the Denver police and asked them to check on her sister. Two hours later, the police confirmed her suspicions: Linda was dead in her apartment from an overdose of prescription drugs. "It was always in the back of my mind, but I didn't think it would actually happen," Gifford says. "It was absolutely devastating."

Linda Gifford was one of what appears to be an increasing number of white, middle-aged Americans who take their own lives. The Centers for Disease Control says that in 2005, 10,535 white men and 3,280 white women aged 40 to 64 committed suicide. That's a 2.7 percent per year increase for white men and 3.9 percent per year increase for white women since 1999, according to a new study led by Bloomberg School Professor Susan Baker. The study, published in the December issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found no increase in suicide rates among other ages or races in that seven-year period.

Pre-1999 statistics showed that for men, the highest rates of suicide occurred in the elderly years, and for women during middle age. That's why, in her new study, Baker was most surprised to see that rates increased the most for both men and women of the middle-aged group. "That suggests to me that there may be some specific factors in the lives of that generation of people — the baby boomers — that are similarly affecting men and women," she says. "Now, why the increase in this particular age group? So far, that's a mystery."

Eve Mościcki, SPH '80 (ScD), '82, director of Practice Research Network at the American Psychiatric Institute for Research and Education in Arlington, says, "There's never any single explanation. Think of suicide as being on top of a pyramid: There are multiple layers [of explanatory factors] that go down to the base." Those layers include distal factors, such as an underlying mental illness or drug problem, and proximal factors, such as the sudden loss of a job or collapse of a relationship.

Another problem that complicates the search for an explanation is the difficulty in obtaining suicide data. "We know that suicide is the most underreported cause of death, because when in doubt, it's likely going to be ruled undetermined or accidental," says Frank Campbell, executive director of the Crisis Center Foundation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "There are still large numbers out there who had a loved one's death happen, and they may know it was a suicide, but that's not what the death certificate says." Campbell cites studies that estimate actual suicide rates could be as much as 15 percent higher than reported rates, which, he points out, could make a huge difference in trend studies, like Baker's, that focus on changes of a few percentage points per year. Baker acknowledges that suicide rates are underreported but says there is no evidence that this reporting error varies among different age groups. "I don't think there's any reason to think that underreporting has influenced the trend where we've seen the increase in this particular age group," she says.

Gifford hopes that more research on suicide will erase the stigma of depression and mental illness, which can delay treatment. She says, "People in this age range have been left untreated for so long that even when treatment comes in, well, it's just too late." —Virginia Hughes, A&S '06 (MA)

* This corrects earlier information published in the February issue print edition.

Return to February 2009 Table of Contents

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