The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 10, 2000
April 10, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 31


Pursuing A Field of Dreams

First Woodrow Wilson fellows embark on a unique four-year journey

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Early spring has forever held an allure for Abby Grossberg, a freshman in The Writing Seminars. But it's not blooming flowers or rain showers that enchant this 19-year-old; rather, it has more to do with a little bald-headed man named Oscar.

Since her earliest memories, Grossberg has been caught up in what she refers to as the "magic" of the Academy Awards. As evidence, she recalls a certain brazen 7-year-old girl who would lock herself in her room and write Oscar acceptance speeches, and then later reappear to tell her mother she needed a dress to wear to the ceremonies.

Freshman Abby Grossberg has had her sights set on the big screen since she was 7. Thanks to her Woodrow Wilson fellowship, she's planning to produce her first film by her senior year.

"My poor mom--I told her she had to make me one. I admit, I'm a bit of a daydreamer," Grossberg says. "But I've always been captivated by movies. It's something I always knew I wanted to do with my life, whether it was to write, direct or produce them."

Today, Grossberg is a significant step closer to seeing her name on the credits.

Grossberg is one of 29 students who received inaugural Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship awards. The awards allow students in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences to delve into independent research throughout their undergraduate experience, mentored by distinguished Hopkins faculty. Each Wilson fellow receives a $10,000 stipend to be distributed over four years to support research expenses, including costs associated with travel, equipment and use of archives. (Accordingly, current freshmen who are given the award will receive $7,500 to begin research in their sophomore year.)

The award is named after the former U.S. president, who received his doctorate from Hopkins. To this day, Wilson remains the nation's only head of state to have earned a Ph.D.

The program was developed by Herbert Kessler, former dean of the School of Arts and Sciences; Steven David, associate dean of academic affairs; and university trusteee J. Barclay Knapp, who has funded the fellowships through the recently dedicated Barclay Knapp Deanship, named for his late father.

Steven David coordinates the Wilson program and meets regularly with the students.

The individual research projects are designed by the Wilson fellows, and each student has the choice either to focus on a single long-term project or explore several aspects of a particular field. Students can opt to pursue research in their own area of study or, if they wish, branch off into a totally unrelated discipline. Examples of topics from the first class of fellows range from prenatal care in India and tract tracing in the human brain to entrepreneurship in Hong Kong and history of a Ukrainian Jewish community during the Holocaust.

Not surprisingly, Grossberg chose film as her topic. She plans by her senior year to have written and directed either a documentary or short narrative film--financed by stipend money--that she hopes will launch her into the movie-making business.

Thanks to her Wilson fellowship, Grossberg says, she has already secured an internship with the Shooting Gallery, a major production company based in New York. She started her internship last intersession and will return this summer to learn more about the "ins and outs of production."

Grossberg says she is delighted to have the opportunity to pursue her lifelong ambition.

And to think she almost passed up the chance.

"I had the [Woodrow Wilson] brochure and application sitting on my desk at home for the longest time," says Grossberg, who is from New Jersey. "I said, 'I'll never get this.' Yet, I remember telling my mom and friends in the unlikely event I do get this award, I'm definitely coming to Hopkins."

Grossberg stayed true to her word and appears quite happy with her decision.

"Winning this award made my decision for me to come to Hopkins. It just opens so many doors," Grossberg says. "I really love it here, and I realize that this is a fantastic opportunity. What an amazing thing this is. We are encouraged to pursue anything that might suddenly interest us. It's like having a blank check to your dreams."

Well, not exactly blank.

The stipend money is put aside, and students draw from it by submitting written requests that must be approved by faculty mentors. Steven David, who is coordinator of the Woodrow Wilson fellowship program, says that many students will probably defer tapping into funds until the summer after their freshman year.

David says what separates the Wilson from other undergraduate research awards is the length of time students have to decide both what they want to study and how they want to do it.

Another strength of the program, David says, is that fellows forge vital relationships with mentors and each other almost from the day they arrive at Hopkins. Students are required to meet with David and their mentor once a month, at which time they toss around ideas and relate the current status of their research project. David and Suzy Bacon, administrative assistant in the dean's office, also meet with fellows periodically throughout the year to discuss if they are having difficulties. In addition, several luncheons are scheduled so that fellows can hear what everyone else is working on. David likes to call it one big "Wilson community."

At any time, students may expand the scope of their topics or switch gears entirely and begin something new.

David says he expects that students typically will not do one project over four years. "In fact, we encourage them to do many different projects in many different areas. We like scientists to write poetry and, where possible, poets to work in a lab," David says. "What I think makes this program work is that it's very consistent with Hopkins' values. We are a research institution, and what the Wilson is saying is that we are a research institution not only on the level of graduate students and faculty but also of undergraduates as well."

And the Wilson prepares students for their future.

"We want them to test their interests so that when they go to graduate school, law school, medical school or whatever it may be, they can say they tried a lot of different things," David says. "We don't want to lock them into something at all."

Eligibility is limited to students applying as undergraduate freshmen and to current first-year students in the School of Arts and Sciences. Selection is based on academic merit and the strength of applicants' proposals. Prospective students fill out a short application, while freshmen are required to submit a two-page essay, a letter of recommendation from a faculty member and a transcript of freshman courses. The humanities, social sciences and natural sciences are equally represented in the program.

Next year, David says, the standard Hopkins undergraduate application will contain a page where students can check off that they wish to apply for the Wilson fellowship and are given room to describe "in considerable detail" the kinds of projects they wish to undertake, as compared to a separate brochure and application.

"My guess is that this will enhance both the quantity and the quality of the applications we get," David says.

David says that what the selection committee is looking for are "signs of independent research that the student has done in the past."

"We want to see if this is the type of person who can benefit from research at an early age," he says.

Grossberg thinks she is someone who can benefit. And as to her daydreaming, she says not many days go by when she doesn't envision her name attached to a major motion picture.

The $10,000 may not buy her a blockbuster, but Grossberg's mother in the meantime might want to take her daughter's measurements. Her daughter still sees her name engraved on that little gold man, and there is no stopping her now.

The Krieger School of Arts and Sciences' Office of Academic Affairs is currently accepting applications from current freshmen for the Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program. The deadline is the end of April. For answers to any questions, contact Suzy Bacon at 410-516-6056 or e-mail her at [email protected].