The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 6, 2000
March 6, 2000
VOL. 29, NO. 26


On The Road To Discovery

Provost's Awards lead undergrads to unique learning experiences

News and Information Office

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Rozalin Davoodnia, a senior natural sciences/public health major, knew in theory that a successful health care model was a relative beast. She heard often enough in class that an effective clinic in Chicago, for example, cannot simply be duplicated elsewhere, say in a Third World community, and be expected to yield the same results.

Still, to really understand this concept Davoodnia thought she needed to experience it firsthand. Fortunately, she was given the opportunity to do just that when her research proposal was selected for a 1999 Provost's Undergraduate Research Award.

Since 1993, about 50 students each year have been awarded up to $2,500 to propose and conduct original research, some results of which have been published in professional journals. The awards, begun by then provost Joseph Cooper and funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's commitment to research. In fact, about 80 percent of the university's undergraduates engage in some form of independent research during their four years here, most alongside top researchers in their fields.

On March 9, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Steven Knapp, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, will host the seventh annual Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards ceremony, which will honor the 39 winners of 1999 grants. The event, which will take place in the Glass Pavilion of Levering Union on the Homewood campus, will be preceded at 3 p.m. by a poster session during which the students will display and talk about their research projects.

The research conducted this past year ranged from lab-centered studies of the ultimate stalwart bacterium and of genetic mutations to field research on a 16th-century English painter and the cultural significance of Vietnamese beef noodle soup.

Rozalin Davoodnia's Provost's Award took her last summer to Quayaquil, Ecuador, where she hoped to compare the treatment of tuberculosis in Ecuador and the United States. She wanted to learn why underdeveloped countries continue to suffer disproportionately from diseases like tuberculosis, despite the many advances made over the last several decades in medicine and public policy. She hoped to learn what sort of obstacles--cultural, fiscal or physical--prevent treatable and preventable diseases like tuberculosis, which affects nearly a third of the world's population, from declining.

Rozalin Davoodnia met with doctors in Ecuador, where she explored health policy on tuberculosis.

Prior to her trip, she studied the U.S. protocol for the treatment of tuberculosis by shadowing field workers from the School of Public Health's Center for Tuberculosis Research, who treat tuberculosis patients in Baltimore City. Almost immediately after Davoodnia arrived in Ecuador, the country's economic state became so dire that bank accounts were frozen and a state of emergency was declared. Workers' strikes closed the Libertadores del Norte--the hospital where she was to study--for two weeks.

But once things settled down, Davoodnia got to work and began following and interviewing a cohort of TB patients undergoing treatment in this very impoverished and neglected hospital.

"But a little way into the project, my whole [focus] shifted. I began to interview people who administer health policy in the region--something I never would have thought, being a foreigner and an undergraduate, would have been possible when I started this project."

She met first with local doctors, who she found were eager to arrange talks with local and regional health policy administrators. By the end of the trip, she found herself discussing health policy with the head of the national effort to control tuberculosis.

She was surprised at the frankness she encountered and at the personal risk some of her interviewees took in speaking to her. By the end of her trip, her project had evolved into a look at the political culture within Ecuadorian health care administration and how it can affect the administering of treatment of and vaccination against the disease.

Felicity Northcott, a senior lecturer in anthropology and Davoodnia's academic adviser, says Davoodnia, who aspires to a career in international health and public policy, had an ideal research experience.

"It's quite remarkable the level to which she got to meet some rather powerful people. For an undergraduate, that is pretty impressive," says Northcott, who is also assistant director of Hopkins' Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power and History. "But I think what was really important for her was observing the different ways to look at health and illness, and providing and receiving care somewhere outside the United States." For her part, Davoodnia said the experience was a confidence builder. "For me, the biggest thing was learning that I could do this," she says. "Honestly, before I left, I wasn't sure--being inexperienced and working in a culture so different from my own--whether I would accomplish my project goals. But by the end of the trip, I didn't feel like a foreigner; I felt very comfortable doing what I set out to do." In addition to the poster session, Davoodnia will present her findings at an April 27 general seminar of the Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power and History. These biweekly seminars, which attract visitors from around the world to present their works in progress, are open to the public and attended primarily by graduate students and faculty.

Owen Johnson III, who used his award to study acidity levels on white blood cells and HIV transmission, says his involvement in any form of research came as a bit of surprise.

"I knew when I came to Hopkins that there was a strong research presence here, but I didn't think I would do research. I thought the students would just get glimpses of that in their interactions with the faculty," says Johnson, who works in the lab of Richard Cone, a biophysics professor in the Krieger School. "I got into research in the Psychology Department in my freshman year, though, and now I can't imagine my undergraduate experience without it."

Owen Johnson looked at the effects of acidity levels on white blood cells and HIV transmission.

Johnson received a Provost's Award for his proposal to study the effects of acidity in the vagina on white blood cells and HIV transmission.

Acidic pH levels (pH 6 and lower) are a primary way the body prevents infection in exposed areas like the stomach, skin and vagina. The acidity of the vagina would rapidly kill sperm and many pathogens including HIV. However, semen neutralizes the acidity of the vagina for several hours after intercourse. This allows sperm to survive their journey through the vagina.

"Unfortunately, this also enables sexually transmitted disease pathogens to reach their target cells," Johnson says.

HIV is a case in point.

"Dr. Cone's lab has found evidence that white blood cells, the motile cells that HIV infects and that can crawl like amoeba into every part of the body, can be immobilized by acidity of the vagina," Johnson explains. "Other labs have also found evidence that mild levels of acidity can inactivate HIV."

To test the connection between acidity and white blood cells, Johnson is checking for correlations between three factors: acidity levels outside the cells, acidity levels inside the cells and stoppage of movement.

His results should help scientists predict whether vaginal microbicides that help keep the vagina mildly acidic could help reduce the spread of HIV. One such microbicide from Cone's group is already in clinical trials.

"As we learn more about the physiology of the reproductive systems and the pathogens that threaten them, we'll be able to squeeze and push our way toward increased efficiency, safety and convenience for contraceptives," Johnson says.

Johnson will be in medical school next fall. He's currently interested in the possibility of going into surgery, but he notes that his good experiences in the Cone labs "may or may not" push him into doing research again later in his career.

"All the professors and all the grad students come together as a team in Dr. Cone's lab, so there's a great camaraderie there," he says. "Undergrads are treated not as undergrads but as fellow researchers. The professors know to expect questions from you because you're new, but they value your opinions and comments. Everyone's got a great open door policy--if you ever have questions or you ever need help, they're there for you.

"It's really opened my eyes to how the research process works and what it can do for the community," he concludes.

Arash Mostaghimi, a junior, had an eye-opening discovery in his study titled "CCG Repeat Expansions in Psychiatric Diseases," the discovery being the level of patience needed when conducting research.

Mostaghimi's work is aimed at identifying the genetic mutations that may cause autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, three common psychiatric disorders that are estimated to affect more than 1 percent of Americans.

Arash Mostaghimi studied the genetic mutations that may cause three common psychiatric disorders.

Mostaghimi has been trying to refine procedures used to screen patients who have these psychiatric diseases to see if their DNA shows evidence of genetic mutations. Mostaghimi devised techniques to search for four different types of mutations and used the new methods to screen more than 100 psychiatric patients.

Although this work has resulted in several promising leads, it has not yet directly linked any of the diseases to a mutation. However, the project is still in progress, with new screening techniques being developed that could eventually help detect genetic factors contributing to one or more of these diseases.

Some undergraduates, before their PURA experience, already have many research hours logged under the belt. Seema Desai, an anthropology major who graduated in December, is wrapping up an unanticipated two-year stint in the research laboratories of Maurice Bessman, a professor of biology, before starting medical school next fall.

"I hadn't at all expected to do research when I came to Hopkins," Desai says with a smile of amazement. After taking biochemistry with Bessman, Desai approached him about the possibility of working in his lab.

Seema Desai is studying a legendary survivor in the microbiological world. An anthropology major, she became interested in research after a biochemistry class with Maurice Bessman.

"I've learned a ridiculous amount in this laboratory," she says. "You go to class, you read things in a textbook, and you're almost bound to forget some of it. But if you actually use it in a lab doing exciting, interesting research, that adds a whole new dimension to it."

Desai's research focuses on Deinococcus radiodurans, a bacterium whose monstrous capacity for self-preservation makes it a legendary tough guy of the microbiological world. In addition to its ability to survive dessication (removal of water), D. radiodurans is the current record holder for withstanding radiation exposure.

"Scientists have found it in nuclear waste sites, and they've found it on the outside of one of the spacecrafts that had been in orbit," Desai notes.

Desai and others in the Bessman lab are working to see if it can even teach humanity a thing or two about survival.

Their research is focused on a family of DNA-repair genes, known as NUDIX, that Bessman identified.

"NUDIX genes are found in many species, but D. radiodurans has the most so far--about 20 different genes," Desai says.

The genes contain the instructions for constructing proteins that can remove toxins from amid the chemical building blocks cells use to make DNA.

By removing the toxins, NUDIX proteins reduce the chances of potentially harmful damage to the DNA. In higher organisms, such damage can lead to cancer and other serious health problems.

Desai is studying an unusual NUDIX gene, Gdr8, that has two copies of a key part used to identify genes in the NUDIX family. Is it the secret of D. radiodurans' success? That's probably oversimplifying things, but she is working on a number of experiments designed to see how much resistance to radiation damage Gdr8 helps confer.

"I'm going to transfect, or transplant, the gene into the bacteria E. coli and see if that gives E. coli any additional radiation resistance," Desai says. "We'll also be using a technique that lets us mutate particular portions of an organism's genetic material to disable Gdr8 in D. radiodurans, and we'll test it to see if that reduces its resistance to radiation exposure."

Bessman says, "Seema Desai's experience in undergraduate research is a tradition at Hopkins, and it will serve her well in whatever area of the health sciences she wishes to pursue. She represents the best of a select group of students who have availed themselves of the opportunity to learn, firsthand, what basic research is all about."

Some research topics are indeed a mouthful. Amit Malhotra's research is titled "Significance of Cyclic Response Element Binding Protein and the Subsequent Gene Expression on the Ischemic Apoptotic Pathway."

Malhotra is aiming at finding a way to reduce the amount of cell damage that occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen as a result of cardiac arrest, heart surgery complications and birth-related problems.

Along with research partner Michelle B. Schmidt, a fellow junior in biomedical engineering, Malhotra is part of a team that is trying to determine why some brain cells fight to survive while others commit cellular suicide after being deprived of oxygen for a short period.

Michelle Schmidt and Amit Malhotra studied why some oxygen-deprived cells die and others don't.

Using laboratory animals, Malhotra and his colleagues have measured electrical activity in the brain, monitored the animals' behavior and studied cell samples to determine whether a substance produced by the body, cyclic amp response element binding protein, or CREB, may be the material that prevents oxygen-deprived cells from killing themselves.

The next step in the research, Malhotra says, will be to try to coax the body into producing more CREB in an effort to minimize brain damage.

Many Provost's Award winners take their research overseas, like Jean Hudgins, a senior at Peabody, who traversed the Atlantic to study her topic.

Hudgins, a saxophonist, traveled to Bordeaux, France, to study the works of a group of avant garde composers who are making a mark in the relatively young history of the saxophone. There are two schools of thought for the saxophone, says Hudgins: the American and the French. These schools differ in everything from tone production to phrasing and dynamics. Hudgins worked with composers in the United States and in France, primarily addressing these avant garde musical techniques and the varying symbols that represent the new music.

"My goal is to share their information with other performers and composers in the hope that one day we will have a uniform code for these sounds," she says.

Among the musicians with whom she worked was Etienne Rolin, who is at the forefront of the Conservatory in Bordeaux and whose use of the saxophone in both composition and performance art has intrigued Hudgins for some time.

"It was very exciting to be working with such talented composers," Hudgins says. "And I was surprised that they were just as excited to be working with me. These techniques are still so new that composers may use as many different symbols as there are composers. It was great to be able to come up with a list of symbols and actually work with the composers regarding the sounds that they want.

"I will probably always remember my time in Bordeaux, especially how well they seem to blend business and pleasure."

Hudgins--who has toured extensively, including stops in London, Paris, Brussels and Vienna--will perform Rolin's "Free Frog Leap" at the March 9 recognition ceremony.

To listen to an excerpt of Hudgins' work, go to hudgins.rm.

Pia Shah, a senior international studies major with an interest in women's studies, spent the month of July in the Kutch region of India, researching how to overcome obstacles in setting up effective health care for native women.

She did field work and translated and analyzed detailed survey questionnaires of women and their families. The women are members of Kala Raksha, a business run by women artisans who sell traditional handmade Kutchi garments.

In India, Pia Shah examined obstacles to setting up effective health care for women.

But before she arrived, she had doubts about why she was going there. On the train ride to Kutch, she worried about what she would do once she arrived.

"I was scared of trying to bring about a change that would be detrimental to their lifestyle or culture. That's not what I wanted to do. I didn't want to go there and preach. But in the end, they were my friends, and I felt a basic connection with the women, which I realized is at the heart of my feminist politics."

Jamie Franco, a junior political science major with an interest in art history, applied for a PURA to study an obscure 16th-century English portrait miniaturist named Levina Teerlinc. Franco's theory: that some of the tiny, illuminated paintings attributed to Teerlinc were actually painted by someone else, and Teerlinc has not gotten proper credit for some other portrait miniatures.

"Art history has always been a passion of mine, and I couldn't let it fall by the wayside," Franco says. "I think culture is as important as politics and diplomacy."

"The thing about the miniatures was [that] they really weren't signed. They weren't like paintings. They were very private things. A lot of the miniatures you're going to find are 'unknown sitter, unknown painter,' " she says.

To examine the question in closer detail, Franco decided she should travel to London and Amsterdam to see specific miniatures in person and to examine any records of scientific tests done on the miniatures. She would take a work she was fairly convinced Teerlinc painted and compare the others to it, looking at the nature of the brush strokes.

"What I had to do was go to the different museums that have the miniatures that I think are the ones that could be attributed to Levina and get prints of them and start comparing them to each other and to everything that's out there."

For senior Thach-Giao Truong, her Provost's Award provided a homecoming.

Truong's project, "Pho Bo as Symbol: Beef Noodle Soup and the People of Vietnam," gave her not only the opportunity to put her anthropology major to use but also to travel to her parents' homeland, a country she had always felt a deep connection with but never had had the chance to see.

"Doing fieldwork in Vietnam was an incredible experience--it made me look closer at the people and the customs than I would have if I was just visiting. It made my first time there so interesting and personal," she says. "I felt like both an insider and an outsider there. Even though I've grown up in a Vietnamese family and have spoken the language all my life, [the people I met] all thought I was Japanese."

Thach-Giao Truong traveled to Vietnam, where she learned about the cultural significance of pho bo.

Pho bo is the national dish of Vietnam and an intimate part of its daily life. It is one of the few dishes that transcends class and also the borders of Vietnam's three distinct cultural regions, Mien Bac (the North), Hue and Mien Nam (the South). It's hard to compare the place of pho bo to anything in America, says Truong, except perhaps Americans' love for coffee and coffee shops. Her goal was to explore the dish's relationship to Vietnamese culture and why it evokes such strong emotional feelings in the country's people.

"One of the more interesting things I got out of the research was learning about the perceptions people have about the supposed differences in northern vs. southern Vietnamese pho bo," she says. "I could barely taste a difference between the two, but if you ask someone from either area, they would tell you there is a drastic difference, and each group kind of denigrates the other's version of the soup. It's very interesting how a food can become a physical symbol of the tension between two groups."

In addition to the poster session, Truong will present her findings at an April 13 general seminar of the Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power and History.

Josh Obstfeld, a senior political science major, traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg in August to test the "democratic peace theory," which holds that true democracies do not go to war against each other and that one measure of a true democracy is the level of tolerance in the country.

So Obstfeld decided to test the level of Russian tolerance by trying to get a handle on how extensive anti-Semitism is in that country. He interviewed more than 20 people during his two-week trip and made personal observations.

Joshua Obstfeld traveled to Russia, where he tested the "democratic peace theory" by examining anti-Semitism.

There was no sense of widespread, rampant anti-Semitism, Obstfeld says, but it's there--part of a general anti-foreigner, intolerant and proud nationalist feeling among the people. "I found there is a sort of 'us vs. them' mentality."

The democratic peace theory values of tolerance, compromise and mutual respect for others, Obstfeld says, "aren't necessarily present in that society. It's not bad. It's just not in their culture. We should be wary. Russia is not necessarily going to become a peaceful democracy."

Further west, in Sri Lanka to be precise, is where Sarmela Thevarajah conducted her research. Born in Sri Lanka, Thevarajah has been studying the Bharatha Natyam, a South Indian classical dance, since the age of 5. Her studies continued after her family emigrated to the United States when she was 8, and today Thevarajah is a very accomplished dancer and teacher. The Bharatha Natyam is a Hindu dance; its symbolic poses, hand gestures, emotional expression and fluid motion depict stories from Hindu mythology and folk legends. It is also a dance that has come to represent some of the cultural tensions in Sri Lanka, which for the last 15 years has experienced civil unrest and terrorism between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. It is that aspect of the dance that led Thevarajah back to Sri Lanka last summer.

In Sri Lanka, the Bharatha Natyam has been closely acknowledged as a Tamil dance. More recently the Sinhalese, though Buddhist, have appropriated the dance, she says. In both ethnic groups, it is a dance reserved for the upper and middle classes; girls who learn the dance will "come out" with a costly and elaborate dance ceremony, open to the public, that can cost a family more than $10,000.

"My goal was to explore how the dance was evolving, how its form is transmitted across class and ethnic lines and its role in ethnic identity and national identity formation," says Thevarajah, who graduated in December with a public health major and anthropology minor. She is currently in Boston, working on a research grant project at Harvard's School of Public Health.

Thevarajah spent the entire summer interviewing dance teachers, observing classes and recitals, and spending several afternoons a week instructing children from an impoverished elementary school, despite being told by both teachers and parents that the children would not be able to grasp the techniques because they came from the lower class. The mouths of their teachers and parents dropped to the floor, says Thevarajah, when the children performed a flawless recital at the end of the summer.

"There is a lot of hostility between teachers of the two groups," she says. "The Tamil teachers feel that the Sinhalese are bastardizing and commercializing the dance. And the dance is definitely changing. It is very mainstreamed; you see versions of it everywhere--in the movies, on TV and in commercials."

Kanupriya Kumar's project took her to New Delhi, India, where she conducted a comparison study of allopathic, or Western, and Ayurvedic medicine, the latter being the ancient holistic healing method widely practiced in India. She was particularly interested in how the two practices treat depression and mental illness. To do that, she spent a month working with a psychiatrist and attending psychiatry classes at All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, the country's best-known teaching hospital. Kumar spent an additional three weeks working in an Ayurvedic clinic studying the alternative methods like acupuncture, massage therapy and herbal infusions that physicians use to treat patients.

"It was very interesting learning how the two practices diagnose depression," says Kumar, adding that many in impoverished New Delhi don't admit themselves into hospitals in clinics just because they are depressed.

"The doctors usually don't see them until the depression or mental imbalance has manifested itself into a physical symptom. And both schools have their own way of treating the patient."

Kumar says she gained a great deal of respect for the Ayurvedic method through her research and hopes to study it along with Western medicine when she enters medical school.

In addition to the poster session, Kumar will present her findings at an April 13 general seminar of Hopkins' Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power and History.

Michael Purdy, Leslie Rice, Greg Rienzi, Glenn Small and Phil Sneiderman contributed to this article.

The Seventh Annual
Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards Ceremony

Thursday, March 9
Glass Pavilion, Levering Union
Homewood campus

3 to 4:30 p.m. -- Poster session

4:30 p.m. -- Recognition ceremony

  • Welcoming remarks
  • Introduction of sponsoring organization
  • Introduction of selection committee
  • Introduction of honored guests
  • Steven Knapp, provost
  • Certificate presentation
  • Theodore Poehler, vice provost for research and chair of the selection committee
  • Special presentation by award winner Jean Hudgins*
  • Closing remarks by Provost Knapp
  • 5:15 p.m. -- Reception

    *A leading performer of contemporary works for the tenor saxophone, Jean Hudgins will perform "Free Frog Leap" by Etienne Rolin. Hudgins, who now studies with Gary Louie at the Peabody Conservatory, has given many world premieres, and has performed in London, Paris, Brussels, Vienna and Montreaux with the Tennessee Ambassadors of Music. She also has given concerts in Harrisburg, Pa., with the Harrisburg Symphony and in Washington, D.C., at the 22nd Annual Saxophone Symposium.

    Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards
    Summer 1999 Projects
    Fall 1999 Projects