About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 26, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 32
28 Woodrow Wilson Fellows Finish Their Journeys

Melissa Floca

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Water. It is essential to life, but in many parts of the world access to clean drinking water is an immense struggle.

Louisiana native Melissa Floca says that growing up near the Mississippi River gave her an appreciation of water-related issues. In fact, Floca's high school senior project focused on river conservation and environmental racism along the Mississippi corridor, a waterway beset with pollution problems.

So, when the then 17-year-old Floca received in the mail an application for a $10,000 fellowship award to pursue an independent research project of her own design at Johns Hopkins, two things became clear: Water would certainly be entwined in her topic, and JHU had suddenly risen to the top of her college wish list.

Floca says that grant application would become a passport for the adventure of her young life, allowing her to conduct meaningful field research in Bosnia, Cuba and, primarily, South Africa.

Floca, now a senior majoring in political science and economics, says that the term research has an entirely new meaning in her dictionary.

"When you're 17, the kind of research that you do is science fair stuff. You put milk, water and Coke in the freezer to see which one expands more. But [my Woodrow Wilson project] was definitely on a much different level," Floca says. "Having this grant gave me the opportunity to spend my energy outside the academic year learning how to do research, and understand what meaningful research is. My project evolved immensely, and that evolution has been a phenomenal learning process for me, because to arrive at the point that I am now, I have learned so many things not directly related to water."

Floca is one of 28 Woodrow Wilson fellows who on Friday, April 30, will display and discuss the results of their research at a poster session to be held from 3 to 6 p.m. in Homewood's Glass Pavilion.

Founded in 1999, the annual Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program allows students in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences to delve into unconstrained research during their undergraduate experience, mentored by distinguished Johns Hopkins faculty. Each Wilson fellow receives a grant of up to $10,000 to be distributed over four years to support research expenses, including costs associated with travel, equipment and use of archives.

The awards are given to incoming freshmen of outstanding merit and promise and also to rising sophomores, who receive up to $7,500 for three years. For high school seniors, a Woodrow Wilson brochure is included in the application packets mailed out by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Current freshmen, however, must submit a two-to-three-page proposal, a resume, a second-semester transcript and a letter of recommendation from a JHU faculty member who would become the student's mentor.

The award is named after the former U.S. president, who received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins. The program was developed for the School of Arts and Sciences by Herbert Kessler, then dean of the school and now a professor of art history; Steven David, associate dean for academic affairs; and university trustee J. Barclay Knapp, who funded the fellowships through the school's James B. Knapp Deanship, named for his late father.

The individual research projects are designed by the Wilson fellows, and each student has the choice of focusing on a single long-term project, exploring several aspects of a particular discipline or working on various short-term undertakings in an array of fields. Students can opt to pursue research in their own major or, if they wish, branch off into a totally unrelated discipline.

Floca's initial proposal was to examine water scarcity and violent conflict in developing countries. The more she researched, however, the more it became clear that she wanted to focus on the privatization of water service in South Africa.

Floca says that she decided to zero in on this particular nation because it has the most private-sector involvement in water provision of any African nation. Also, the end of apartheid brought about a new political and socioeconomic system there, which made the evolving situation ripe for research purposes.

In South Africa, as is the case in many other developing countries, the state has handed off the control of water infrastructure to multinational for-profit corporations due to the increasing demand for water and the inability of the government to administer the service efficiently.

"Many people think this is a good thing. Poor, developing countries can't provide water to their citizens, and they feel that multinational companies can do it better and cheaper," says Floca , whose faculty mentor was Siba Grovogui, an associate professor of political science. "On the other side, you have poor people saying, 'I can't pay my water bill because this French company is making these huge profits on the price they're charging for water, and it's morally reprehensible because water is necessary for life.' "

For some South African citizens, water bills amount to 30 percent of their income. In addition, some communities face upward of 75 percent unemployment, Floca says.

Simply unable to afford the service, hundreds of thousands have been cut off from water service, being forced to beg for water from neighbors, with some ultimately turning to untreated water sources. Subsequently, the untreated water these citizens consume has led to massive cholera outbreaks and other public health issues.

The title of Floca's project is "Privatization of Water in South Africa: Price, Paucity and Protest." Floca says that she wanted to see how the water demands were being met in the country, and how grassroots groups in opposition to water privatization were trying to influence government policy.

The short answer, Flora discovered, was that they weren't.

"I learned that these social groups don't have the ability to really influence government policy. They are only reactionary," she says. "If a private company starts cutting off people's water, the citizens resort to violent conflicts or other methods of pressure. They react to the event, but they can't take it to the next level."

Subjects of other Wilson projects on display at the Friday poster session range from Jane Austen's life and works to detergent-based spermicides, the history of traditional Taiwanese cooking and the eating behaviors of rats.

Patricia Chan

Patricia Chan, a senior psychology major, used her fellowship to explore her passion, graphic design. She focused on the graphic design scene in London, the epicenter of the field and home to many cutting-edge design professionals.

Chan says she literally immersed herself in the subject during her four years. She interviewed several leading graphic designers, picking their brains on techniques and what inspired them. She also extensively researched the history of graphic design and endeavored to learn the tools of the trade, namely the latest in design software and printing methods. In London, when she wasn't reading, designing or interviewing, Chan says she was either taking photographs or looking for inspiration in every nook and crevice of the city.

When she returned to Baltimore, Chan used the hundreds of photographs she took and the knowledge she gained to create her own graphic designs for posters, book illustrations and a Macromedia Flash presentation that utilized many of her London street scenes. Chan's mentor was Joan Freedman, director of JHU's Digital Media Center.

An exhibit of Chan's work that resulted from her Woodrow Wilson project will be on display until May 2 in the Mattin Center's Ross Jones Building.

Today, Chan clearly has graphic design running through her blood.

"The Woodrow Wilson grant gave me the chance to pursue something creative and artistic that I probably otherwise wouldn't have gotten to do in such depth," she said.

Like Floca, Chan has a newfound understanding of what research is all about.

"When I started, I had a preconception of what research was. I needed to have a hypothesis, prove it and come up with a conclusion," she says. "My big realization was that it was OK to get completely immersed in the whole thing and not focus on one specific detail. At one point, I just let go and dove into everything about graphic design."

Says Chan, she's found her calling.


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 540 | 901 S. Bond St. | Baltimore, MD 21231 | 443-287-9900 |