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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 2, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 32
Projects That Fuel The Mind

Brian Drolet's Woodrow Wilson allowed him to pursue his high school interest in alternative energy sources and to build his own hydrogen fuel cell, pictured.

Woodrow Wilson Fellows follow their passions in self-directed research

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

When Brian Drolet casts his gaze toward the not-so-distant future, he sees the dawn of a global energy crisis as the world's fossil fuel supply begins to wither. Major developed countries like the United States still rely almost entirely on petroleum, coal and natural gas, finite natural resources that are being consumed faster than they are produced.

The senior biophysics major also worries about the further strain the burning of fossil fuels places on the environment. Drolet says that environmental issues and energy policy, in particular alternative energy sources, have been key interests of his since his high school days. He says he only scratched the surface of these topics before he came to Johns Hopkins and wanted to use his time in college to explore the potential of such energy alternatives as the use of hydrogen in sustainable systems.

He would, in fact, do all that and more with the aid of a $10,000 Woodrow Wilson fellowship award to pursue an independent research project of his own design over the course of his college career. He is one of 26 Wilson fellows who on Friday, May 6, will display and discuss the results of their research at a poster session to be held from 3 to 5 p.m. in Homewood's Glass Pavilion.

Armed with the time and resources, Drolet set out to determine if hydrogen can be created from renewable energy sources, like solar or wind power, and then reliably stored for later use in a fuel cell or furnace. He believes that under ideal conditions a hydrogen-powered home or office is not only feasible but would be a cheaper and environmentally safer alternative to fossil fuel use.

Drolet says that while hydrogen technology is not yet commercially viable, he envisions the day when hydrogen energy can phase out reliance on the current system of electrical grids.

"I feel hydrogen energy can decentralize this vast system because it can be produced and stored for later use," Drolet says. "Now we rely on the electrical grid, and you can see the drawbacks of that with the August 2003 power failure. In addition, the grid requires trillions of dollars of upkeep. With a hydrogen system, paired with a renewable energy source like solar power, we can become responsible for our own energy demands."

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.

Drolet used his funds to purchase books for research and to pay for travel expenses to the International Hydrogen Conference held in Toronto last fall. He was also able to build his own working hydrogen fuel cell, which he will demonstrate at the poster session.

He says he still can't believe his good fortune at being selected for a Wilson.

"It's kind of a shock to the system when you learn you've just won an award to pursue an independent research project for your four years at school," he says.

Drolet says perhaps the highlight of his research journey was the trip to Toronto.

"That was really inspiring," he says. "It gave me the motivation and the idea to build the fuel cell display. For the first time, I was working firsthand with technology that I had been reading about in books. It's really cool."

Subjects of other Wilson projects on display at the Friday poster session include a biographical look at the groundbreaking politician John Mercer Langston, poverty in Tanzania, the impact of diamond revenues in Botswana and genetic modifiers of Huntington's disease.

Katie Gradowski, seen here in the Eisenhower Library, made two trips to Berlin to study letters, exhibition catalogs and architectural plans in the Bauhaus archives.

Katie Gradowski, a senior Writing Seminars major, applied for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship as a rising sophomore to pursue her interest in German Expressionist art.

Gradowski started out focused on Bauhaus, specifically the relationship between the artist Vasily Kandinsky and the famous early-20th-century architecture school, which sought to raise the quality of everyday life through designs based on a modern and universal aesthetic.

"What I realized, however, as I started doing my research was that [Bauhaus] is without a doubt one of the most highly researched topics in modern German art," she says.

Gradowski, not wanting to travel over a well-worn path, says she had to switch gears. During her early research, she became interested in the Exhibition for Unknown Architects, hosted in 1919 by the Arbeitsrat fur Kunst (Worker's Council for the Arts), an association of radical German architects, artists and critics founded in the days of the Weimar Republic. The association included among its members Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius.

The Arbeitsrat fur Kunst saw itself, Gradowski says, as a radical alternative to existing architecture organizations, one whose goal was to create a new architecture that would lead the world into a socialist utopia--and also explore a sort of architectural fantasy realm.

"[The organizers] appealed to a lot of radical artists and called for works that weren't meant to be built, ones that would be built only in the imagination," she said. "[The Exhibition for Unknown Architects] was a fantastic exhibition of all these amazing sketches that were incredibly imaginative but completely and totally impractical."

For her project, Gradowski studied the roots of the Arbeitsrat fur Kunst and traced it back to a series of debates within an earlier movement called the Werkbund, which also wanted to unify industry and the arts. Gradowski says she wanted to refute the idea that the Arbeitsrat fur Kunst was solely based on high socialist rhetoric and the November Revolution.

"I found that it wasn't this completely autonomous thing that sprang up amidst this socialist fervor," she says.

During the past two summers, Gradowski visited Berlin to work in the Bauhaus archives, where she perused letters, exhibition catalogs and architectural plans. She says that what began as an interest turned into a challenging, character-building and very worthwhile endeavor.

"This project has been a central part of my experience at Hopkins," she says. "Independent research is really hard, and you need the time, at least two years, to work on it. I found that you spend the first year messing it up and the second year realizing what you've done wrong and fixing it. Most of my substantial work I've done in the past year and a half. I think that is the purpose of the Wilsons, to teach people how to do research, not necessarily how to create something. I'm looking at grad schools now, and I think I will have a jump-start on the research process, knowing how to organize a project and think out what ideas will work, and which ones won't."


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