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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 16, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 30
20 Woodrow Wilson Fellows Finish Their Journey

With his Woodrow Wilson fellowship, Niklas Krumm, a neuroscience major, has spent three years studying cognitive functions associated with spelling.

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Many a clever person has tripped over the spellings of sergeant, Mississippi and fuchsia at one point or another. Ever had to accommodate a conscientious psephologist on your calendar, or write a sentence with such thorny words?

For some, however, the spellings of seemingly straightforward words like "listen" and "crook" can be tricky.

Niklas Krumm, a neuroscience major in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, set out three years ago to study the cognitive functions associated with spelling and, more specifically, the understudied field of developmental dysgraphia. During his freshman year, Krumm had befriended an ideal subject to investigate and applied for the Woodrow Wilson fellowship that gave him $7,500 to delve into his topic.

Since 1999, the Woodrow Wilson fellowship awards have allowed undergraduates like Krumm the opportunity to pursue an independent research project over the course of his or her college career in the Krieger School. Krumm is one of 20 seniors who on Friday, April 20, will display and discuss the results of their research at a poster session, sponsored by the university's Second Decade Society, to be held from 3 to 5 p.m. in Homewood's Glass Pavilion.

Krumm began his project in earnest his sophomore year, a single-subject study on a fellow student he refers to as "AP" in his research.

AP, he says, is a healthy young female with no outstanding mental disorders or physical disabilities. In fact, she is considered extremely bright and advanced normally throughout most of her education. At one point, however, it became clear that she had a profound spelling deficit. While words not commonly used often present spelling challenges to everyone, Krumm said that AP has trouble with everyday vocabulary. She would, for example, spell enough, "enuff," and conquer would become "concer."

She also has difficulty orally spelling words and identifying words orally spelled to her. Her deficit predominantly affects her written work, as her speech is considered at or above average, as are her reading and verbal comprehension abilities, Krumm said.

For his research, Krumm set out to identify his subject's underlying cognitive deficits, better understand the neural basis of these deficits through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and extend the cognitive testing and functional imaging to her immediate family. He compared his findings to tests he performed on subjects with "normal" spelling abilities.

"Basically, I wanted to look at [AP's] poor spelling and narrow down the cause," he said. "I wanted to understand what is the cause and effect here and why it does not impact her reading ability."

While more study needs to be done in this case, Krumm said that his preliminary findings are compelling. What stood out in particular was AP's inability to identify two words that rhyme or don't rhyme. She could not match low and toe, for example, or grasp why glove and wove don't sound alike.

"She can read these words just fine, but she relies on the spelling to determine the rhyme," he said. "AP may have a developmental difficulty organizing words by rhyme. It's been shown that is how children learn words, which is why nursery rhymes are so effective, and she might have had to find an alternative, less effective way to organize her spelling lexicon."

Krumm said that it was interesting to note that AP's sister is also poor at rhyming, as is her mother.

"Of course, it makes you wonder if there is something biological, some genetic deficit that we are seeing," he said. "But it is too early to tell, and there is still a lot [of study] needed."

Krumm is eager to do more and will continue to study psycholinguistics next year in Germany, having received both a Fulbright graduate scholarship and a DAAD study scholarship. He said the Woodrow Wilson fellowship immeasurably helped get him to this point.

"The flexibility of the fellowship is really a key aspect. It allows the fellows to focus on the research and their passions," he said. "For me, I started out with a lukewarm interest in language processing and linguistics, but the fellowship really allowed me to explore the field."

The annual Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program allows students 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 fellowships 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, vice dean for centers and programs; 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 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.

Amy Oppenheimer, an international studies major, switched gears three times. Her final project is a documentary about marriage in the Jewish homeland.

Students can also switch gears several times, as was the case with Amy Oppenheimer, an international studies major.

Oppenheimer's first proposal was a bit, in her own words, "grandiose." She wanted to develop an economic plan for a region of Israel. That project turned into one focused on the evolution of the Israeli economy from socialism to capitalism. Wanting something a bit more hands-on, she morphed her project yet again, this time studying the dual identity of an Israeli-Arab community. She intended to spend a year living in Haifa, but war broke out and the violence precluded her following through on her plans.

Quite literally, faith intervened. She opted to study the evolving state of marriage in Israel.

"I have always been interested in matters of state and religion, and I have been very involved in the Interfaith Council here," Oppenheimer said. "Marriage touches upon every element of Israeli society, and since the majority of people get married, everyone has something to say about the process."

Her final project is an hourlong documentary called Faces of Israel: A Discussion About Marriage, State and Religion in the Jewish Homeland. In the film, the viewer is introduced to various Israelis who come from different backgrounds and espouse markedly different beliefs about the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, the meaning of Israel as a Jewish state, civil unions, the future of the Jewish homeland and other related topics.

Oppenheimer said that she's glad she had the opportunity to change her project. For one, she never knew she had a filmmaker inside her.

"One of the strengths of the program is that there is no pressure to begin something as a freshman and continue with that one line," she said. "I kept starting things, and sometimes it would turn into something, and sometimes it wouldn't. But [the Woodrow Wilson advisers] were just constantly there as a support to help brainstorm new ideas."

In fact, Oppenheimer said that the Woodrow Wilson fellowship was the reason she chose Hopkins.

"Johns Hopkins has a really strong International Studies program, but the opportunity to do my own research and have that sort of support is what pulled me to Hopkins in the first place," she said.

Subjects of other Woodrow Wilson projects on display at the Friday poster session include how the mentally ill are treated in China, school lunch reform, the ethics of organ transplantation and "Bollywood" cinema.

For current freshmen, the deadline for fellowship applications is May 16. For more information, go to:


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