The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 23, 1998
Mar. 23 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 27


Provost's awards honor 50 undergrads

Kudos: Students' research projects bring accolades, and a dose of the real world as well

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

In November, Eileen Soskin, chair of music theory at the Peabody Institute, was walking through Friedheim Library and saw a student of hers, Angela Mullins, looking a bit frazzled.

"Hi, Angela," Soskin said.

Mullins looked up at Soskin from behind her work desk.

"I'm sorry. I can't do this," Mullins said in reference to her research project on performing contemporary music concerts in non-traditional venues, such as a nursing home. "I had no idea how hard this was going to be."

Mullins was facing the real-life problems of organizing a concert: She needed to find a venue, schedule the performances and procure the musical equipment, all the while writing and rehearsing the piece so it would be ready to perform. Mullins eventually solved her problems and was able to complete her research. But, according to Soskin, it was the pitfalls Mullins had to overcome that were the true reward, not the results.

"It's a dose of reality. The value for her was finding out all the things that went into the final product," Soskin said. "It's the journey along the way that is the essence of research."

Mullins is one of a small group of Hopkins students that each summer and fall, instead of lying on the beach in Ocean City or skiing down a slope in Vermont, find themselves in laboratories analyzing proteins, in libraries researching government policies, or perhaps even in an African desert excavating Earth's past civilizations.

As winners of the Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards, approximately 50 Hopkins students each year are awarded up to $2,500 to propose and carry out research projects.

On March 26, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., Steven Knapp, provost and vice president for academic affairs, will host the fifth annual awards ceremony, honoring this past year's grant winners. The event will take place in the Glass Pavilion of Levering Hall on the Homewood campus. It will be preceded at 3 p.m. by a poster session, where students will display and talk about their research and results.

"One of the best things about this program is that the projects themselves have proven to be consistently excellent," says Provost Steven Knapp.

The annual awards are part of the university's commitment to research, and they allow undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct meaningful study alongside some of the nation's top researchers. The Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program was begun in 1993 by then provost Joseph Cooper, and since then students have explored a multitude of research topics, some of the results of which have been published in professional journals. The program was primarily funded first by the Independent College Fund of Maryland and now by the Hodson Trust.

"I'm very glad that Joe Cooper started this program," Knapp said. "One of the best things about it is that the projects themselves have proven to be con-sistently excellent. They embrace a wide range of fields, from health science to musical composition, and reflect the broad range of programs offered here."

Involved faculty members emphasize the importance of research experience for the students.

"One of the payoffs to this program is that it gives undergraduates a chance early on to see what the research process is like," said Milton Cum-mings, a professor of political science who has served as faculty sponsor to four past grant winners. "They can see if research is for them. It can have a major impact on their life."

Cummings would know. While attending Swarthmore College in the 1950s, he participated in a similar research program, which was to become the catalyst for his career in political science.

In fact, students are often surprised where their research takes them.

Robert R. Smith of South Glastonbury, Conn., a senior with a double major in history and strategic studies, used his Pro-vost's Research Award to literally knock on opportunity's door while traveling through Tibet.

"I was fortunate enough to meet a man who was a leader of the Tibetan resistance," said Smith, who was directed to the man's compound and "hit it off with his nephew."

The leader had written a journal that chronicled the Tibetan resistance efforts against the Chinese government. After their meetings, the Tibetan leader agreed to allow Smith to translate the work.

"Part of the attraction was that I didn't even realize what had happened, how big a deal it was to be offered the story," Smith said.

Smith hopes to have his research project published, and has applied for a fellowship at the East West Center in Hawaii, where he would expand his studies to include Central Asia.

Unique projects such as Smith's are what the university is looking for.

A six-member selection committee, made up of representatives from each of the undergraduate divisions, has the difficult task of deciding which students are awarded the grants.

Theodore Poehler, vice provost for research, said that each year the number of proposals submitted grows. Last year, of the 108 proposals submitted, only 50 were selected.

Theodore Poehler, vice provost for research, says the object of the Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards is to simulate the real-life research process. "We put the students through the same rigors as faculty members." This year, 100 students vied for the opportunity.

"Each year we seem to get more," Poehler said. "[The selection process] is not easy. We get a lot of exciting proposals; the students are engaged in a lot of interesting work."

The grants program is announced each year in late December, and students have until mid-March for summer projects, or mid-April for fall projects, to submit their proposals. Cummings, one of the committee members, said the group looks for original work, not a rehash of an adviser's research.

"The students are the self-starters in this process," Cummings said. The students themselves choose a subject to research and then pair up with a faculty member who will serve as their sponsor. "Once the project gets under way, we [sponsors] mainly just talk to them, and suggest primary sources to get started."

Poehler said the object of the program is to simulate the real-life research process.

"We put the students through the same rigors as faculty members," Poehler said. "But students need mentoring. Even the best student needs help."

And some students need each other.

Two seniors, Matthew Johnson, a Near Eastern studies major from Northbrook, Ill., and Daniel Rogart, an anthropology major from Fairfield, Conn., used their awards to conduct a two-month archaeological expedition in northwestern Syria. They explored a site that may have once been Tuba, a major center of commerce and culture in the Bronze Age, from about 2500 to 1200 B.C.

Rogart's excavations probed the site's most ancient occupation, during the Early Bronze Age, from about 2500-2000 B.C., a time about which very little had been known. In addition, he discovered a house and artifacts dating back to about 1900 B.C., information that will help shed light on the city's economy, possible reasons for its collapse and eventual resurrection nearly 4,000 years ago, said Glenn Schwartz, a professor of Near Eastern studies, who sponsored the two students and headed the expedition.

Johnson systematically examined some unexplored parts of the site. His excavations revealed Late Bronze Age domestic architecture and a two-story pottery kiln dating to about 2100 B.C.

"The daily excitement of excavation coupled with the wonderful instruction of Dr. Schwartz made the experience extremely fulfilling," said John-son, who plans to work in archaeology and pursue a doctorate.

Mollie Galloway decided to mine material closer to home.

Galloway, a senior psychology major from Columbus, Ohio, capitalized on one of Hopkins' chief resources: its population of smart people. She studied gifted adolescents to determine whether the timing of puberty might affect whether people become better at using the right or left hemispheres of their brains.

The left side of the brain is thought to be better at performing verbal tasks; the right side is believed to specialize in spatial processing that is needed to solve complex mathematical problems. Galloway wanted to investigate whether going through puberty earlier or later in life determines whether a person will rely more on the left or right brain hemisphere.

"Past research on the question that I was interested in investigating has been very inconsistent," said Galloway, who worked with psychology professor Marie Balaban and graduate student Amy Wisni-ewski. "I thought that examining an extreme population might help provide more clear-cut evidence."

Her test subjects were mathematically gifted teenagers participating in Hopkins' Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth. Their academic strengths were first gauged by reviewing their SAT scores, then they were given computer tasks previously known to be best processed by the brain's left or right hemisphere.

The level of maturity in boys was assessed by measuring testosterone levels, and in girls by using height and weight charts. "We also collected data from parents to verify the timing of puberty," Galloway said. "Mothers were asked if their child was an early, late or on-time maturer."

Galloway's findings will be presented during an upcoming meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, Balaban said.

Not all research leads students along that path, of course, but it can take them a different route.

Kelly Abbett, a Rochester, N.Y., native who just completed her undergraduate work, remembers one of the first women's studies courses she took. "I went in, and Dr. Burton [Antoinette Burton, associate director of the department] said it was going to change our lives," Abbett recalled. "It did."

Senior Kelly Abbett, a psychology major, examined American female patients who had been labeled hysterical from 1885 to 1915.

Just a few years later, the psychology major is interning at a Washington public policy consulting firm that focuses on women's health and non-profit issues.

Her preparation for this position included a year of researching turn-of-the- century medical practices, specifically the methods of treating what was called hysteria by the male-dominated medical profession. Abbett's proposed course of study during her senior year earned her one of the Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards.

Abbett's project, "A Her-story of Hysteria, 1865-1915," focused on American patients labeled hysterics during this period. Some of their physicians believed these patients_mostly female_were just acting, or that their nerves were weak; still other doctors thought this ailment was a sign of the times, a very modern, very American phenomenon. They concluded that as the nation grew and confronted technological advances, people "couldn't help but be hysterical," Abbett said.

Hysteria, Abbett noted, has been compared to hypochondria, which may or may not be accurate. "Hysteria was not well defined, but it was mental and physical," she said.

As part of her research, Abbett traveled to historic libraries. "My project was unique because I was not asking a question," she said. "It was more that I wanted to research that part of feminist history. I think it's important."

Important, too, is the lesson that Abbett had learned, just as intended, from these undergraduate research awards: sometimes, it's not just the final result, but the journey, too, that makes the work worthwhile.

Follow this link to learn more about the 1997 Fall Projects.

Christine Rowett, Phil Sneiderman and Emil Venere, all of Homewood News and Information, contributed to this article.