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Matters of note from around Johns Hopkins


University: Gift aims at eradication of cancer

Medicine: Using bacteria to zero in on tumors

Peabody: Venturing to Singapore

University: MacArthur Fellowships go to two faculty

Students: TAs learn lingo of American classroom

Museums: Rare books offer artistic inspiration

Science: Discovery marks a sea change

Sports: Big wins for Blue Jay football

Engineering: The importance of being heard

Wholly Hopkins Departments: Syllabus | Datebook | Academese | Forever Altered | Here & Abroad | Bottom Line | Vignette | Up & Comer | Findings | JHUniverse | Vital Signs |

Sidney Kimmel's gift to the Cancer Center will be used to support research and patient care University
Gift Aims to Put Eradication of Cancer Within Reach

The Hopkins Cancer Center ended the year on a jubilant note with the announcement of a record-breaking gift of $150 million from Sidney Kimmel, founder and chairman of the Jones Apparel Group. The donation will be used to support research and patient care, and to fund construction of a new residence for patients undergoing prolonged cancer treatments and their families.

In recognition of the gift, the name of the center has officially been changed to The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

Kimmel's contribution represents the largest single gift in the history of Johns Hopkins. The previous record was shared by a pair of gifts: a $100 million donation made in 1995 by Michael Bloomberg (Eng '64), and a $100 million anonymous bequest to create the Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute made in spring 2001.

"I am blessed," said Kimmel, 73, who founded the Jones Apparel Group in the mid-1970s and has built it into a $4.5 billion corporation that markets well-known brands of clothing such as Ralph Lauren, Jones New York, Polo Jeans, Evan-Picone, and Nine West shoes. "To be able to support one of the leading institutions in the world and build on its momentum gives so much meaning to what we have all done thus far to defeat cancer and provides even more hope for what can now be accomplished."

Hopkins Medicine CEO Edward Miller said, "We stand at the threshold of exponential discovery in the laboratory and the development of new treatments in the clinic. We seek nothing less than the eradication of cancer in our lifetimes. We have a great challenge ahead of us, but with Mr. Kimmel's tremendous generosity, success suddenly seems within our reach."

Kimmel, who is also a partner in Cipriani International, a restaurant and catering business, and part owner of the Miami Heat professional basketball team, established the Sidney Kimmel Foundation in 1993. The foundation thus far has committed more than $300 million to a variety of health care, educational, and cultural institutions.

Donations to health care have concentrated on cancer research, including $25 million to fund development of a new prostate and urological cancer center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York. Kimmel was lead sponsor for "The March: Coming Together to Conquer Cancer," which helped make available to cancer programs more than $400 million in government funding in 1998. His gift to Hopkins is by far the foundation's largest single bequest to date.

The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins has internationally recognized programs in the molecular genetics of cancer, bone marrow transplantation, new drug and vaccine development, pediatric oncology, radiation oncology, and brain tumor treatment and research. It is highly regarded for its innovative surgical treatments for head and neck cancers, sarcoma, prostate and pancreatic cancers, and its research involving the genetic basis of colon cancer, the treatment of cancer pain, gene therapy, and new therapeutic approaches for breast cancer.

"The idea is to selectively attack these tumors from inside with the bacteria," says Bert Vogelstein of his research into new ways to fight cancer.
Photo by Keith Weller
Zeroing In on Tumors With "Smart Bombs" of Bacteria

Scientists at Johns Hopkins's Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center have begun recruiting an unlikely ally in the war against cancer: a genetically modified soil bacterium, Clostridium novyi (C. novyi). Clinicians one day may be able to use it as a kind of biological smart bomb against tumors.

Hopkins oncology professors Bert Vogelstein and Kenneth Kinzler are developing the new approach, which they call COBALT (for combination bacteriolytic therapy), to take advantage of the oxygen-poor environment inside some cancers.

Some advanced cancers grow so quickly that they can't coerce the body into growing enough new blood vessels to support the tumor cells. This can leave areas inside the tumors with poor blood circulation, low levels of oxygen, and masses of dead and dying cells.

Chemotherapy drugs have a hard time reaching such areas because of the poor blood circulation, and radiation therapy relies on the presence of oxygen to trigger cell death. As a result, after traditional treatments stop, cancerous cells can start growing again.

Vogelstein, who is the Clayton Professor of Oncology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, said the idea of using bacteria to combat cancer originated with German scientists, who unsuccessfully tried to attack tumors with bacteria about 50 years ago. Vogelstein and other Hopkins researchers, renewing the attempt to develop this approach, about a year ago began systematically screening bacteria fond of oxygen-poor environments, searching for a species that would thrive in such environments and kill tumor cells.

They settled on C. novyi as the best candidate but found they first had to partially defang the virus by genetically removing its ability to produce a toxin with potentially lethal side effects. Tests in mice with tumors showed the bacteria worked almost exactly as they'd hoped, wiping out cells within cancerous tissue, but dying out as it approached the oxygen-rich healthy tissue on the perimeters of the tumor.

To ensure that cancerous cells on the edge of tumors weren't left to start growing again, researchers decided to combine the bacterial attack with chemotherapy in the next round of tests.

"The idea is to selectively attack these tumors from inside with the bacteria and from the outside with chemotherapy," said Vogelstein.

The combined approach produced dramatic results in mice, destroying more than half the tumors treated within 24 hours. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on November 27, 2001, the researchers reported that COBALT treatments shrank or eliminated tumors in seven of eight mice. One mouse relapsed but responded well to a second treatment.

Co-author Kinzler cautioned that several years of research will be necessary before scientists can begin human clinical trials of COBALT.

"We hope that this research will add a new dimension to cancer treatment but realize that the way tumors respond to treatment in mice can be different than in humans," said Kinzler.

Researchers must also learn which chemotherapy agents will work best with the bacteria, and whether they can use other drugs to combat the effects of toxins created by the rapid destruction of tumors, a phenomenon known as tumor lysis. --Michael Purdy

McKusick on the Risks, Promise of Genetic Information

"There is a possibility that racism might be stirred up by genetic details or information on human diversity. But we are all different and human diversity should be celebrated," said Victor McKusick, Johns Hopkins geneticist and father of the Human Genome Project, in an address to reporters at a November conference organized by the Journal of the American Medical Association. McKusick cautioned against placing too much emphasis on genetic predisposition. Environmental factors, he said, are also a crucial part of the equation. He predicted that we may one day carry cards embedded with information about our genetic makeup, which doctors could use in diagnosing and treating disease. "But it might not be realized that this is not a hard and fast prediction, but more like a long-range weather report similar to saying there's an 80 percent chance of rain and snow," he noted.

Peabody Conservatory Exports Reputation to Singapore

For years Asia has been coming to Peabody Conservatory; Asian students compose a significant percentage of the school's enrollment. Now Peabody is going to Asia. The institute recently signed an agreement with the National University of Singapore to establish a conservatory in that country.

The new institution will be known as the Singapore Conservatory of Music and expects to enroll its first undergraduate class in two or three years. Planners envision an eventual enrollment of 150 to 200 students in four-year degree programs similar to those at Peabody. Students will be drawn from Singapore and other countries throughout Asia.

Says Peabody director Robert Sirota, "Peabody is a truly international conservatory. Approximately one-third of our students are from foreign countries. The establishment of the Singapore Conservatory of Music will expand our reputation as a truly global institution and will increase opportunities for talented students in Asia to receive the highest standard of musical training."

The collaboration, two years in the planning, is the first of its kind between a major American conservatory and an Asian Pacific university. Steven Baxter, dean of Peabody Conservatory, last month assumed the post of director-designate for the Singapore school. Peabody will loan faculty members to guide the faculty of the new conservatory as it plans and establishes its own curriculum and standards.

Eventually, faculty from Baltimore will conduct master classes and residencies in Singapore. Peabody will also loan composers and musicians from its faculty on a short-term basis, as well as send soloists and ensembles to perform. Future collaborations could include student exchange programs and distance learning classes.

Peabody will be compensated for its participation, but Hopkins has not released financial details. The agreement also provides Peabody with two endowed chairs in Baltimore for faculty who will also participate in the Singapore conservatory.

This is not Hopkins's first involvement with Singapore. In 1998, Johns Hopkins Medicine formed Johns Hopkins Singapore, to conduct research, training, and clinical care. Hopkins also became a partner with Singapore's National University Hospital, creating the Johns Hopkins-NUH International Medical Centre.

Government leaders in Singapore see the conservatory as an important milestone in their efforts to develop the nation's arts education and cultural scene. According to Niam Chiang Meng, permanent secretary in the Singapore Ministry of Information, "Singapore's vision is to be a Renaissance city--a global city for the arts." --Dale Keiger

Two at Medicine Win "Genius Grants"

Are you sitting down? According to Kay Redfield Jamison (pictured at right), that's the first question asked when the MacArthur Foundation calls to inform you that you've been selected as a MacArthur Fellow.

The prestigious fellowship provides $500,000 in unrestricted funds, paid out over five years in what is popularly known as a "genius grant," a designation that seems to make many recipients squirm. When the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently named its 23 fellows for 2001, two Johns Hopkins School of Medicine faculty members were on the list: Jamison, a professor of psychiatry, and Geraldine Seydoux, an associate professor of molecular biology.

Jamison is the co-author of the definitive textbook on bipolar disorder and has written two best sellers: An Unquiet Mind, a chronicle of her own experience with manic depression, and Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide. In making the award, the MacArthur Foundation noted Jamison's demonstrated capacity "to change the way people think about mental illness in themselves and in others." By demystifying psychiatric disorders, her work "closes the gap between the medical explanation for disease and the social experience of illness," according to the foundation.

Seydoux (pictured at left) was recognized for being "a young scientist whose work reveals important elements of the molecular machinery of biological development." Her research has provided "key insights into biology's most complex processes: creating a fully formed adult animal from a single cell, and then repeating the process in the next generation." The 37-year-old scientist, who uses nematodes in her research, has been dubbed the "worm guru" by her students.

Seydoux was at first mildly suspicious that the MacArthur Foundation phone call was a prank. Once assured the call was genuine, she found the news hard to absorb. "I'm at a very early point in my career," she says. "Yes, I've done some things that are promising, but it's just the beginning. But they convinced me that that's what they give you the money for, for you to continue along your path, not so much to reward you for what you've done already."

Indeed, a basic tenet of the award is that fellows are thought to be in the best position to decide how to use their funding. At the end of five years, they need not report on how they spent their time or what they achieved.

When the phone call came, Jamison was working on a book about exuberance, which seems fitting. "I'm totally delighted," she says. "It's an award that I love because it's notoriously independent. One of the things that's been really wonderful has been the response of people in the mental health community. An awful lot of people with mental illness have called up and said this is something that affirms them and the importance of mental illness."

Seydoux says, "The way this award is given out, they solicit information from the people around you. That makes this really nice, such a wonderful vote of confidence from my colleagues."

Three Hopkins faculty have received MacArthur Fellowships since the program started in 1981: Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies; Philip D. Curtin, professor emeritus of history; and Allen Grossman, professor of English.

Both Jamison and Seydoux had to sit on the news for about five days, until the foundation made its announcement. Jamison says, "We just happened to be going out on a series of dinners with friends, and it was very hard to keep quiet."

She adds, "One of the things the award does is give you time to mull. I'm looking forward to mulling." --DK

TAs Learn Lingo of American Classroom

In Homewood's Gilman 12, against the clank and hiss of an aging radiator, nine international graduate students await the start of their noontime course in Communication Strategies for the American Classroom. All nine want to be teaching assistants (TAs) next semester. But first they must master the language and teaching skills they need to stand up in front of 200 Hopkins undergraduates and successfully guide them through the intricacies of economic theory or organic chemistry. It's a formidable task.

Illustration by Mike McConnell

"The goal is convincing them that American students learn through active participation," says instructor Doris Shiffman, who is equal parts cheerleader and taskmaster to her group of international scholars. "You have to move American students through the material step by step, staying in touch, asking questions"--quite a departure from the methods used in many international classrooms, where instructors are aloof and revered for their knowledge, and the burden of learning falls completely on the student.

During today's class, four students will offer mock lectures, which will be videotaped and critiqued by Shiffman and their classmates. Also here to offer a critique is philosophy major Chris Cunico '03, chair of the academic affairs committee of the Student Council. The committee is concerned about the teaching effectiveness of international TAs, "particularly in engineering and the sciences," says Cunico, noting that language proficiency problems, coupled with highly technical subject matter, can make for TA instruction that is difficult for undergraduates to follow.

To the American ear, information from Asian instructors can be particularly tricky to discern, Shiffman notes, given the major differences in the rhythm, stress, and intonation of most Asian languages.

Shiffman, who works part time at Hopkins in the Language Teaching Center, trains close to 40 international graduate students a year through this one-semester course and a yearlong course in oral skills. At the end of the semester, she offers her appraisal as to whether an aspiring TA is ready to hit the classroom. Roughly one-third of her students don't get the green light, she says. Her recommendations to department chairs, however, are not binding.

In recent years, Shiffman has developed some high-tech methods for preparing her international charges, such as a digitized audio file of 300 frequently asked questions, in the student idiom that could easily stump the non-native English speaker--"What all is going to be on the test?" and "Do we have to show our work, or can we use cheat sheets?"-- complete with possible TA responses.

Using Web-based technology, she's also developed "model" TA lectures. Her students can connect to the material on their computers, then watch and listen again and again to clips of model instructors giving the actual courses they will teach.

On this sunny Tuesday late in the fall semester, it is Giuseppe Tinaglia's turn to present a mathematics lecture on the chain rule. As the video camera rolls, he grabs a piece of chalk, smiles winningly at his classmates, then begins: "So. Here's the deal. If we have two functions..." Throughout his 10-minute presentation, Tinaglia makes eye contact with his "students" and asks questions. His lesson revolves around a word problem featuring the classic American Dynamic Duo: "After a night of fighting crime, Batman and Robin go out for a joyride in the Batmobile. Batman, under the influence, drives the Batmobile off a cliff..." The example earns a few chuckles.

Later, Shiffman will analyze the video footage. Tinaglia will earn high marks for his body language (great eye contact) and "relationship skills" (smiled a lot, kept checking in to make sure the class was following). Shiffman was tickled that Tinaglia had used phrases from the model TA video footage she had prepared ("You do the math," and "Here's the deal"), and that he'd gotten help from an American friend to come up with the Batman and Robin premise. Her conclusion: The native Italian will make an effective TA for the math department.

By semester's end, Shiffman will wind up recommending five of her nine students to be TAs. The others will probably staff "help" sections, where they will use their new skills in one-on-one sessions with students. Says Shiffman, "Communication is always easier on a face-to-face basis." --Sue De Pasquale

Rec Center with a View

Homewood's new $14.3 million student rec center--opened in late January--may abut the Newton H. White Athletic Center, but the three-story facility has an entirely different look and feel, evoked by glass walls, high ceilings, and an open floor plan. Included: gym, four racquetball-squash courts, weight room, and 30-foot climbing wall, plus an elevated jogging track and 2,500-square-foot fitness center.


Photos by Will Kirk

Right, Louise Wheatley's Voice from the Whirlwind, inspired by a miniature Hebrew psalter, below, in the Garrett Library of Evergreen. "My intention is for these small images to evoke the power and poetry of the Book of Job," the artist writes of her woven book.
Top photo by Dan Meyers
Bottom photo by Jay Van Rensselaer
Evergreen's Rare Books Offer Artistic Inspiration

Contemporary artists are finding inspiration in a few unlikely places at Hopkins's Evergreen House--a 15th-century geometry text, a guide to medical botany in the United States in the early 1800s, and a children's primer dating from the Revolutionary War.

For the museum's latest contemporary art exhibit, titled "Kings, Hummingbirds and Monsters: Artist's Books at Evergreen," 20 artists offer their interpretations of some rare books among the 35,000 tomes collected during nearly eight decades by the Italianate mansion's owners, the Garrett family.

"The artists used the Garretts' books as a basis for inspiration to create a new work of art," says Beth Nowell, marketing coordinator for Evergreen House. "It's a new way of looking at the historical aspects of the rare book collection."

Contemporary artists' books push beyond the traditional role of artist as illustrator and explore the medium, often working in three dimensions. The most common example is a pop-up book, but as the Evergreen exhibit demonstrates, the opportunity for interpretation is wide open.

Baltimore artist Colin Ives, for example, was struck by The Birds of America, John James Audubon's vivid poster-sized prints of birds. The four large volumes, known as double elephant folios, are shelved in the mansion's walnut-lined library. They are one of the few complete sets in the country.

In Ives's interactive work, The Size of Life, a fake leather "book" lies atop a cube that hides a computer. A screen in the book's cover reveals a series of changing images--Audubon's representations of North American birds interspersed with his 19th-century writings.

In a final image on the screen, as the viewer taps a cursor on each bird, the sound of a gunshot is heard and the bird disappears. Ives's interpretation emphasizes the irony of Audubon's conservation methods: The great naturalist killed birds in order to draw and study them. Filling the screen after the birds disappear is a list of 28 birds Audubon and his crew shot, as noted in his Missouri River Journals, dated May 4, 1843.

The library at Evergreen

"Kings, Hummingbirds and Monsters" is the brainchild of Evergreen House director Cindy Kelly, who wanted to learn more about Evergreen's rare book collection as well as expose the public to the Garretts' legacy as collectors and art patrons. The Garrett book collection includes many treasures, including all four of William Shakespeare's folios, private library books of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (many of which carry their signatures), as well as books on natural history, astronomy, math, medicine, art, architecture, theology, and a variety of other subjects.

Other works in the "Kings, Hummingbirds and Monsters" exhibit include Janet Maher's mixed-media collage featuring letters between Alice Warder Garrett and her close friend, Edith Wharton, during World War I. There's also Paper Folds in a Straight Line, by artist John Wood, which pays tribute to the beautiful logic of Euclid's geometry as described in the mathematician's 1482 Elementa geometria.

And, in a more recent nod to history, artist Gail Rebhan juxtaposes The Benjamin Franklin Primer of 1878 with current children's books. Using Adobe Photoshop, she overlays colorful images of happily panting dogs with the old primer's crude ink drawing and rhyme about a dog with a can tied to his tail. The text reveals the less-than-warm-and-fuzzy sentiments of the day: "Can the dog run? The dog can run. The can is on the dog. Run, dog, run."

The exhibit, which runs through February, is part of an ongoing series of exhibitions curated by Kelly. Among others were an environmental sculpture exhibit on the grounds of the Evergreen House, and a show of artists' prints based on Old Master prints collected by T. Harrison Garrett.

"The Garretts supported contemporary art of the day so these exhibits are rooted in the history of the place," Kelly says. For more information, visit the Exhibitions and Lectures section of Evergreen's Web site at --JCS

During the great chalk age, coccolithophores thrived in such abundance that their armor plates formed tremendous limestone foundations. Science
Discovery Marks a Sea Change

For almost two decades, Lawrence Hardie's peers resisted his theory that the chemistry of seawater has periodically changed over the last 600 million years. But now Hardie and two of his former students have found redemption in tiny, trapped droplets of ancient seawater. Using a refined technique to analyze water droplets smaller than the tip of a pencil, they found evidence that our oceans have not always had the same chemical composition.

"The ruling paradigm on seawater chemistry, its major ions and such, was that there had been no change in the last two billion years," says Hardie, professor of Earth and planetary sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. But Hardie was increasingly bothered by mineral patterns he observed in certain limestone and salt deposits (potash) left by ancient evaporated seas. He found that the mineral content of potash flip-flopped every 100 to 200 million years, between magnesium-rich and magnesium-poor, a fluctuation that Hardie thought might be explained by changing seawater chemistry.

The idea first occurred to Hardie in the 1970s when scientists discovered underwater vents, or volcanoes. These vents, found where tectonic plates spread apart, not only support new and strange life, but also form hot brines. As seafloors spread, hot magma rises from the Earth's interior and transforms seawater into brines by absorbing its magnesium and releasing calcium. The cooled magma, also transformed chemically, forms new mountains and ocean floors that slowly spread apart. Over time, widespread vents have resulted in extensive underwater mountain ridges--50,000 kilometers in all--across the ocean floors. Hardie believed that enough vents existed to create brines that might influence seawater globally. In 1984, he gave an informal talk about how this process also might have altered the mineral content of ancient marine deposits, but found a cool reception. Jokes Hardie, "All the big buffs were there and they didn't sound too interested."

Hardie wouldn't take up his idea again until the 1990s, when geologists better understood the age of the ocean floor and could measure historic seafloor spreading rates. He then published his research linking changing rock mineralogy and seawater chemistry and their possible connection to plate tectonics. "The fit was really quite spectacular," says Hardie of his correlations. But his ideas threatened to remain theory until he could demonstrate that seawater actually had changed.

Determined, Hardie teamed up with two of his former graduate students: Tim Lowenstein (PhD '82) and Robert DeMicco (PhD '81), now at Binghamton University, State University of New York. They thought that shifting ocean chemistry might be revealed in trapped droplets of water found in ancient marine halite. They collected this type of salt deposit from around the world to look at densely packed droplets. Too tiny to extract, droplets were frozen, sliced into sections, and examined with a scanning electron microscope.

In the November 2, 2001, issue of Science, they report that magnesium-calcium ratios in the droplets were the same around the world at any given time, but varied through history.

"I hope this will finally lay to rest the idea that seawater was constant in composition," says Lowenstein. "When people see that seawater chemistry has changed, I think they will open up their eyes to try to look at how other things changed in rhythm with seawater chemistry."

Both Hardie and Lowenstein believe that seawater chemistry changed with seafloor spreading, which would explain why magnesium-calcium ratios vary in the droplets. Other known historical phenomena, like volcanism and global sea levels, also fit their observed patterns of changing seawater.

And now, says Steven Stanley, a Johns Hopkins paleontologist, fossil records tie in as well.

In papers coauthored with Hardie, Stanley reported on trends of simple organisms like coccolithophores, free-floating microscopic algae that absorb calcium carbonate and form chalky armor shields. During the Cretaceous period--the great chalk age around 100 million years ago--coccolithophores thrived in such abundance that when they died, their armor plates formed tremendous limestone formations like the White Cliffs of Dover in England and those along the Brittany Coast of France. As seafloor spreading slowed and the Cretaceous period waned, these shields shrank in size, and one group of coccolithophores became extinct, presumably due to changing chemistry of the seas.

The Hopkins scientists observed similar trends in other calcium-secreting algae, sponges, and corals. Says Stanley, "It's exciting to connect paleontology to all of these other areas of geology in ways that we wouldn't have suspected before." --Carol Marzuola (MA '02)

Jim Margraff calls the plays.
Photo by Rob Brown
Big Opener for Margraff, Nice Closer for Blue Jay Football Season

An uneven 6-3 season for the Johns Hopkins football team was marked by satisfying bookends. In the season's opener, Jim Margraff became the all-time winningest football coach in Hopkins history with a 34-3 victory over Washington and Lee. And in the last game of the year, the Blue Jays scored a stunning 21-14 upset of Western Maryland, a team bound for the NCAA Division III playoffs and ranked ninth in the country at the time.

"There was some good and some bad," Margraff says. "We lost two tough games in the middle of the year [22-14 to eventual conference co-champion Muhlenberg, and 17-14 in overtime to Dickinson]. Overall, our guys played well, and our defense was terrific." One of the Blue Jays's losses was to Bridgewater College, which played for and nearly won the Division III national championship against Mt. Union College of Ohio.

The Hopkins defense led the Centennial Conference in almost every defensive category. It did not allow a single passing touchdown all season, something that no team in the country had accomplished since 1980. And Hopkins ranked first in the nation in its defensive pass-efficiency rating, and 15th in total defense.

On offense, senior Zach Baylin led the conference in total receptions for the third season in a row; he was an academic all-American for the second consecutive year. Baylin accounted for all touchdowns in the win over Western Maryland.

Margraff, who just concluded his 12th season as head coach, laughs when asked if becoming the winningest coach means a lot. "It usually means you've been someplace too long," he says. He notes that the Jays are becoming contenders for the NCAA Division III national tournament. "We're never that far away. If we stay healthy, we can play with just about anybody. We found that out for sure in our last game. Until you beat a top-10 team you don't know if it's actually true."

The coach looks forward to his 13th season. Much of the heralded defense will return, as will most of the running backs and the starting offensive line. The team will return to a 10-game schedule, after playing only nine games this past year because Swarthmore dropped its football program. --DK

Marthe Hoffnung Cohn, inset at right, recounted her experiences as a Jew in France during World War II for the Shoah Visual History Foundation; her account is one of nearly 52,000 interviews.
Illustration by Peter Yuill
Project Recognizes the Importance of Being Heard

As a young girl in France before World War II, Marthe Hoffnung was buying eggs for her family when another girl called her a "dirty Jew." Marthe smashed the eggs over the girl's head and ran home. She later survived the Nazi invasion of France by using false identity papers, then joined French intelligence in the later years of the war. As the Allies advanced across Europe, she pretended to be a "good German girl" fleeing the enemy, gathering and then passing along information about German army locations.

Today, Hoffnung, now Cohn, lives in California. Her story, recorded by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, is one thread in a tapestry of testimony--more than 117,000 hours of video interviews with nearly 52,000 Holocaust survivors. The digitized video archive, launched by film director Steven Spielberg in 1994 after the filming of Schindler's List, is meant to document survivors' experiences, and to help fight intolerance and bigotry.

Yet many of the stories remain unavailable to scholars, educators, or the general public because of the overwhelming scope of material. To date, only 4,000 of the interviews-- and only those testimonies in English--have been cataloged.

Now, with a $7.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Shoah Foundation has launched a project to develop speech recognition technology that would make it easier to access and index testimonies recorded in 32 languages, including Russian, Macedonian, and Romani. Joining the five-year project are researchers from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, and IBM.

"There's been all this effort to make this data available, but it is nearly impossible to search through manually," says Bill Byrne, associate research professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Hopkins's Whiting School of Engineering. With speech recognition technology, "all of the data could be put into a computer where everyone could access it."

Byrne and others at Hopkins will work on creating software that contains various models of speech and language. In processing the taped accounts, the computer program would compare a given sound to the words and other sounds the computer has already been programmed to recognize. The software would then search for the correct combinations of word sequence and sound, and ideally output a faithful transcription of what was said.

Byrne and a handful of colleagues at Hopkins's interdisciplinary Center for Language and Speech Processing will be developing speech recognition technology for several languages. Starting with Czech, they then expect to move on to Russian, Polish, and other Eastern European languages.

The researchers face challenges. Most speech recognition technology today, such as IBM's ViaVoice, works best in the most pristine of circumstances--well pronounced dictation into a microphone. Errors in the resulting transcript frequently are introduced when the speaker has a heavy accent or becomes emotional.

"People often switch languages when they speak, using a German word to describe a location or they might talk for a whole paragraph in their native language," Byrne says. "And when people get emotional, the [speech] recognizers have a hard time. But that is the sort of spontaneous speech we want to record."

IBM is working to develop more advanced speech recognition technology that can be used in a variety of circumstances. And the University of Maryland researchers are working on the "audio mining" technology, or how to retrieve and access the data.

The not-for-profit Shoah Foundation has already spent about $10 million to pay for manual indexing, and likely needs another $10 million to finish cataloging the material. Says Sam Gustman, the foundation's executive director of technology, "Being able to automate even some of that task so that it didn't cost so much would be very helpful." --JCS

Return to February 2002 Table of Contents

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