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  Wired for Science

So members of the "gentler sex" are less capable than their male counterparts of high scientific achievement? Harrumph! We didn't have to look far at Johns Hopkins to find six female scientists who are standouts in their fields.

By Kathryn Hansen, A&S '05 (MA)
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

Opening Photo: (L to r) Alice Bowman, Hope Jahren, Francesca Dominici, Miyong Kim, Geraldine Seydoux, and Cila Herman


Alice Bowman
Dazzled by the Data

In a 1960s grade school class, Alice Bowman worked on a report of the solar system, drawing a picture and writing a brief description of each planet. Underneath Pluto, she wrote the only information available then: "mysterious, gray rock."

Today we know Pluto is in fact salmon-colored and has an atmosphere, though much about the ninth and smallest planet still remains a mystery. That will soon change. In January 2006, Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) will launch New Horizons—NASA's First Mission to the Last Planet. And Bowman, the mission operations manager, will play an integral role in uncovering Pluto's secrets.

During the mission, the New Horizons spacecraft will fly by Pluto and its binary companion, Charon, then continue its journey and collect data on a few icy objects in the Kuiper Belt, a field of solar system debris. All of the data collected about the surfaces, interiors, and atmospheres will be transmitted back to Bowman and her APL colleagues.

When NASA sends its spacecraft to Pluto, APL's Alice Bowman and her team will ensure that all systems are go.

"Alice and her team will be the keys to making the measurements and getting the data back to Earth," says New Horizons project manager Glen Fountain.

As operations manager, Bowman is responsible for overseeing all aspects of the three mission phases: concept, design/fabrication and testing, and post-launch operations. Right now, the spacecraft is nearly complete, and Bowman and team are running the first of three mission simulations.

"Those tests are basically our chance to fly the spacecraft like we're going to do it after launch," says Bowman. "Everything should be OK, but you never know."

When Bowman began her career as a research scientist, her projects ranged from developing anti-fungal drugs to creating long-wave infrared solid state detectors for military and shuttle programs. But eventually she decided to pursue a career in satellite operation missions instead.

In 1998, she began working as a spacecraft sensor engineer supporting the Air Force on operational military satellites. From a satellite parked over the Desert Storm war zone, data was transmitted back to Earth in binary 1s and 0s. It was Bowman's job to interpret that data. "After being in that environment, it was hard to go back," Bowman says. "While research is fun and exciting, actually being on the floor watching the data come back and reacting to what you saw — it was intense."

It will take about 10 years for the New Horizon spacecraft to reach Pluto and begin sending data. During that time, Bowman will maintain regular contact to make sure all instruments are operating as they should. If anything malfunctions, she'll be on call 24/7 to find a solution.

"Her previous operations experience and the strengths she has demonstrated developing the New Horizons Mission Operations Center allow me to sleep well at night, knowing the spacecraft will be in good hands once it is on its way to Pluto," says Fountain.

Bowman reflects on the path that led her to realize her childhood dream of being involved with the space program. "My career is more than I thought it would be," she says. "Most every day, I have to pinch myself to make sure that I'm not dreaming."


Geraldine Seydoux
Science on the Small Side

Geraldine Seydoux caught her first glimpse of C. elegans as a grad student in a genetic research lab at Princeton University. Though tiny, this worm is valuable because its transparent body allows scientists to observe its internal structures in action. As Seydoux peered through a microscope and watched a cell divide, she was hooked. "That to me was just so wonderful to see that right there, and it was so concrete," she says. "I fell in love and never went back."

Since then, Seydoux, now a Hopkins professor of molecular biology and genetics, has received a lot of recognition for her research on C. elegans' early embryonic development. In 2001, she was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, and last March she was selected as one of this year's 43 Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigators.

Geraldine Seydoux was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator for her research on C. elegans. "She's an exceptionally clear thinker, very analytical, and can get to the heart of things very quickly," says Medicine's Philip Beachy, professor of molecular biology and genetics.

Seydoux's work focuses on how a single reproductive cell (the egg) produces many cell types that make up a new organism, including more reproductive cells (germ cells) and cells that make up the body (somatic cells). "I wanted to just start with the very beginning," says Seydoux. "It's kind of a blank slate. It's simple."

She and her colleagues found that in the stage of development before fertilization, the reproductive proteins inside an egg are uniformly distributed. But shortly after, some gravitate toward one side of the egg, where the first germ cell will form. This germ cell then shuts down and remains dormant, preserving its reproductive identity until needed for future procreation. Meanwhile, the reproductive proteins that remain are degraded. This degradation is essential to allowing somatic cells to form. Recently, Seydoux and her team discovered that in C. elegans, the gene that triggers protein degradation is activated before fertilization, suggesting that eggs may commit to development even earlier than previously thought.

Her next step will be to see if what she discovered about C. elegans applies to mice. "If we've learned one thing in developmental biology in the last 15 years, it's that there is incredible conservation," says Seydoux. "Meaning that whatever you find about a gene in one particular context is most likely true even in more complicated organisms like the mouse."

Seydoux hopes that her basic research will ultimately provide insight into managing diseases or other aspects of human health. For the time being, Seydoux will focus on answering questions as they pertain to C. elegans and mice.

"Nature is much more beautiful and complex than you could ever imagine. So you're always asking questions and doing little experiments, and then you get these answers that are so unexpected and hard to understand what they mean," says Seydoux. "But eventually you get there."


Francesca Dominici
Environmental Equations

Last fall, Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health (SPH) released the first study ever to link ozone levels and mortality. Scientists had found that a 35 percent reduction in average daily ozone levels in 95 urban communities could save about 4,000 lives a year.

At the root of that claim lay novel statistical models developed by lead author Francesca Dominici, associate professor of biostatistics. Through her methods of incorporating varied data, the "numerical detective" revolutionized the field of statistics.

"She is a world leader in the effects of air pollution, and a leader in quantifying these effects on health," says Scott Zeger, professor and chairman of the Bloomberg School's biostatistics department.

Francesca Dominici turns billions of data sets into usable public health statistics. As head of the Environmental Biostatistics and Epidemiology Group (EBEG), which uses quantitative methods to address environmental issues, Dominici conducts analyses that are typically national in scale. Her current project is her largest yet: Dominici will spend five years integrating billions of data sets — including two years of Medicare patient care data, plus pollution, smoking, weather, and census data — to see how those things affect public health.

Dominici's work has already garnered numerous awards. In 1999, she won the Walter A. Rosenblith New Investigator Award, followed in 2001 by the American Statistical Association Section of Statistics in Epidemiology's Young Investigator Award. This year, Dominici was named a fellow to the Johns Hopkins Center of Excellence in Public Health Tracking, an SPH center funded by the CDC to develop a nationwide environmental health tracking network.

To develop a statistic, Dominici works with scientists to formulate a question, then determines what kinds of data to include. Once the data are compiled, she writes mathematical software to determine correlations. "That's really where I come in — to develop statistical models," she says.

Dominici's job is not only to find an answer to questions such as, Does ozone kill? but also to, What degree of uncertainty is in the statistic? By bringing probability into the equation, she allows enough uncertainty so that additional variables will not prove the initial statistic wrong. "That can be stressful," says Dominici. "Especially when you develop a statistical model that is very important for environmental policy, you always wonder, 'Oh, my God, will my number be totally off the map?'"

Dominici and her colleagues make their data sets, statistical models, and software available online at "We are trying to change how science is disseminated," she says.

A native Italian, Dominici says that at the beginning of her career, she wasn't sure how to apply her passion for solving math problems. But she has since found her niche. "It's not only about doing statistics," says Dominici. "It's about changing the way we live, and impacting science."


Cila Herman
Bubble Troubles

In 1992, three days after defending her thesis completed at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, Cila Herman — a native Yugoslavian — joined Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

"She is a valuable contributor to an important part of our undergraduate program, namely heat transfer," says William Sharpe, professor of mechanical engineering who chaired the department when Herman joined Hopkins.

Within a year, Herman's work in experimental heat transfer and fluid dynamics received widespread recognition when the National Science Foundation presented her with the Research Initiation Award. Several years later, she received NSF's Career Award. Both awards, in addition to funding from the Navy, provided the startup resources that helped Herman get her research off the ground. "I was very fortunate," she says.

Cila Herman took a trip aboard the "vomit comet" to see whether she could affect bubble behavior in a low-gravity environment.

Her fortune continued to grow: In 1997, Herman was selected as one of 60 researchers nationwide to be awarded the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which provided her with $100,000 for an additional year of research. NASA, the agency that nominated Herman for the Presidential award, hopes her research will prove useful in controlling the heat created by propulsion units, power generators, and any other heat producing devices used in space.

Specifically, NASA is interested in Herman's research into the behavior of bubbles in space. Engineers frequently use boiling to cool equipment because the bubbles carry heat away from the liquid. But this only works if the bubbles can escape from the surface of the liquid — a problem in space, where the lack of gravity keeps this from happening. If Herman can find a way to help these bubbles move past a liquid's surface, boiling could become a useful method to cool high-powered hot space systems.

It was this research that got Herman aboard the "vomit comet" — a NASA K-135A turbojet that flies in a series of steep, parabolic arcs to create 30 seconds of weightlessness per arc. Several years ago, Herman and selected students conducted experiments to see if an applied electric field could help dislodge the bubbles in a low-gravity environment. They were successful. On future flights, Herman plans to continue experiments that could one day make space missions more efficient.

In other work, funded by the Navy's Office of Naval Research, Herman is testing "thermoacoustic" cooling systems — the use of sound waves to produce a refrigeration effect — for applications on Earth, such as in household refrigerators or air conditioning. Though some thermoacoustic devices have been around for more than 20 years, Herman says that the designs have not been as efficient as commercial systems that typically rely on hazardous refrigerants. So Herman and colleagues are developing a new, more efficient design and patenting new components that will improve the performance of the thermoacoustic refrigerator.

Herman says that her career as a mechanical engineer has been much more exciting than she ever anticipated. "When I look back at my life as a high school student," she says, "I never dreamed I was going to fly on the vomit comet."


Hope Jahren
History in the Details

Most geologists study fossils in which the soft tissues have long since decayed and minerals have replaced the hard structures. None of the original specimen remains. But Hope Jahren, Hopkins associate professor of geobiology, prefers to look at fossils in which organic matter has survived. By studying DNA molecules extracted from, for instance, an ancient plant, she can determine what the climate and water were like when that plant lived. By analyzing stable isotopes of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (elements a plant absorbs from soil, water, and air) she can uncover a lot of information about the Earth's history of climate change.

"I think the approach is very nontraditional — that I view these things as biological organisms as opposed to [traditional] fossils," says Jahren.

This innovative approach of incorporating biology into geology has set Jahren apart in her field. "Hope Jahren represents a new generation of Earth scientists who work across several disciplines to produce new insights into Earth as an integrated system," says David Veblen, professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "She combines soil science, biology, isotope geochemistry, and climatology better than any other young scientist I know."

Geobiologist Hope Jahren uses non-fossilized DNA from ancient plants to look back in time. In 2001, Jahren was awarded the Geological Society of America's Donath Medal, and earlier this year, she received the American Geophysical Union's Macelwane Medal. Both awards are presented to young researchers who have already made significant contributions to the geophysical sciences. Jahren is one of only four scientists — and the first woman — ever to win both awards. "It's very rewarding to have people say formally that this work was worth doing," she says. (Rather unassuming, Jahren told The Gazette at the time of the Macelwane award, "The first thing I thought when I opened the letter was that some mistake had been made.")

Jahren's work has taken her all over the globe, including Ireland, Puerto Rico, China, Japan, and locations throughout the United States. She made news a few years ago when she used samples from a fossilized conifer forest to estimate the temperature, humidity, weather patterns, and soil methane production of Canada's Axel Heiberg Island 45 million years ago.,, and Geotimes wrote about her work. That study suggested that a lush forest was able to live in the high arctic region because of a weather pattern remarkably different from anything we see today.

In another of her ongoing projects, Jahren is analyzing the qualities of known fossilized molecules and comparing them to non-fossilized molecules. Her hope is to someday provide researchers with the tools to sort molecular fossils from soil collected at any location.

Studying organic matter to reveal ancient secrets is a novel idea for a scientist not formally educated as a biologist or molecular biologist. Jahren says she and her research team are "just trying to expand what we know and trying to follow our instincts. We've gone into these different fields and we've persevered until we can make a decent contribution."


Miyong Kim
Cultural Barriers to Health

As a first-generation immigrant from Korea, Hopkins associate professor of nursing Miyong Kim knows firsthand the stress that comes with leaving one's familiar culture behind. "When you're planting your plant to a different soil, no matter how strong the plant was, just re-rooting it is a stress," Kim says.

When she noticed in her immigrant patients a correlation between stress and adverse health effects such as depression and hypertension, Kim set out to study — and ultimately to reduce — the problem.

"Because of her own heritage, she has identified a real need to reach out to the Korean-American community," says Martha Hill, dean of the School of Nursing. "This is work that takes a lot of time and regular persistence. And she has those characteristics."

Miyong Kim wants to see that Korean-Americans get the health care they need.

When Kim arrived in the United States at the age of 26, she began working as an intensive care nurse at a community hospital. But she became frustrated with only being able to help two or three patients a day. So she left clinical nursing for clinical research, where her work could affect more people.

After earning a PhD in nursing research from the University of Arizona, Kim joined the Hopkins School of Nursing faculty. In a 2000 study published in Ethnicity and Disease, Kim found that out of 761 sampled Korean-American immigrants between 18 and 89 years old, one-third had high blood pressure. Of that one-third, 75 percent were not controlling it. Kim attributes this to changes in diet, lifestyle, and stress associated with emigration.

Kim received a $1 million-plus grant from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) to create a high blood pressure control intervention program for Korean-Americans in Maryland. She supplied patients with at-home blood pressure monitoring devices, provided bi-weekly counseling and education, and collected data weekly via telephone to track their progress for one year. Kim hopes that consistent monitoring will help keep Korean-Americans from letting their blood pressure get out of control — a factor known to contribute to cardiovascular disease and strokes. "So far the result is really strong and the control rate is good, too," says Kim. "We can demonstrate this is a great program and can prevent strokes."

Kim says that other issues, such as the language barrier, keep Korean-Americans from seeking proper health care. "The language barrier is a really suffocating experience," says Kim. In the same 2000 study, Kim found that about half of the total sampled did not have routine checkups, and 42 percent had no medical insurance.

Kim's research prompted community leaders from all over Central Maryland to found the Korean Resource Center, which offers education programs on preventive health — not only for hypertension but for smoking, early detection of cancer, and diabetes.

"This is a tangible result of my community-based research," says Kim. "I can be someone who can really take care of pain, and let the mainstream know there is this quietly suffering population, what their health needs are, what their problems are."

Return to June 2005 Table of Contents

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