April 30, 2012

Focusing on discovery

Woodrow Wilson fellows complete their multiyear journeys

Major League Baseball managers, habitual purveyors of cliches, like to declare after a loss that a season is a marathon, not a sprint. Bottom line, no matter how gloomy the present, there is plenty of time to turn this around and achieve the main goal.

Research can follow a similar trajectory. You have good days and bad, moments of triumph and challenges that test the will to see the project through.

Woodrow Wilson fellows can attest to this. Sometimes a hypothesis needs to be scrapped and reworked, or a dead end turns into a new beginning. And what if the main subject of your research declines to be interviewed? Short answer, you move on to something, or someone, else.

Since 1999, Woodrow Wilson fellowships have allowed undergraduates in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences the opportunity to pursue an independent research project over the course of their college career. Fourteen seniors on Friday, May 4, will discuss the results of their research at a poster session to be held from 3 to 5 p.m. in Homewood’s Glass Pavilion.

Woodrow Wilson projects on display at the Friday poster session will include an examination of a 12th-century manuscript of the King Arthur legend, a comparative study of childhood obesity and prevention in the United States and Europe, a performance tour of Bach cello suites and a look into the merits of a universal health care system.

The annual Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program allows students to delve into unconstrained research during their time at Johns Hopkins, mentored by a faculty member. Each Wilson fellow receives a grant of $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 $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, and a selection of fellows is made by a faculty committee. 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 undergraduate education; and university trustee J. Barclay Knapp, who funded the fellowships through the school’s James B. Knapp Deanship, named for his late father. Recipients have gone on to win Rhodes, Marshall, Fulbright and Truman scholarships.

“As America’s first research university, Johns Hopkins has a special commitment toward creating knowledge,” David says. “That commitment includes our undergraduate students, and there is no better illustration of its value than the Woodrow Wilson program, as seen in these superb projects.”

The individual research endeavors 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.

Here are snapshots of four Woodrow Wilson fellows and their own tales of discovery.

For more information, go to krieger.jhu.edu/woodrowwilson.

Perceptions of a literary masterwork

Christopher Benner with a well-worn copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby,’ a novel that he determined is taught differently in the United States and abroad. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Name: Christopher Benner

Age: 21

Hometown: Oakland, Calif.

Major: English and The Writing Seminars

Faculty mentors: Alice McDermott, the Richard A. Macksey Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities; and Douglas Mao, professor of English

Project title: “The Reception and Interpretation of The Great Gatsby in America and Abroad”

Christopher Benner has read The Great Gatsby so many times he’s lost count. On request, he can recite the opening pages and large chunks from throughout the novel, universally hailed as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece and a literary treasure.

The novel, first published in 1925, is set on Long Island’s North Shore and in New York City at the onset of the “roaring 20s,” when prosperity and Prohibition reigned. The title character, Jay Gatsby, hails from an impoverished Midwest background but, largely through nefarious means, refashions himself into a metropolitan man of wealth in order to win the heart of a woman.

For his project, Benner wanted to explore how the strong ties between The Great Gatsby and American history influence the novel’s reputation among academics both in the United States and abroad. Specifically, he wanted to analyze what influence political and cultural differences have on scholars’ readiness to accept a work as part of the literary canon.

To investigate, he conducted interviews with literary scholars from America, England, Germany, France and Switzerland to discuss how the novel is taught. To meet with many of these scholars, he attended the International F. Scott Fitzgerald Conference, held in Lyon, France, in July 2011. He recorded and later transcribed his interviews, which became fodder for his Woodrow Wilson project and his senior thesis.

He found that, when taught abroad at the university level, the book is interpreted slightly differently, with a focus on American history and culture. He says this is particularly true in Britain and Germany, where it might be used as a window to Jazz Age America.

“Several of the European professors I interviewed mentioned how ‘exotic’ The Great Gatsbywas for their students because it focused on a time and place so distinct from when and where their students live now,” Benner says.

U.S. professors, in contrast, often laid heavier emphasis on the style of the novel, or focused on its political and moral hues.

Benner says that one American scholar with whom he spoke talked about how the novel asks whether the rich have a moral obligation to use their wealth for good rather than selfishly and destructively.

Benner notes, however, that scholars uniformly leave few plot stones unturned, Gatsby being such a relatively short novel.

A question some might have for Benner would be, did he learn something new about his favorite novel? Benner says he may not think of the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, quite the same way again.

“There is some robust critical debate about whether Nick is a reliable narrator, but I never saw him as unreliable,” he says. “I more or less believed what he told us.”

He also learned just how few American literary scholars are out there in Europe, and howThe Great Gatsby is not nearly the iconic staple for students abroad as it is in the United States. It’s not even in the top-three American books taught in British secondary school, which would be Of Mice and MenTo Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye.

“It interested me how variable literary reputation can be,” he says. “Culture and other aspects can influence how much a book is respected, read and taught.”

Teen angst on film

With his four-year Woodrow Wilson fellowship, Jacob Appet produced the feature-length film ‘Westbaum in High School.’ He wrote the screenplay, recruited his actor friends, operated the camera and edited the footage. Photo: Will Kirk/Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Name: Jacob Appet

Age: 21

Hometown: Fairfield, N.J.

Major: Writing Seminars

Faculty mentor: Tristan Davies, senior lecturer in the Writing Seminars

Project title: Westbaum in High School

High school can get messy. Never mind academics; perceived higher stakes regularly play out. Outcast boy chases girl. Girl rejects boy. School bully takes a roundhouse swing at some unfortunate soul who wanders too close.

For his Woodrow Wilson–funded feature-length film, longtime movie buff Jacob Appet wanted to capture high school in all its melodramatic, hormone-driven, hyper-emotional and acne-obsessed glory.

Westbaum in High School follows the exploits of title character Thomas Westbaum, a jazz-loving intellectual who struggles to retain his optimism in a darkly absurd senior year. Thomas’ best friend suffers from severe depression. Thomas himself falls in love quicker than you can say Katy Perry. And a bully creates a Facebook event that challenges Thomas to a fight, to avenge a lucky punch the main character lands on him earlier in the film.

Appet says he drew on some personal experiences when writing the screenplay. Like his on-screen hero, Appet was an “outsider” at his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., high school and challenged to a fight via Facebook, but the dare fizzled out, and the fisticuffs never happened.

The film, Appet says, allowed him to play out experiences somewhat true to life but ratcheted up to a comic level.

“I’m interested in memory and how the passage of time impacts it. Some aspects of the film’s plot are a little more extreme than they would be in real life but still feel right for this fictional universe,” he says. “For me, high school is four years ago and not in my direct memory, but those events seep into the film itself. But this time I get to play with and change things based on those real experiences.”

Appet used the university’s Homewood campus as his primary film location. Levering Food Court doubled as a high school cafeteria. Dunning Hall was used for
scenes set in the school’s hallways and classrooms.

For the cast, Appet mostly called on friends from the Witness Theater, JHU’s student theater group that writes and performs its original work. He also lured in extras by promising them food, provided by Woodrow Wilson funds.

After his initial plan for a documentary fell through, he wrote the screenplay for Westbaum the second semester of his junior year, and primary filming was done during a two-month period early in his senior year. The film, currently in the final legs of post-production, was edited at the university’s Digital Media Center, a service frequently used by Wilson fellows.

Appet says that the experience taught him valuable lessons in time management, film techniques, budgeting and self-exploration.

“High school is a great place to explore absurd comedy and darker serious themes,” he says. “There is just a heightened sense of drama in high school, but maybe there are things that we should be taking seriously, like depression and the value of hope.”

Westbaum in High School will have its debut screening at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 12, in Gilman Hall, room 50.

The accessibility-minded tourist

Risa Rifkind at the Acropolis, one of the spots the 4-foot-tall senior visited as part of her research into the accessibility of tourist destinations around the world. Photo courtesy Risa Rifkind

Name: Risa Rifkind

Age: 21

Hometown: New York

Major: political science

Faculty mentor: Renee Marlin-Bennett, professor of political science

Project title: “Metropolitan Accessibility”

Risa Rifkind brought a unique perspective to her Woodrow Wilson project—a 4-foot one to be precise.

Rifkind, a little person, describes her height and eye level as that of a 5-year-old. Some simple tasks and abilities that others take for granted have challenged Rifkind her entire life. She cites not being able to reach the sink in some public restrooms, watch a movie in some theaters without the use of a child’s booster seat or navigate her 110-pound electric scooter over a two-inch step.

For her project, Rifkind wanted to examine public transportation and tourist attraction accessibility in various metropolitan cities around the world.

She researched and fine-tuned her project during her freshman and sophomore years, and ultimately decided upon visiting London, Paris, Athens, Hong Kong, Seoul, Toronto and Chicago.

“Everyone said I was crazy to think I could do all that with limited funds, but I was able to budget my money wisely,” Rifkind says.

To save money, she stayed in modest accommodations and hit all her international destinations in one whirlwind three-week period this past summer, as it was cheaper to fly from point to point once overseas than to return to the United States. The nonstop traveling was thrilling, she says, but had its drawbacks, such as an eight-hour layover on the way to Korea. She visited Toronto in July 2011 and got to Chicago in early April.

In each city, Rifkind endeavored to ride on every public transportation mode available, and to visit the top two or three tourist attractions.

In London, for example, she used the city’s rail and Tube systems, taxis and buses to get around when she was not on foot or on her scooter. She visited Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel on the banks of the River Thames.

Although she managed to get around successfully, Rifkind found London’s bus system somewhat confusing, and she could use only a percentage of the Tube system. The city, she says, did have a major bright spot in terms of accessibility, in that all
the city’s taxis are mandated to have ramps. “I’ve never seen that anywhere,” she says.

In Athens, Rifkind says, she benefited from the major renovations and upgrades the city underwent for the 2004 Summer Olympics and Paralympics to accommodate the spectators and athletes with disabilities. She gave particularly rave reviews to the city’s new train system.

“It’s what every train system should be: simple, accessible, clean and easy to use,” she says. “It’s as good as it gets.”

How about ascending the Acropolis? No problems, Rifkind says. Elevators made every aspect of the site accessible.

Rifkind anticipated that Seoul would present difficulties for her, but she was pleasantly surprised by the progress made by the not-yet-10-year-old disability movement there.

“The city has come a long way,” she

Her toughest obstacle came when visiting Toronto. The Canadian city’s main means of public transportation is the streetcar system, which at the time Rifkind visited did not feature ramps for a person in a wheelchair or scooter to get on or off. The grooves in the street for the streetcars also presented a challenge for someone crossing the street in a wheelchair or on crutches. “In Toronto, I just scooted everywhere and took the train and taxi just once,” she says.

A recurring theme in her research was the impact that Olympic games had on the host city’s accessibility level. Rifkind says that during her visit to London, accessibility-minded upgrades were already in the works for the summer 2012 games.

“It seems like my research is coming at a point where everybody is changing everything, so who knows how soon before my findings will become outdated,” she says. “But I hope that, for whatever reasons, accessibility measures are implemented in all cities. People with disabilities can achieve great things like everyone else, if given the chance and equal opportunity.”

Before she left for her trip, Rifkind had met with a friend of her family’s, a movie producer who encouraged her to make a documentary of her experience. With funding from private and independent donors, a videographer joined Rifkind on her trip and filmed the entire experience, including interviews with government officials. She is currently pursuing additional funding to support further filming this summer and get the movie professionally produced.

Health in the rainforest

Public health studies major Kristine Wagner testing soil in Ecuador, where fungi are being used to clean up contamination. Photo courtesy Kristine Wagner

Name: Kristine Wagner

Age: 21

Hometown: Chesapeake, Va.

Major: public health studies

Faculty mentor: Cindy Parker, assistant professor in the Division of Occupational and Environmental Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health

Project title: “Indigenous Medicine and Health After Oil Development in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest: A Case Study of the Secoya”

Kristine Wagner admits that she waffled a bit on her Woodrow Wilson topic. Wagner knew she wanted to focus on public health in a tropical setting, but where and what aspect?

“I was interested in so many things,” she says. “I wanted to pick a topic that would be worthy and important, so it was hard to settle on one. I was like, what if it’s not good enough?”

Then along came inspiration.

While researching South American rainforests in her junior year, Wagner learned about the oil contamination in Ecuador and the landmark lawsuit against Chevron that at the time was garnering lots of press. In February 2011, an Ecuadorian court fined the oil corporation $18 billion for pollution to the country’s Amazon region by Chevron-owned Texaco between 1972 and 1992. Plaintiffs claimed loss of crops and farm animals, as well as increased local cancer rates.

In her efforts to learn more on the subject, Wagner found a scientist in Ecuador working with mycoremediation, a developing scientific field using fungi to clean up contaminated soil. The scientist was the founder of a nonprofit that was hosting a service-learning course in Equador, which provided the structure she needed to carry out a project.

Her research focused on the Secoya indigenous community of the Ecuadorian Amazon and how its medical practices have changed over time. She wanted to learn how oil industry development in the rainforest influenced Secoya medicine, and the current role of traditional versus Western medicine.

She traveled to Ecuador twice, for a six-week span in 2011 with the service-learning group and then by herself in January 2012. Through interviews with community leaders and scientists, she learned about the history of the oil industry and its impact on the health of the indigenous population and the economy of the region. She also did some small-scale mycoremediation experiments.

Oil drilling in the Ecuadorian rainforest started in earnest in 1967. Since then, the development of the area has been extreme, Wagner says.

“Vast stretches of rainforest needed to be cleared for access roads to the drill sites,” she says. “Then colonists came looking for land and work, and they start building homes along these roads.” Where once was forest, whole towns formed. The influx of people also introduced Western medicine to the area. Clinics and hospitals were built, and the Secoya indigenous population over time shifted from traditional plant-based therapies and cures to modern medicine.

The increasing use and desire for Western medicine led the Secoya community to pressure the government and oil companies for its own community clinic, now staffed by a trained doctor and nurse, with others training to become midwives and lab technicians.

In the past, plants and an elaborate ceremony led by a community healer might be used to treat a person. Now, the person simply goes to a clinic.

While some people with whom she spoke expressed reservations about the introduction of Western medicine, the general population not only embraced the new clinic, it wanted more.

“I found that Western medicine has been adopted pretty readily and that the Secoya people fought hard to get the clinic that they have,” Wagner says. “They are continuing to advocate to get more health professionals down there, and more medicine. They’d like to see it improve.”

The native people, she says, also don’t want the traditional medicine to die out.

“There is clearly a desire to have a mix of traditional and Western medicine,” she says. “Pills might work for some sicknesses, they feel, but plants work better for others. My guess is that they will push for more health programs and funding as a result of the Chevron lawsuit [which the company is now appealing].”

As for how her research experience went, Wagner says that she is glad she took her time in the beginning. The perfect project eventually found her.