Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2007
Vol. 5, No. 1

RESEARCH

Pinpointing “Pockets of Hope”

Cosmology’s Force to Be Reckoned With

> Student Research From the Field

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Total War: The Big Picture

Plumbing the Mysteries of the Mind

Embrace Your Inner Cynic


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Student Research From the Field

The Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program awards grants of up to $10,000 to incoming freshmen and up to $7,500 to rising sophomores for original, independent research projects in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Students use grants to pay for equipment, travel, or other research expenses.

Here's what some of the fellows have been working on:

A Weighty Problem in China

Nancy Tray photoSenior Nancy Tray, a molecular and cellular biology student with plans to attend medical school, has spent the past two summers in her parents' homeland of China, examining why obesity is on the rise among the Chinese. "When I first started researching my project," she says, "I thought, obesity in China? Most Asians are skinny."

Still, when Tray returned to the country she had visited as a child, she was surprised by how things had changed. In Hangzhou, her mother's hometown, she was shocked to find McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Domino's on nearly every street corner. "Life was different 15 years ago," she says. "Back then, people couldn't afford expensive foods such as meat, instead eating mostly rice and vegetables. Now, children are eating more high-fat meals, including meats and fast food."

Tray launched her investigation into the genetic and environmental underpinnings of obesity during her sophomore year. She worked under Timothy H. Moran, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, using rat models to look at the gene expression of hormones involved in food intake. She has an abstract pending publication from that work.

McDonalds in ChinaThis past summer, she returned to China to follow up on work from an earlier trip, this time collaborating with Li Liang at The Children's Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou. Tray distributed health surveys to 115 children admitted to the hospital for obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes. She found that of the 52 obese patients and 52 overweight patients, most had parents who also were obese or overweight. "By comparing the Body Mass Index (BMI)s of these children to their parents', you can see genetics is playing a role," she says. Still, the children had significantly higher BMIs than their parents, indicating environmental factors such as diet, socio-economic status, and lack of exercise also played a role, she says.

In Beijing, Tray also worked with Mi Jie at the Capital Institute of Pediatrics, an authority on the developmental origins of metabolic syndromes. Tray was trained on the use of a non-invasive device that uses pulse wave analysis to measure the stiffness of arteries. Children with abdominal obesity have less elastic arteries, which can lead to health problems such as hypertension. 

To help combat the obesity problem, Tray hopes to team up with television reporters in Beijing to produce a one-hour documentary that will educate children about exercise and nutrition. "If I can do that," she says, "that would just wrap it all up for me."

The Art of Dissidence

Patrick KennedySenior Patrick Kennedy traveled to both sides of the Atlantic to interview members of an elite group of artists who gave rise to Russian "Sots Art," or pop art, in the 1970s.

At first glance, Kennedy says, it looks as though Russian dissident artists, such as Vitaly Komar, Alexander Kosolapov, and Leonid Sokov, are taking graphic elements of Soviet propaganda and turning them into pop art. Instead, Kennedy says they are using these icons and images to poke fun at-and point up-the irony of the Soviet political system.

Rather than imitating American artists such as Andy Warhol, Kennedy says, these Russian artists are harkening back to the avant-garde days of Russian Modernism between 1917 and 1922.

"I'm wary of saying that Sots Art is like American pop art," says Kennedy, a triple major in the history of art, English and the writing seminars. "In some isolated instances it does mimic American pop art. But it comes from an incredibly different cultural tradition."

For Kennedy, the highlight of his research occurred in March 2006 when he traveled to New York City to meet and interview famed dissident sculptor Sokov in his New York apartment. Kennedy asked the sculptor to point to a singular artist who influenced him. "He went back into his office, shuffled around some papers and came back with a book of Picasso reproductions," says Kennedy. "I just never would have expected that. But it does point to this intersection with post-modernism."

This past summer, Kennedy traveled to Russia and Eastern Europe to visit museums, small galleries, and other venues to conduct further research. He expects to write at least one academic paper and produce a short documentary film, which will include excerpts of his interview with Sokov.

After graduation next spring, Kennedy intends to continue studying English and the history of art in graduate school—a plan that got a big boost last May, when he learned he was the recipient of the prestigious Beinecke Scholarship. The $32,000 award defrays the cost of a doctoral education and can be used at any university (read more about the Beinecke Scholarship here).

On Catching Some Zzzzzzs

Virginia PearsonWhile Tray and Kennedy have traveled far and wide for their projects, neuroscience major Virginia Pearson has stayed closer to home. For three years, she has been conducting a study at Homewood of how wakefulness and sleep impact "procedural memory"-the ability to recall an acquired or unconscious knowledge of actions, such as playing the piano, knitting, or strumming a guitar. 

"We have entire journals devoted to sleep," says Pearson, who is working under Richard P. Allen, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center of Medicine and Physiology. "But there is still so much to learn. I thought it would be interesting to look at the procedural memory and the impact that sleep has on accuracy and speed."

Pearson wants to build on work done at Harvard Medical School that shows sleep helps to consolidate and stabilize procedural memories. Her question: How much sleep is necessary to optimize such memory?

To find out, she has convinced 60 Hopkins students to be test subjects. Her biggest challenge: getting college students to agree to a seven-hour sleep night, ensuring that they are well rested before the three-day test period. "Some people hear they have to be asleep by 12:30 a.m., and they don't want any part of it," she says. "During the three testing days, they have to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and naps...So it is a tough sell."

During the experiment, Pearson divides students into one of six test groups. For the first two test periods, over two days, all students are taught a procedural memory process-how to type a string of numbers on a keyboard, for example. Pearson is using the test design from Harvard. During the third test session, students are assigned to different times for retesting. Some are retested immediately. Others are retested 24 hours later, after a full night's sleep. Still others are awakened and retested after three hours asleep, disrupting REM sleep patterns.

Pearson hypothesizes that REM sleep will play a significant role in consolidation (related to accuracy) and stabilization (related to speed) of procedural memory. She will analyze all blind results after the fall semester and present her findings in the spring. "I hesitate to say what will happen," Pearson says. "But I expect REM sleep to have a significant impact."