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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

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 the grant throughout their undergraduate careers to pay for equipment, travel, or other research expenses. Here’s what some of the fellows have been doing.

From Cell Protiens to Smoking Cessation

During his time in rural South Africa, Karthik Rao volunteered at the provincial hospital and accompanied doctors on rounds in the community.

Photo courtesy of Karthik Rao


Some Woodrow Wilson Fellows pursue a single topic over several years. Others, like Karthik Rao, spread their research wealth around.

Rao, a public health studies major, started his work at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cell Engineering during his freshman and sophomore years. In the lab of Valina Dawson, Rao spent roughly a year and a half investigating poly ADP ribose polymerase's (PARP's) role in the regulation of cell death in neuronal pathways—work that may lead to the development of novel therapeutic techniques in the neurodegenerative field of medicine.

Rao would have continued with cell work, but then the field of public health drew him in. In summer 2009, to prepare for an upcoming semester abroad in a rural area of South Africa, he used his funding to explore different types and uses of traditional medicines at the Samueli Institute in Alexandria, Virginia.

His independent study project in South Africa centered on analyzing the social dynamics that play a role in the high level of violence in rural areas. Rao spent a month living in the rural village of Eshowe while volunteering and working with doctors at the provincial hospital.

Rao says that the level of poverty he witnessed took him by surprise. On his first day of rounds, he went to the home of a frail woman who suffered from HIV, TB, and high blood pressure. The woman, who lived alone, had medications that were mislabeled; her floor was infested with insects, her windows stood broken in their frames, and her roof was thatched hay with gaping holes. In her kitchen was a wood-burning stove, with crackers the only food in sight.

Emotionally challenging experiences like this one inspired Rao to continue working on international health issues. With the assistance of faculty at the University of Stellenbosch School of Medicine in South Africa, Rao crafted a pilot study, conducted last summer, to determine the extent of tobacco dependence in a sample of adult smokers who are representative of the lower socioeconomic class of South Africans. His study also evaluated smoking cessation interventions.

He concluded that tobacco cessation clinics were vital to the health of South Africans and that implementing them as an intervention in public hospitals has the potential to create lasting benefits for patients.

"What's been especially rewarding for me is that I have been able to see this project through all phases of its development," he says. "The success of this project has motivated me to continue with this and work to start our first tobacco cessation program at Tygerberg Hospital, located just outside of Cape Town."


High-Speed Rail: Where...and When?

Four months into his term, President Obama outlined his plans for a high-speed rail system across the United States. His administration identified 10 corridors that showed the “greatest promise” for an advanced transportation system intended to reduce traffic congestion, cut dependence on foreign oil, improve the environment, and spur job growth.

Michael Arnst

Is high-speed rail the ticket to a better America? To find out, Lester Kao first conducted interviews—and rode the rails—on systems around the world.

Photo: Willkirk/



Lester Kao ’11 set out to analyze Obama’s plan and do his own assessment of where new high-speed rail systems possibly could succeed, if anywhere. He began by researching the economic and cultural impact of such systems around the world—in part by riding the rails himself, in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and throughout Europe.

Kao also conducted interviews with officials at leading rail companies, including Deutsche Bahn in Germany, Eurostar, and Central Japan Railways. And he spoke with pro-rail lobbies in the United States, government officials on the Appropriations Committee in the Senate, railway suppliers in Japan, and a host of business owners and developers. To see things from a user perspective, he conducted a passenger satisfaction survey through interviews conducted aboard trains.

Once all the data was in, the economics major identified America’s Northeast corridor—roughly from Washington, D.C. to Boston—as the area where a high-speed rail system could deliver the most impact. He believes the population density of the region, its multiple economic centers, and positive cultural attitudes toward public transportation make this corridor the best suited for success.

Kao’s next question was: Can we afford it? The costs of constructing a new system are staggering at $50 million per mile, making the price tag for the D.C.-to-Boston line an estimated $18 billion. Associated costs, such as tunnel projects, could push that number many billions of dollars higher, he says.

To help mitigate costs and make the project more palatable to the federal government and taxpayers, Kao recommended utilizing existing right-of-ways and double tracking (using existing rail lines) when necessary. He also considered alterations to current train systems, such as improving overhead electricity systems that power the trains, which in concert with other technologies could increase the average train speed from 85 to 140 mph.

Before he started his research, Kao thought a nationwide high-speed rail system was doable and represented a sound investment in the future.

“That wasn’t necessarily the case, I found,” he says. “It really depends on the region: demographic/population statistics, public inclination toward public transportation, and other factors. We’ve got a lot of pressing transportation issues to take care of in this nation: maintaining our national highway system, our commitment to serve cities too small to receive high-speed rail service. We also have budgetary constraints.”

But he still sees merit in high-speed rail. Around the world, he says, such systems generate on average 1.8 to 2.4 times the investment in terms of economic/development benefits. And they serve as catalysts for regeneration of communities.

“Upgrading our rail systems to make our train systems go faster is a necessary expense if we are to tap into the economic advantages of [connecting] several large metropolitan areas,” he says.


Casting Call

For Remy Patrizio, writing her first play was easy. Finding her lead actress was not.

Photo: Willkirk/

Can you imagine the Indiana Jones movies without Harrison Ford, or Bridget Jones's Diary without Renee Zellweger?

Remy Patrizio '11 could envision, right down to hair color, the female lead for her Woodrow Wilson-funded play. The problem was, she couldn't find her ... and time was running out.

With funding from her fellowship, the Writing Seminars major wrote, and would eventually produce and direct, a play titled Fever Teeth, a mystical coming-of-age story.

The plot centers on Jane, a mid-20s woman, out of work and living with her brother. The brother helps Jane get a job at a dentist's office run by one eccentric doctor. Jane is tasked with closing the office each night with the explicit orders not to open the contents of the office safe. Jane, of course, can't resist and inside she finds a jar of extracted teeth with magical properties. Each tooth she handles conjures up the ghost of its owner and she ultimately falls in love with one of these phantoms.

"It's a story about dreams and what happens when you open up your imagination," says Patrizio.

She wrote the majority of the script the spring of her junior year. "Any second I wasn't studying or doing work for class, I was writing," she says. "I would use index cards to spell out what I wanted to happen in each scene. By the end of the semester I had a ton of index cards scattered on my floor. I was completely consumed."

During spring break, Patrizio held the first of two casting calls for the 10-person cast. "At the time, I was thinking, 'What am I doing trying to cast 10 actors?'" she says. "But it was sink or swim—and no way was I going to fail."

She filled most of the roles, but still no Jane.

With the assistance and support of Joe Martin, a senior lecturer in theater arts at Johns Hopkins, Patrizio ended up with a 50-page script and then began the process of searching for a theater space. She was referred to Links Hall in her hometown of Chicago and booked the space for a four-night run in August 2010.

Before she went home to Chicago, she held another round of auditions to complete her cast. She saw many actors, but none fit the bill. Where was her Jane? Then in May, just three months before the show dates, Jessie Spear showed up--with red hair and endless enthusiasm.

"She was the perfect embodiment of the person I had seen portraying this character and we totally hit it off," Patrizio says.

The varied bunch of professionals, students, and friends began rehearsing and before Patrizio knew it, Fever Teeth weekend was upon her.

How'd it go? Better than she imagined. All four nights were sold out. "It all came together. I couldn't have been happier," says Patrizio, who plans to continue playwriting and to submit her scripts to festivals in Chicago and beyond.




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