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The online edition of the magazine published by The Johns Hopkins University, Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences


Independent Inquiries

The coveted Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowships continue to produce innovative research and reward original thinking. The program, which awards grants of up to $10,000 to incoming freshmen and up to $7,500 to rising sophomores, affords students the opportunity to conduct long-term independent research projects in the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. This fall, we highlight the work of a few current fellows:

Thomas Cusack compares his research to “digging a tunnel from opposite directions and hoping to meet in the middle.” A senior in the Krieger School’s BA/MS program in neuroscience, he is studying how psychological barriers affect health and healing. By searching for physiological pathways that are affected by the parts of the brain where thought happens, says Cusack, “I hope to characterize the interaction between the brain and the immune system.”

Cusack, who titled his research “Mind Moves Matter: An Integrative Approach to Looking at How Stress Affects Cognition and the Immune System,” says the human response to stress resembles the physiological response to illness. “When you become ill, the early symptoms are a non-specific immune response,” he says. “You have a blah feeling, you don’t eat.” In times of stress, he says, “some of the same symptoms are presented.” Cusack believes if the mind can, in fact, assist healing, “There’s something going on at the physiological level that we aren’t understanding.”

The first of Cusack’s three-part undertaking is philosophical; he is looking at the ways in which decision-making in health care affects not only a patient’s physical well-being but also his or her sense of control.

Later, he’ll look at studies of how patient stress can affect outcome and investigate the ways neurobiological pathways of stress may overlap pathways associated with immune response. He spent last year researching cytokines (proteins that play a crucial role in regulating the immune system) in a lab at the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Cusack’s goal, he says, is to show that “a patient’s emotions and psychology are essential parts of the healing process,” and that “the patient should be considered an active, vital component in the treatment process.”

Junior Christian Recca, an English and writing seminars major, started off his Woodrow Wilson fellowship with a proposal to interview African American blues musicians. But in the middle of his freshman year he decided instead to compose a rock opera based on the oft-told legend of Faust, the German necromancer and astrologer who trades his soul to the devil in exchange for earthly pleasures.

Recca, who grew up and attended high school in Rutherford, N.J., is working on a concept album of 12 songs with his New York City-based band, Downtown Blues Hangover.

Recca has read the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Christopher Marlowe versions of the Faust legend and is familiar with the film Crossroads, which explores blues guitarist Robert Johnson’s mythic pact with the devil. Recca’s story line is less scholarly than the classic texts, he says, and there’s less emphasis on religion. Recca’s Faust, for instance, is called the Foxman, and indulges in a rock-and-roll lifestyle.

Recca and his band worked at a recording studio throughout the sum-mer, and he plans to stage the musical, concert-style, by his senior year.

On a recent trip to her father’s homeland of Sierra Leone, Krieger School senior Michelle Browne and her father were shaken by the sight of his childhood home in Kissy, now a burned-out shell, and of the family living inside its crumbling concrete walls.

Born in Kissy, Browne’s father spent his school years with his aunt in Freeport, a larger city with better schools. He eventually completed his college education in Bowling Green, Ohio, and now lives in Bennington, Vt., where Michelle was raised.

His auntie Modu’s visit to Michelle’s second grade class in Vermont is an experience the international studies major will never forget. “She taught us words in Krio, one of the languages of Sierra Leone,” Brown recalls. “And she told us stories about the country.” The aunt’s fiery personality inspired Browne to research this now-troubled country—specifically, the Special Court for Sierra Leone—with the help of a Woodrow Wilson fellowship.

After its 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002 after the deaths of some 50,000 people, Sierra Leone is embarking on a complicated path to re-organization, and the Special Court, established jointly by Sierra Leone and the United Nations, is attempting to bring to justice the country’s war criminals.

Looking for applicable lessons, she spent a semester in South Africa last spring, researching the break-up of the Apartheid system and taking a class in conflict resolution at the University of Capetown.

Her fellowship work has inspired her to pursue a career in international law. Her goal is to help develop tribunals, she says, “to see how the international community can help with transitional justice.”

—Martha Thomas



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