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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.


The Holocaust in Context

"My mother's parents are both Holocaust survivors, and I grew up in a richly Jewish environment," says senior Samuel Iser. "So issues of the Holocaust have always been on my mind."

Iser has used his fellowship to get those considerable thoughts down on paper through four studies of Holocaust literature, nonfiction, and theoretical works. His efforts are an attempt, he says, "to come to a better understanding of the world of the Holocaust as well as the ways texts function."

Too many people, he says, assume that Holocaust texts are homogenous. "Rather, Holocaust experiences and narratives are personal, contingent, and varied, and cannot be so easily hijacked for different modern ideological projects," says Iser, 24, a double major in German and modern European intellectual history.

His first Woodrow Wilson project examined a seminal work by author Primo Levi, the Jewish-Italian chemist who detailed his experiences in Survival in Auschwitz, a book considered by some to be among the most important works of the 20th century. "Levi came throughout the decades of his life to believe his humanistic ideals to be unrealistic and came to a much darker view of the portent of the Holocaust for the modern world," Iser says.

His second project studied Hebrew narratives of the Holocaust written in Israel between 1945 and 1961, as the Jewish homeland was being established. He found that such accounts contained more hopeful tones; these writers wove into their retellings the dream of how attaining a homeland helped pull them through the Holocaust's horrors. Their narratives, he found, were more optimistic than those written from other parts of the world.

"Moving to Israel becomes a part of the Holocaust story," he says. "That's a pointed example of how people writing at different timeframes tell their stories differently."

His third project critiqued the views of Holocaust theorists Lawrence Langer and Dori Laub by studying three works of literature: Night by Elie Wiesel, From Death Camp to Existentialism by Viktor Frankl, and Salamanderah by Ka-Tzetnik.

Over the summer Iser worked on his fourth project and senior thesis. It looks at the interrelationship between Franz Kafka's literature and Holocaust literature.

"In terms of longer-term wishes for my work," he says, "I hope it can contribute in the future to a more sensitive--and less ideological--appreciation of the Holocaust and other genocides."


Variations in Down Syndrome

Alicia Rizzo

Alicia Rizzo is searching for genetic clues to Down syndrome.


Alicia Rizzo began researching Down syndrome as a Woodrow Wilson fellow because of the work's potential benefit for patients. But when she really thinks about what inspired her scientific pursuit, Rizzo settles on a more personal answer: her mother.

"My mother is a special education teacher in Elmhurst, Ill., and I've been to work with her several times," says Rizzo, 21, a senior neuroscience major from the Chicago suburb. Jean Rizzo teaches preschool children diagnosed with various developmental disorders, including autism and Down syndrome. So when Rizzo was looking for a lab to join, she chose one at the Kennedy Krieger Institute--led by research scientist Jonathan Pevsner--that is examining chromosomal changes underlying childhood brain disorders.

Down syndrome, which occurs when an individual has an extra copy of the 21st chromosome, occurs in one in every 733 babies born in the U.S., according to the National Down Syndrome Society. Those with Down syndrome experience some form of cognitive delays (generally mild to moderate) and often exhibit several common physical traits: low muscle tone, smallness in stature, an upward slant to the eyes.

At the suggestion of Pevsner and her labmates, Rizzo focused on pinpointing a genetic explanation for why people with the chromosomal disorder have such a broad range of cognitive disabilities and physical malformations. "Those variations are not well understood," Rizzo says. "My research would be one small step in this process of understanding what is going on with Down syndrome."

Rizzo worked full time in the lab last summer—growing cells, preparing DNA stem cells, performing experiments, and reading papers. Specifically, she is quantifying gene expression levels in Down syndrome patients and in a control group "to determine if a person's genotype could affect the amount of protein produced for certain genes," she says. "If an effect is observed, it could help to explain some of the phenotypic variation among Down syndrome patients."

Rizzo, who plans to attend medical school after her December graduation, is not sure just where her research will lead, but she's excited to be engaged in the scientific process. "To be in a classroom and hear them talk about science is one thing. To be in the lab and see how it works has been amazing."

A Global Look at Organ Donation

Brian Boyarsky

By looking abroad, Brian Boyarsky hopes to boost organ- donation rates in the U.S.

In just three years, senior Brian Boyarsky has traveled a long way from his home in East Brunswick, N.J. As a high school student, he interned for a kidney transplant surgeon just one town over. Today, the public health major is a globetrotting researcher who has studied organ-donation systems around the world.

Boyarsky's interest in organ donation was sparked by a study he did for the New Jersey surgeon--a follow-up survey of living donors. Boyarsky found that nearly all were healthy after surgery and that they found the experience highly rewarding, even when the recipient of the kidney failed to get better. "Ever since, I have been really interested in all the issues surrounding organ donation," he says.

Since arriving at Hopkins in September 2006, Boyarsky has traveled to nine nations to examine their organ-donor systems. He hopes to find a way to enhance efforts in the U.S., where approximately 100,000 people are on waiting lists for organs, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network's website. "Nineteen people die every day waiting for an organ in the United States," he notes.

In his efforts to figure out solutions for the U.S., he has been to South Africa, France, Spain, Norway, Japan, Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom. "When I travel I'm meeting with physicians and government officials, policymakers, lobbyists, bioethicists, and lawyers to get as wide a perspective as possible," he says.

He found that Singapore struggles with low rates of donations, in part because no system is in place to reimburse donation-related expenses. "Living donors are responsible for the fees associated with the donation," he says. That creates an "economic disincentive" that the government there is trying to fix.

He has also discovered widely ranging donation rates among neighboring countries. Norway, for example, has one of the world's highest rates of living donations—approximately 40 percent of kidney donations come from living donors. In France, living donors account for less than 10 percent of such procedures. In Finland, he says, "they do almost no living donation whatsoever."

While studying abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science last school year, Boyarsky scored an impressive interview subject: Britain's chief medical officer, the equivalent of the U.S. surgeon general.

"Studying organ donation in the U.K. was extremely topical at the time," Boyarsky says. "They have low rates of organ donation so the [government] tried to change the system to an opt-out system." Such systems, like one used in Singapore, presume that organs from deceased individuals may be used unless they had officially indicated otherwise. In an opt-in system, like the one used in the U.S., people must explicitly indicate that they want their organs donated.

Most people believe that opt-out systems result in higher rates of organ donations. "I'm looking to see if that's true," he says.

After he graduates in May, Boyarsky plans to continue studying donation systems internationally before attending medical school in a year or two. "My ultimate goal," he says, "is to attempt to come up with some type of plan to increase rates of organ donation in the United States."


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Samuel Iser

Holocaust narratives too often get "hijacked" for ideological purposes,
says Samuel Iser.