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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 grants throughout their undergraduate careers to pay for equipment, travel, and other research expenses. Here's what some of the fellows have been doing lately.

The Mysterious Stag

Lena Denis' ancient tile chase reached a climax in Tunisia.

Photo: Willkirk/

Lena Denis' quest to identify an ancient ceramic tile has taken her to London, Tunisia, and Paris in an adventure that sounds like the stuff of Hollywood—except that unlike most celluloid adventure archaeologists, Denis had her mom and dad along for the pivotal moment of her search.

The story began when Denis '11 was working as a student employee for the History of Art Department in the university's archaeology collection. Always up for a challenge, Denis asked senior lecturer Eunice Dauterman Maguire whether there was anything she wanted researched. There was: a ceramic tile depicting a stag at rest. No real research had been done on it; no one was really even sure where it had come from.

Maguire and her husband, history of art professor Henry Maguire, suspected the tile dated back to third century North Africa, which at that point was part of the Roman Empire, and that the stag was representative of the Christian religion.

"Christianity was growing bigger then, but would not be legal for another hundred years," explains Denis, who is double majoring in art history and anthropology. "Deer and stags are biblical images in Psalms, and on tiles there are images of them being hunted, but also relaxed and drinking water [as with the Hopkins tile]. These can all point to being covert symbols of practitioners of the Christian religion."

With funding from her fellowship, Denis first traveled to the British Museum in London, for classwork and study. Then it was on to the Antonine Baths Complex in Tunisia, the remains of an enormous complex that had been sited on the coast of Roman Carthage. That trip proved the climax of her adventure.

"I got there and started walking around," Denis says, "and my mom saw that there was a hole in the ground labeled in French as the 'Chapel of Asterius,' with stairs going underground. I went down into it with her. When our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw the apse-like architectural layout of a small chapel, with recognizable Christian mosaics on the ground, and with ceramic tiles set into the walls that looked a lot like the tile from Hopkins"—with the stags at rest and apparently drinking water.

Denis pauses, then adds, "I didn't even register what I was looking at—until my dad started saying, 'Look! These look like your tile!'"

Denis can't comment conclusively on her find, even after some follow-up research she did at the Louvre in Paris. But, she says, "It's possible that the image I was looking at represents a moment of stylistic and iconographic shift in the very early Christian church.

"If the image of a stag resting and drinking water—not being hunted as in many pagan Roman images—is linked to salvation of Christian souls," she says, "then I've possibly found a turning point in Christian doctrine about salvation and what it meant for ordinary Christian communities."


Mega-churches and Monarchs

Having grown up in Atlanta, Ga., Nicole Overley '11 is well acquainted with "mega-churches"—a term applied to contemporary, arena-like places of worship with thousands of parishioners, popular music, and positive messages from the pulpit.

Michael Arnst

Nicole Overley's study of U.S. mega-churches yielded insights valued by Anglican church leaders.

Photo: Willkirk/


In high school, she embarked on a research paper about the churches, which many of her peers attend. "But at the end of the year, I had more questions than answers about their popularity," she says. Once at Hopkins, Overley aimed to continue her explorations. Sociology professor Andrew Cherlin encouraged her to keep researching by traveling—so she used her fellowship funding to head to California. "I traveled from the Mexican border to San Francisco, visiting 15 mega-churches and interviewing people at each," Overley says. "I found the churches were incredibly popular and very wealthy."

The trip resulted in 30 pagesof findings. Having coveredso much ground in the U.S.,she set out next "to do some­thing comparative."

The U.S. mega-churches she had studied, flush with cash and a duty to spread their message, had recently tried to expand into Western Europe, where church attendance has plummeted.But England, in particular, had proven culturally resistant to the trend. Overley headed there to explore why.

What she found was an approaching shift in the very fabric of English society that was causing great stress to that country's state-run Anglican church. "The Anglican [leadership] … is pretty sure that when Prince Charles ascends to the throne, he's going to separate church and state," she says. Such a move would end government subsidies to the Anglican Church, making it fully dependent on donations from declining parishioners.

Accordingly, says Overley, many younger, more progressively minded Anglican leaders are looking to U.S. mega-churches for strategies that could increase Anglican attendance, while more staid members of the church are against it.

So far, says Overley, the younger leaders' efforts "seem to be winning over many in British communities—both lapsed members of Anglican churches and the unchurched alike."

The reaction to Overley's research, which she has presented at sociology conferences, "has snowballed into something incredible," she says. "I spent a week in May as a research associate at the Hartford Seminary, and they're planning to publish my thesis this fall." (One professor referred to it as "virtually virgin scholarly territory.")

Overley, who is now working on her master's degree at Hopkins' Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, believes she'll end up working in fiscal policy and international finance—though she does have options.

"I met with a couple of people from Oxford University, and they encouraged me to come to getmy PhD in theology," she says with a laugh.


Secrets of Adult Stem Cells

Jason Shapiro is pushing for stem cell breakthroughs.

Photo: Willkirk/

Like many teens on Long Island, N.Y., Jason Shapiro '10 held down a summer job while inhigh school. But rather than bagging groceries or lifeguarding, he worked in the neural stem cell lab of scientist Mirjana Savatic,at SUNY Stonybrook.

"She told me that if I wanted to do great science in the field, I should go to either UCSD or Johns Hopkins," Shapiro says. He ended up at Homewood, and as a sophomore he found a mentor in Hongjun Song, associate professor of neurology and director of the Stem Cell Program at the Institute for Cell Engineering. "The original idea was that I would be a general helper in the lab," says Shapiro. "But I proved to be a hard worker, and they kept giving me more work."

What that work entailed was a potentially important breakthrough regarding adult stem cells. "In an adult brain, stem cells can give rise to neurons, but what regulates them isn't well known," Shapiro explains. "Our job was to get down to the basics and do a clonal analysis of each cell."

The team was intrigued by its findings: "The big notion in current neurogenesis is that the stem cells can only make neurons," he says. "We found that they can make other cells as well, and in equal amounts. Stem cells are not all the same."

More interestingly, stem cells have shown that they can be affected by their neighboring non-stem cells, which means "we can alter them," Shapiro says. "We know stem cells can respond to their environment—what we don't know is how they respond to those cues." Though no papers specific to this discovery have yet made it to publication, Shapiro says that Song's lab "will be the first group to do a clonal analysis in the adult neurogenesis field."

He's also at work on a personal research project for which he'll be the primary author, based in part on his research for Song. "I'm looking at what other internal mechanisms are at play during these decisions that stem cells make," he explains.

Shapiro found a natural home in the lab—he received his BS in biology in three years and is working on his MS for 2011. He says that his fellowship helped cover expenses for him to attend stem cell conferences, where he presented or just soaked in the latest findings. "The lab normally wouldn't cover [such costs] for undergrads," he says.


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Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Undergraduate Program