Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2006
Vol. 1, No. 4


   The Diaspora and Beyond



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A Major Change

Two of the Krieger School’s three most popular majors didn’t even exist a decade ago. All three are interdisciplinary, offering students boundless opportunities for collaborations across departments and divisions.

Kelly Gebo, director of the undergraduate Public Health Studies program, recently found occasion at an event to playfully needle her friend Steven David, director of the International Studies program. She asked David if he had seen the latest 2006 enrollment projections for undergraduate majors. “I wanted to let him know that we’re catching up,” Gebo says.

For six years running, international studies has led the pack of majors at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Public health studies last year clocked in a somewhat distant second, but it’s closing fast. The current third most popular major—the dark horse and youngest of the three—is neuroscience.

What these programs have in common (besides slightly competitive directors) is that none are bound by academic departments. All are outward looking, partnering with other institutes and divisions within the university.

“The interest in interdisciplinary majors, among other things, reflects the modern student’s understanding that in order to engage robustly with the problems of this century, they are going to need to bring methodological perspectives from more than one field,” says Adam Falk, the James B. Knapp Dean of the Krieger School. “The interest in these majors, I feel, is a reflection of their intellectual maturity. They are excited about the diversity that these kinds of majors represent.”

Ten years ago, the most popular majors at the Krieger School were primarily department-based, such as biology and economics. While the popularity of interdisciplinary studies seem to be on the rise throughout the nation, the top arts and sciences majors at several of Johns Hopkins’ peer institutions (Yale, Stanford, and University of California, Berkeley) remain traditional department-based studies such as biology, history, political science, economics, and English.

William Conley, dean of Enrollment and Academic Services for the Homewood Schools, says that international studies, public health, and neuroscience rank atthe top at Johns Hopkins because of each program’s prominence nationally.Each provides a curriculum offered by few other schools—thanks in no small part to collaborative opportunities with Hopkins’ Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the School of Medicine.

“A significant percentage of students come to Johns Hopkins because of these programs,” Conley says. “Prospective students view Hopkins as a dynamic academic environment that takes advantage of broad-based strengths. That is, we attract smart kids with balanced aptitudes across a number of areas, and they want to tap into those interests. Whatbetter way than through interdisciplinary study?”

Dean Falk agrees. “We have small departments here and, as such, their boundaries are more porous,” he says. “That creates the conditions to build new and interesting programs that cut across departments and divisions. What do they say? Let 100 flowers bloom, 100 schools of thoughts contend.”

The following case studies offer a window into the experiences of three Krieger School students who have chosen to go the interdisciplinary route.

Public Heath Studies

Melissa BurnsideThe summer before last, Melissa Burnside’s life centered around cheese. No, nothing fancy like an aged Gouda. Rather Burnside ’07 was interested in unpasteurized cheeses imported from Mexico.

Burnside, a public health major enrolled in the combined BA/MHS program with the Bloomberg School of Public Health, spent her summer months working for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Health Research Training Program. She acted as a Spanish outreach communicator tasked with educating the city’s Mexican and greater Latin population on the health risks associated with eating unpasteurized dairy products, which had been linked to a number of tuberculosis cases citywide. Researchers had found that certain imported soft cheeses made from raw milk could be contaminated with a pathogen and that children in particular were susceptible.

Public health's popularity among undergraduates at Johns Hopkins reflects a growing interest and appreciation for global health.

Burnside’s outreach work took her to health fairs, information booths set up in city neighborhoods, and homes, where she helped translate for clinicians and city health officials who were trying to encourage residents to get tested and stop eating the non-FDA approved products. She also participated in studies to determine the sources of the cheese sales and helped to develop a TB registry.

Burnside says she thoroughly enjoyed the work, which required knowledge she’d gained from a variety of disciplines at Hopkins, namely Spanish, epidemiology, biostatistics, environmental health, and communications. “It was very rewarding doing this sort of community-based work that had a cultural element to it,” she says.

Like other public health majors, Burnside could pick from one of two tracks: natural sciences, which includes all the pre-med requirements; or social science, which focuses on health policy, finance, ethics, law, and environmental issues. She chose the former.

“I love the fact that this major is making me think broadly,” she says. “We cover all aspects of a subject—social, cultural, and scientific. You don’t just look at one thing, which I think is a good thing in a major,” says Burnside, who returned to work with the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene this past summer.

Public health as an undergraduate major started in the mid 1970s, but its popularity truly began to surge in the mid-1990s. In Fall 2000, the program received an overhaul and a name change to Public Health Studies. As of Fall 2005, 210 students were majoring in public health and preliminary 2006 figures has that number up to 233. Just 10 years ago, the program enrolled only 94 students.

The program clearly benefits from its association with the Bloomberg School, the oldest and largest public health school in the world. During their senior year, all majors must take 18 credits of graduate-level elective courses at the Bloomberg School. Often considered the most popular courses, the electives offer undergraduates the opportunity to interact with MPH students—many who hail from around the world—and participate in research and service opportunities both locally and abroad.

“Today’s students have a much bigger perspective on the world and an ever increasing awareness of worldwide issues,” notes program director Gebo. “Given this knowledge, many of them want to go out and save the world and so they are attracted to our program.”


Catherine ChoiCatherine Choi ’07 came to Johns Hopkins with an interest in the biological sciences. In her freshman year, the Korean-born student took an intro-level neuroscience course and immediately found her calling.

Currently, Choi is doing research in the Neuroregeneration and Repair Lab at the School of Medicine’s Institute for Cell Engineering, where she helps to identify the substrates of a kinase in a gene implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Neurological diseases have long fascinated her, and she’s had a personal interest in Parkinson’s since her grandmother was diagnosed with the disease years ago.

Neuroscience attracts students who are interested in making connections across a wide level of analysis.

Choi describes her lab work as equal parts rewarding and frustrating. “This is a hard field. There is no miracle cure, we’re just working on gene after gene looking for clues, but that is the fun part of it,” she says.

The neuroscience program offers three concentration areas—molecular and cellular, systems, or cognitive—and two degree programs, the four-year bachelor’s program and the five-year BA/MS program (which Choi is enrolled in). Students in both programs are required to conduct two semesters of laboratory-based research as they delve into a myriad of subjects including biology, biophysics, biomedical engineering, psychology, and cognitive science.

“Understanding such a complex system requires a range of disciplines, and we have dozens upon dozens of labs here that would fit the bill,” says Gregory Ball, committee chair for the neuroscience program. “We’ve found that if a student is interested in one particular aspect of neuroscience, there is a lab here that will help him or her do the research.”

Building on Hopkins’ unusual faculty strength in the brain sciences, the neuroscience program was established in 1995 to provide students with more choices in the life sciences and an alternative to biology, says Ball. In its first year, many students from behavioral biology and other pre-meds immediately shifted over. Since then, the program’s growth has been explosive. Neuroscience enrolled 40 students its first year. Today the major has more than 230 declared majors.

Ball has found that neuroscience attracts students who are interested in making connections across a wide level of analysis. “A student can take a course, for example, and find out how gene transcription is controlled and learn about DNA methylation, and then take another course to discuss these mechanisms and link it to a brain area and cell type, and perhaps very global issues like age-related dementia or sexual drive,” Ball says. “Neuroscience requires students to make these connections.”

Another significant appeal for students, he says, is that the study of the human brain is one of the last great scientific frontiers.

Says Choi, “After coming from biology in high school where you memorize all these facts, I come here and find that we really don’t know anything [about the brain] and are still disagreeing upon fundamental concepts.”

International Studies

Juliana GalenJuliana Galan traces her interest in foreign affairs to her parents, who hail from Russia and Eastern Europe. Her fascination for European and Russian history, culture, and language led her to Johns Hopkins.

“I found the international studies major to fit in perfectly both with my immediate interests and my future career plans—either in international law or diplomacy,” Galan says. “The program has a perfect blend of politics, history, language, and economics courses that I [can] choose from.”

Galan, who opted for a concentration in Russian studies, says the most rewarding element of her studies was her acceptance to the accelerated BA/MA program with Sciences Po, the venerated political studies school in Paris. There, having completed her BA at Hopkins, she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in European Studies. In fulfilling the requirements of her master’s project, Galan has found a way to combine two of her passions: swimming and politics.

International Studies provides a comprehensive knowledge base that can launch students on many different careers—from economics to diplomacy.

An accomplished competitive swimmer, Galan founded the European Union Swimming Classic , a two-day competition to be held in Paris this October that will involve more than 400 club-level swimmers from all 25 EU member states and Switzerland and Norway. The goal of the event: to help strengthen the sense of European Union citizenry by bringing together Europeans who share a common passion.

Galan says the interdisciplinary approach she learned at Johns Hopkins prepared her perfectly for this ambitious undertaking. In addition to calling on her French language skills and political proficiency, Galan tapped into her knowledge of economics and marketing to negotiate sponsorship deals with Cadbury and TYR, a major swimwear line. She’s also needed a level of diplomacy, she says, to work with members of the European Commission and the European Parliament to get them on board.

The undergraduate international studies program was founded at Hopkins in the mid-1970s and is the first major of its kind. Currently, more than 300 students are declared international studies majors, taking coursework that covers politics, economics, history, and a foreign language.

This broad-based preparation is crucial to understanding contemporary international politics, according to program director David. As an example, he points to the conflict in Iraq.

“There is clearly a political dimension, both in terms of American and Middle Eastern politics. There is an historical dimension: ‘How did the situation arise the way it did, both here and there?’ An economic dimension—we would not be there if not for the oil. And if you speak a foreign language like Arabic, you also have a good understanding of what is going on,” David says. “I think you could make this kind of case for any international issue.”

From a pragmatic standpoint, David says, the international studies major provides a comprehensive knowledge base that can launch students on many different careers—from economics to diplomacy.

An additional draw for students, David says, is the program’s connection with Sciences Po and with Hopkins’ SAIS—which also offers a BA/MA program that allows students to begin their graduate-level study in what would have been theirsenior year.

For her part, Galan says she can’t recommend the international studies major highly enough. “My thought is that each professor, whatever the department, has a specialization and something interesting to learn from. Why not learn from as many of these professors as you can?”