Johns Hopkins University

Spring 2008
Vol. 5, No.2


A Eulogy to FUSE

Pooling Expertise to Combat Pollution

>Student Research: From the Field

High-Tech Access for a Centuries-Old Poem

For Female Would-Be Presidents, Press is Hard to Get

Fractured Origins

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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, or other research expenses. Here's what some of the fellows have been doing:

Toward Better Understanding Epilepsy

Michelle Brown photoWhen Michelle Brown was a little girl, her father would sprinkle her anti-seizure medication on applesauce. "I can't imagine what my parents went through," says Brown, who was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was a toddler.

Today, Brown is among the fortunate 50 percent of those with epilepsy as children who outgrow it by adolescence. And as a senior neuroscience major, she is working to gain a better understanding of the illness--also known as seizure disorder--that afflicts more than 3 million people in the United States.

She has been working at the Johns Hopkins Epilepsy Center alongside researcher Gregory Bergey, who is conducting clinical trials of an implant device--called NeuroPace--that anticipates and attempts to prevent seizures by sending out electrical pulses. "It's a treatment option for people who haven't responded well to medication," explains Brown, who is also pursuing minors in theatre arts and studies and in horn performance at the Peabody Institute.

For her Woodrow Wilson project, Brown has collected and graphed data recorded over two years in two different patients who were part of the implant device study. "I wanted to see whether seizure patterns were changing or evolving in any way," she explains. "The question is: Do seizures get worse over time?"

Her "big digging project" involved studying thousands of patterns of brain activity and determining "which represented real seizures and which were just false alarms." Both patients had consistent seizure patterns over the two years, Brown says. "They didn't get worse."

Such research about the evolution of the disease, she says, "gives us clues about its origin and the best options to treat it." Brown is eager to continue studying epilepsy, particularly in children. "It'd be awesome if I could discover something about the treatment of epilepsy that would help reassure parents," she says.


A "Calling" in Ethiopia

Rishi Mediratta photoRishi Mediratta's story began at the Detroit airport, as he waited to board a flight to his home in Kalamazoo, Mich., for Thanksgiving break his freshman year. Mediratta's Hopkins sweatshirt caught the attention of a Hopkins-trained doctor, Rick Hodes, who was also waiting for a flight. An inductee in the Medical Mission Hall of Fame, Hodes works with the destitute in Ethiopia.

"He opened his Macintosh and started showing me photos and talking about his patients," recalls Mediratta, now a senior majoring in public health. "I was shocked by what I was seeing, but it was also very inspiring." Mediratta wrote Hodes' e-mail address on a napkin, and began corresponding with him about children's health issues in Ethiopia. Soon after, he applied for a Woodrow Wilson grant to put together a survey on diarrheal disease.

His first trip to Ethiopia was during Intersession his sophomore year. He stayed with the Hodes family at their home in Addis Ababa and volunteered at the Mother Theresa clinic where Hodes works. "People were dying daily," says Mediratta, who tried to do "little things" to make patients more comfortable, such as bathing them and cutting their hair.

Since then, he has traveled to Ethiopia each year, to work in the clinics and explore ways to combat diarrheal diseases in children. "Diarrheal disease is the second-leading killer of children under five in the developing world," he notes.

During one visit, he conducted a survey in Amharic, the native language, asking mothers about feeding, hygiene, and care practices. "By comparing households with and without diarrhea, you can identify risk factors," he says. He has found two factors associated with diarrhea in the study population: the mother's illiteracy and the absence of a household latrine.

Last summer, Mediratta returned to work on interventions, such as using illustrated posters that show mothers how to care for their sick children. He hopes to continue working with child health, both in the field and in policy-making positions. "This is almost a calling," he says. "There's a lot of work to be done."

Smitten by Medieval Sagas

Elspeth BerryWhen Elspeth Berry applied for her Woodrow Wilson grant as a freshman, she knew her topic would involve something medieval and something Scandinavian. "I was looking at the Christianization process of Scandinavia and various saints," says Berry, now a senior. Eventually, her interest in Viking material culture led her to Sweden for an archaeological dig last summer. At the same time, she was reading folk stories from the medieval period, and began to wonder about translations of French romance tales into Norwegian.

The Wilson grant, she says, "definitely nurtures curiosity. I was lucky to be able to refine my project as I went along."

Berry, a classics major, found that stories translated from French into Old Norse in the 13th century were part of an attempt by King Haakon IV to "Europeanize" the court. Haakon, who ruled from 1217 to1263, was the first monarch of a unified Norway, a place once made up of disparate territories. "He was trying to put Norway on the map and bring culture to the court," she says.

Working with History Department chairwoman Gabrielle Spiegel, Berry is now focusing on stories by Chretien de Troyes, such as his narrative poem about the lovers Erec and Enide. De Troyes has been credited with inventing the modern novel. But what's interesting about these stories, Berry notes, is that in France, certain elements were perceived as subversive. "They presented tension between the aristocracy and the monarchy," with the monarch emerging as weak, she says.

However, once the stories were translated according to the Norwegian tradition of the saga--epic tales, generally involving heroes--the potentially controversial elements disappeared. Berry says she isn't sure if these changes were intentional, or simply a result of the format of Norwegian storytelling: "That's something we may never know." She is working on a paper on the subject and plans to continue her studies in graduate school.