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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.


Katrina’s Disabling Impact

Video Excerpt: In Katrina’s wake, Jason Liebowitz (at right) has produced a documentary, Immobilized, that is a call to action.


Jason Liebowitz Jr. '09 interned for the U.S. Office on Disability the summer after his freshman year. At a June 2006 conference on how people with disabilities fared in Hurricane Katrina, Liebowitz's job was to record notes for Alabama officials. He didn't know it at the time, but he was on his way to becoming a filmmaker.

"I was able to see the magnitude of Katrina's impact on people with disabilities," he says.

During his internship he had fielded multiple calls from people still living in trailers and awaiting government assistance to find new houses. They called about lost jobs and no future prospects for work. They demanded answers to why they were not receiving their disability benefits.

But he noted an odd element about the conference: Disabled people were not involved in the talks. "They weren't including people with disabilities in the conversation," says Liebowitz, who will start medical school in the fall. "I figured it would be a perfect opportunity to practice exploratory research."

So the public health studies major set out to make a documentary about such victims. With the story of New Orleans so well known, Liebowitz decided to tap into his internship experiences and focus on Alabama. The resulting documentary, titled Immobilized, features people such as Sheldon Cavendar, of Mobile, Ala., and Larry Roberts, of Bayou La Batre, Ala.

A quadriplegic, Cavendar had returned to his apartment after surgery just before Katrina struck in August 2005. After the storm, he was left stranded with little food and water and no electricity. "He had to lie on a deflated air mattress for four days, during which time he developed pressure sores that went almost completely to the bone," Liebowitz says. Police rescued him after a friend called authorities.

Roberts, meanwhile, was also stranded. The former merchant marine had lost both his legs below the knees after an injury at sea. His home in a rural coastal area was quickly flooded by the storm.

"Larry rolled from his wheelchair onto his couch, which floated up as the water rose. After many hours, Larry was rescued by a shrimp boat that was sent through town looking for people in need of help," says Liebowitz. Roberts spent about seven months in a shelter while the Federal Emergency Management Agency looked for a trailer for him to live in. "He was still living in his FEMA trailer 18 months after Katrina," Liebowitz says, adding, "Larry passed away last year, and the film is dedicated to him."

The Centers for Disease Control placed Liebowitz's 40-minute video in its collection, and the University of Toledo has also added the video to its library. Liebowitz reports that the National Library of Medicine, where he is working this spring, is planning to post it on its emergency management website for medical professionals. He hopes to get the video even more exposure.

"I'll keep talking about it to everyone who will listen," Liebowitz says.


Into the Wilds for Frogs

Kristina M. Johnson

Gaining new clues to amphibian decline, says Nicole Angeli, could hold broader lessons for environmental sustainability.

Photo: Will Kirk/HIPS
Frogs are disappearing all over the world, and—Nicole Angeli '09 wants to know why. Over the past year, the 22-year-old has conducted research on four continents to help decipher the decline of frogs and all other amphibians—salamanders, toads, newts. Angeli has studied the ecological plight in New South Wales in Australia; Zanzibar, Tanzania; Quito, Ecuador; and Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"Amphibian decline is probably one of the top three concerns of all the major ecological organizations," says the behavioral biology major. "It's projected that amphibians are going to be extinct in 50 years. Some 122 species since 1980 have gone extinct."

Frogs were not on Angeli's mind when she came to Hopkins to study anthropology and languages. But an animal behavior course in spring semester of freshman year set her on her current path. She first spent part of her Woodrow Wilson grant to research rats and how surprising events can enhance memory. She went on to co-author an abstract on the subject at the Society for Neuroscience's convention in November 2008.

She tapped her grant to travel to Australia and Ecuador to help researchers in those locales. In New South Wales in January 2008, she camped in the rainforest for nearly a month, dissected hundreds of frogs, and studied their aggressive calls. At one point, she and the researcher she worked with found no frogs where just weeks before they had been plentiful. The culprit: a fungus called chytrid that has been quickly killing them off around the world.

In Ecuador, where she traveled this January, all amphibians are endangered due mainly to the deadly fungus, leaving Angeli to study only frogs kept in captivity. At an aquarium she studied how best to keep frogs in captivity, where they can still be susceptible to the fungus. In Tanzania, during her semester abroad last spring, she studied how deforestation has also contributed to the death of frogs.

She had been considering medical school until her trip to Zanzibar, and now has plans for graduate study in amphibians. "I realized I can help people the same way by making the environment sustainable and profitable for them," she says, adding, "Half of the researchers I'm meeting are studying amphibian decline. Obviously there is something going on that I need to be in on, that I could contribute to."

Take Me South to the Ballgame

Kristina M. Johnson

In his travels to Venezuela, David Iaconangelo experienced firsthand baseball’s revered place in culture and politics.

Photo: Will Kirk/HIPS
Junior David Iaconangelo had originally intended to use his Woodrow Wilson fellowship to study communism's effects on Cuban baseball. But travel restrictions to the island nation forced him to revise his project. He opted to focus instead on writing fiction and nonfiction stories based on the role of baseball in the cultures of the Dominican Republic and Mexico. He spent a month in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2007 and three weeks in Mexico that winter.

The Writing Seminars major decided to add Venezuela to the itinerary after reading about baseball's revered place in culture and politics there and about President Hugo Chavez's interest in Major League Baseball's operations.

Iaconangelo spent 10 weeks in Venezuela last summer and returned with a newly written nonfiction article about those operations, how crime affects them, and how poor citizens in the nation rely on the sport. "I'm still working on a collection of short stories," he says. "That sort of grew into this idea of baseball as a vehicle to desire, which is to say a means of gaining power, respect, money, sex, whatever. Baseball can be used as a political tool, especially in places like Venezuela."

His interview with Melvin Mora, third baseman of the Baltimore Orioles, demonstrates his point. In his nonfiction story called "No Pase: Wandering After American Baseball in Chavez's Venezuela," Iaconangelo quotes Mora as saying: "When I was 15 years old I was working, trying to make money for food for my mom. My dad got shot in front of me, and when he died he left five kids." Baseball was Mora's ticket out. When he was 14 he was sent to Cuba to play on a baseball all-star team. Scouts from the Houston Astros were in attendance.

"[The Astros] had an academy in Venezuela, and in 1990 I signed a contract for $1,500," Mora says in the story.

Iaconangelo found similar stories of hardship throughout his travels in Venezuela and learned that baseball, not a degree or a trade, is seen as one of the only ways to a better life. Even if players don't make it to the major leagues in the United States, just being involved in one of the approximately eight camps run by American teams in Venezuela can improve their lives. He says many teams worry about security and crime in Venezuela and locate their camps far from urban areas to assure that their prospects avoid trouble.

In addition to his fiction and journalism, Iaconangelo penned an essay on unsanitary conditions in Venezuela for the Hopkins journal Epidemic Proportions. He also wrote a short story in Spanish, his second major, for a student publication.