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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.

On the Scene of History

Traveling to the Canary Islands and collecting primary data changed Isabel Perera’s approach to research.

Photo: Willkirk/

As Isabel Perera was getting ready to come to Johns Hopkins to study immigrant populations in Baltimore, world events suddenly rewrote her plans.

"In 2006, the first big surge of sub-Saharan African immigrants came to the Canary Islands," she says. That year, more than 31,700 impoverished Africans—mostly young men—made the treacherous 10-day water voyage to the Spanish territory; one in five of those who attempted the trip perished on the way. Spain and Europe struggled to assist and control the unparalleled immigrant influx; the islands' tourism business was shattered; and political and social concerns escalated.

The immigration wave, says Perera, "[offered] a really amazing opportunity to spend four years studying a developing event." The public health and Romance languages double major spent her first summer interning at the American Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., learning firsthand how chapters across the country dealt with new immigrants. "I wanted to study public-sector responses to migrant health and humanitarian demands in Spain," she says. "So the experience at the American Red Cross was just the foundation I needed."

After her sophomore year, she headed for the Canary Islands and conducted interviews with scholars, politicians, and field volunteers; one of the non-governmental organization (NGO) directors she met even hired her to translate into English a Spanish-language documentary about the immigration wave. "When I began the project, the literature on the subject was sparse," she says. "Studying something very contemporary, I couldn't rely on traditional databases. Instead, I worked with the organizations delivering care to the migrants, other scholars in the field, and the media networks that broadcast information about the situation." She also interviewed the immigrants themselves: "I went to the immigration office in Santa Cruz de Tenerife [the province's capital] and spent some time speaking to the people in the waiting room."

"The Woodrow Wilson fellowship gave me the opportunity to go abroad and collect primary data," Perera says. "That really changed, on a great level, the way I look at research. I was exposed to the glamorous and unglamorous side. I got to tour the Spanish Red Cross facility, and see things in places where no media got access."

Perera has decided to apply what she learned from the Canary Islands project to take a new look at Africa-to-Europe migration. She's writing her French thesis on the French media's response to immigration and spent her spring break interviewing minority journalists in France. "I'm very interested in health and social policy, especially in the context of migration," she says. "The media plays an important role in the policy-making process, so it's important to consider its relationship to public services."


Tracing the Path of Thomas Mann

It's a long way from Chaska, Minn., to the German towns of Lubeck and Marbach. But after Michael Arnst read a collection of Nobel laureate Thomas Mann's works—the sole German-language work of literature in Arnst's hometown library—his academic roadmap was drawn clearly. It was a map that would lead him to Baltimore, and then across the Atlantic to retrace Mann's life in Germany and Switzerland (where the author died in 1955), studying Mann's early novellas.

Michael Arnst

Says Michael Arnst (above) of Thomas Mann: “Reading him is not a light task.”

Photo: Willkirk/


What set Mann apart from his contemporaries, Arnst says, is that Mann was informed by a wider spectrum of the art produced by his predecessors. "Up until that time, authors looked up to Goethe. Mann chose an interesting constellation of idols. Mann was a huge fan of Wagner and, later, of Nietzsche."

During a pre-admission visit to Hopkins, Arnst met German professor Rochelle Tobias, now his faculty and thesis advisor. "I talked to her about my interests, and she was working on a similar project about authors who use biography in their writing." With Tobias' guidance, Arnst began to read Nietzsche and Wagner—who, along with Schopenhauer, were Mann's main influences—and the young scholar started to grasp the 19th-century concept of the integration of art, music, and aesthetics.

To get a fuller picture of Mann, Arnst took off for Europe during the summer before his sophomore year. He traveled to the Thomas Mann Archive in Zurich; to Mann's hometown of Lubeck, a German town on the Baltic Sea; and to Munich, where Mann attended university and where the beginnings of Death in Venice—the book that captured Arnst's interest—was written. Arnst also spent two weeks in the tiny town of Marbach (near Stuttgart), site of the German Literature Archive (and birthplace of Friedrich Schiller). There he read original manuscripts and other historical writings from Mann and those who influenced him. Says Arnst, "I was probably the only one under retirement age there. There were a lot of professors."

The experience prompted Arnst to take his research in new directions. "My ideas and insights into these texts have changed dramatically," he says. "At first,
I noticed that Mann used musical language and sounds in a similar way to a composer. Yet as I read more of Mann's early essays alongside his novellas, I also noticed he was very interested in the idea of performance space. My honors thesis now looks at the production of 'stages' inside the novellas, created by figurative and physical walls."

Of Mann, Arnst says: "He's the German Henry James. His is not a difficult vocabulary, but there are very precise sentences and clauses and very long sentences. Reading him is not a light task."


Wunderkind in Paris

Omotayo Arowojolu spent nearly four months at the Pasteur Institute in Paris last summer.

Photo: Willkirk/

In early 2009, molecular and cellular biology major Omotayo Arowojolu e-mailed Marc Daëron—the head of the Immunology Department at the Pasteur Institute in Paris—asking if she could come work in his department and research tumor growth control. "He was very excited to have a Hopkins student come," Arowojolu says, "especially as he had gotten his PhD at Hopkins." Her research interests meshed nicely with those of the work Daeron's lab was doing in rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory cell growth in joints (a cellular mechanism similar to tumor growth). The fact that she had her own funding, thanks to the Woodrow Wilson fellowship, helped finalize the plan.

But when Arowojolu arrived in Paris in May 2009, both sides discovered a hitch. "They had assumed I was a PhD student," says the then-junior. "The project they had in mind for me was for a potential PhD student. I was a lot younger than they expected. But then they said, 'Anyone with your research experience can do this. You're a scientist.' So they handed me a protocol and said, 'Do this.' I had to learn a lot, and do it on my own."

A native of suburban Washington, D.C., Arowojolu first learned about Johns Hopkins Hospital during a high school internship with a pediatrician who kept referring patients to the East Baltimore campus. "I knew I wanted to do something science-related," she says, "and there was a big research component at Johns Hopkins." As a freshman, her research was geared more toward public health; the next year she shifted toward oncology and bench science, focusing on how medications affect mutated cell division. Then she took a biology class that covered the history of scientific pioneers, and she became interested in where those storied scientists had done their work. Around that time, scientist Francoise Barre-Sinoussi won the Nobel Prize for her role in the discovery of HIV. Barre-Sinoussi is a researcher at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. "That was it," says Arowojolu. She headed to Paris, where her lab research focused on Fc receptors, which are the connection points between a cell and its immune complexes: "My work will contribute to future research on Fc receptors. Past results said it needed to be more complex relationships with other receptors; my work helped show it doesn't," she says.

Arowojolu spent nearly four months at the Pasteur Institute last summer, returning to Homewood the day fall classes began. And "they did offer me
a PhD position," she says with a chuckle.

Related Link

Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Undergraduate Program