arts and sciences magazine header graphicjohns hopkins university logo
The online edition of the magazine published by The Johns Hopkins University, Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences


Rewarding Research

photo photo photo
James Harlow Alexandra Sowa Andrew Meaney

Each year, 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 to pay for equipment, travel, and other research expenses associated with large-scale projects conducted over the course of their undergraduate careers.

Here's what a few of the fellows have been up to lately:

photoSophomore James Harlow spent part of last summer walking battlefields in Belgium.

The Woodrow Wilson fellow traveled to Belgium and London to further study Irish military history, particularly during World War I, and he found himself wondering how the serene countryside of Flanders could have once been the site of some of the world's most brutal battles.

Harlow's project grew out of an interest in his own family's service in the Irish military. His great-grandfather, Thomas Harper, fought with the Royal Irish Rifles. Harper's discharge order from World War I cites his meritorious service and notes that he was wounded in combat. "Why would the Irish want to fight for king and country when it wasn't their king, and they didn't control their own country?" Harlow questions. His Woodrow Wilson project, "Soldiers of Erin: Camaraderie and Fellowship in the 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions in World War One," looks at the two divisions, composed of volunteers from opposite sides of the fight over Irish nationalism. The members of the 16th Division were southern nationalists-men who would later found the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein, while the 36th Division recruited pro-English Protestants. Yet the divisions fought side-by-side on the western front of the war.

"These guys would have started a bar fight if they'd seen each other in a pub at any other time," Harlow points out. Could this newfound camaraderie have affected Britain's consideration for a free Irish state? "Before the war, they may have never imagined a compromise could be possible," Harlow explains. "But maybe the relationships during the war gave the English the sense that this could be done."

Harlow investigated the idea last summer by visiting the Imperial War Museum, National Army Museum, and the Public Records Office in London and touring battlefields where Irish troops fought. "There is an overwhelming number of documents," he quickly learned.

He has found some early evidence to support his theory. John Redmond, a leading Irish nationalist and a member of Parliament, seems to have agreed with then- British Prime Minister Henry Asquith that "stopping Germany was more important" than domestic considerations. And Redmond's brother, William, an officer in the 16th Division, was known to have had close bonds with officers of the 36th.

photoAlexandra Sowa has long been troubled by Delaware's cancer rates. At 874.9 per 100,000, the incidence in her small industrial home state is only 3.1 percent above the national average, but the problem has always felt close to home. Sowa's father, a physician, has seen many of his peers die of various forms of the disease, many of them at a young age.

A public health and writing seminars major, Sowa has used her Woodrow Wilson fellowship to examine the relationship between cancer and pollution. Delaware has the third-highest ozone concentration in the country, and close to half of 43 water sources tested throughout the state have been found to be contaminated with various chemical compounds, she says. "My research is motivated by a need to inform people of the risk," says Sowa, a senior who has combed through the state's cancer registry to evaluate some 60,000 cases of 10 types of cancer, breaking them down by type and region. Her next step is to create an online map that overlays cancer rates on zip code regions and shows the state's 14 languishing Superfund sites, potentially contaminated water sources, and hazardous waste sites.

In most states, cancer rates are tracked by county, Sowa notes. "Delaware has only three counties, so breaking the data down to zip codes (Delaware has 98) might make people feel a little more connected to the problem."

Note: Sowa is the first recipient of the Suzy Bacon Fellowship, an award named for the former Woodrow Wilson program coordinator, who died on September 11, 2004, after a 15-year battle with breast cancer. "I'm dedicating my project to her," Sowa says. "She has been my close confidante since I began this work. I would go into her office every few weeks to report on my progress, and I had no idea that she had cancer until she was gone." Since Bacon's death, Sowa says, "My project has taken on greater importance."

photoWhen Andrew Meaney accompanied his father on a business trip to Botswana five years ago, he was impressed to learn that the country is one of the most stable in Africa thanks to-and, actually, in spite of-its diamond wealth. Diamonds were discovered in this southern African country soon after it gained independence in 1966, spurring the world's fastest economic growth between then and the 1990s.

"In the beginning, Botswana only had about 10 miles of roads, no schools, and no infrastructure," Meaney points out. "It was obvious where the money should be spent." But while some countries might have experienced chaos and corruption, Botswana-due largely to its prescient first president, Seretse Khama, who set up elaborate procedures and accountability for government spending-"seems to have gotten it right," says the international studies major.

Meaney's Woodrow Wilson project is titled "Evaluation of the Miracle of Botswana in Sub-Saharan Africa and its Emergence as a Successful State." Last summer, he visited the country and stayed with the family of the permanent secretary to the president, whom his father had known through business. Meaney, a senior, worked as a research fellow at the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis. "People were very accessible," he says. "There are not a lot of foreign students there to study the government.... It wasn't unusual to have the director of the Bank of Botswana sit down and talk with me for a couple of hours."

While his research looks mainly at the country's economic success story, Meaney cannot ignore the devastating effect that HIV/AIDS has had on Botswana. More than 12 percent of its 1.6 million residents are infected with the virus. The huge number of AIDS cases has cut Botswana's life expectancy from 72 years to 39 years, according to the Global Health Council. Meaney says his hosts attended funerals of close friends or colleagues every weekend while he was there. "Everyone knows people who are dying," he says. "It's a problem that affects the entire population."

-Martha Thomas




Conquistadors of Cotopaxi
Child on the Wing
Ten Issues We Can't
Afford to Ignore



Dean's Letter
cover graphic small