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The online edition of the magazine published by The Johns Hopkins University, Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences


Independent Inquiries

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:

Angela Chen has been spending time in Baltimore City’s neighborhoods, attempting to measure the impact of urban murals on the neighborhoods they decorate. A senior art history major, Chen has long been fascinated by the idea of “visual psychology” —how a perceived image affects the viewer mentally, emotionally, even physically.

Using “quality of life” data gleaned from studies of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, Chen is working to chart areas of improvement. “I’m trying to see if neighborhoods with murals exhibit more improvement than other, mural-less neighborhoods, and to see at what stage of improvement the murals first appeared.” She adds, “It’s a slow process.”

The subjective portion of her project involves interviewing community members, mural artists, and city officials to examine the murals’ effects on individuals.

Though Chen is still gathering her data, she has reached some early conclusions. “For now, it seems the murals are at times merely indicators of social change—that a neighborhood is already on its way up, and the mural signifies that it at last has the economic means for such things as art,” she says.

Chen’s research will have an impact on the neighborhoods she is studying. As part of her work, she is analyzing the Philadelphia Mural Program—which is larger and better funded—to see how Baltimore’s program might be improved.

The Baltimore program relies mostly on private funding (donations and grants), which fluctuates wildly from year to year. The Philadelphia program has an annual budget of $3 million, about one-third of which comes from the city.

Chen says she has mixed feelings about Philadelphia’s success. By bringing national attention to its mural program, the city has increased government and private-sector funding for the art. But, she says, “their burgeoning program has reached a point of commercialization, and one would hope that Baltimore murals do not lose their true meaning—that of encouraging and symbolizing community improvement and unity—on the way to becoming a tourist attraction.”


Originally planning to pursue a major in economics, senior Zirui Song found a way to marry his interest
in that field with his passion for public health.

He first set out to examine the factors that prompt adolescents to start—and later stop—smoking, using an economic modeling technique known as “game theory.” Explains the public health major,
“I split the individual smoker into two decision-making entities, each with its own unique utility function and best-response in the game, or rather tug of war, of deciding whether or not to smoke at any time in a person’s life.”

He spent the summer after his sophomore year at the Brookings Institution in Washington, helping to develop an “agent-based model” under the tutelage of Hopkins Economics Professor Peyton Young. Song’s project looked specifically at teens within their social networks to examine whether one’s smoking behavior affects that of one’s friends and to what degree that influence exerts itself. The goal, says Song: to be able to “model the diffusion of behavior” over time. He’s hoping that the 20-page summary of his work will find its way to the working paper series at the Brookings Center on Social and Economic Dynamics.

“Brookings taught me that no matter how much research had been done on a subject, there is always a new way, a new angle, a new perspective with which to analyze it,” says Song, who founded Hopkins’ undergraduate public health journal, Epidemic Proportions, in 2003. “I see the world of knowledge as one big sphere. You never fully understand something until you have looked at it from every angle.”

In a second project on obesity, Song used “econometrics” to examine the post-surgical outcomes of patients at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore who had undergone gastric bypass surgery. Would participation in support groups in the months after surgery lead to better success in conquering their obesity? To find out, Song created several “linear multivariable models” and developed a questionnaire, which he distributed to patients to gather his data.

His findings, which he shared at a grand rounds presentation at Union Memorial: “Patients who spend time with each other in support groups lose more weight after surgery and keep it off longer.”


Elizabeth Krimmel’s ethnographic research has taken her into Baltimore City’s prison system, where she’s examining a program aimed at reducing recidivism among female inmates.

Since 1980, women have been incarcerated at nearly double the rate of men, Krimmel notes—a trend with widespread ramifications because two-thirds have children under the age of 18. “But little research has been done on the female offender,” she says.

“Most correctional programming is based on profiles of male criminality, and few programs exist to specifically address the needs of female offenders.” One result: More than half of incarcerated women land back in jail within three years of their release.

The Baltimore Pre-Release Unit for Women is one facility that does offer an eight-week course for female inmates—“Power/Excel”— specifically aimed at reducing recidivism. The brainchild of project founder Ann Hosmer, Power/Excel “deals with such issues as setting and achieving goals, following through with commitments, respecting oneself and others, and acting responsibly to avoid returning to the habits for which they’ve been incarcerated,” explains Krimmel.

She set out to measure the program’s effectiveness by observing inmates as they took the course and interviewing them in their community (or in some cases, back in prison). She is also analyzing arrest activity data and incarceration histories of the women who participated. Krimmer’s project includes a control group—female inmates who opted not to participate in the voluntary, two-hour weekly sessions.

The women Krimmel observed almost uniformly suffer from low self-esteem, a factor she attributes to the prevalence of physical and sexual abuse in their pasts. (She notes that 57 percent of incarcerated women report histories of such abuse, compared to just 16 percent of men.)

The senior sociology major is still conducting interviews (each one can stretch up to four hours) and analyzing her data. She predicts, however, that results will show the Power/Excel project to have a positive impact on participants. The course “really allowed them to build their self-esteem, and that’s what these women need,” Krimmel says. “I feel like they really took a lot out of it.”

—Sue DePasquale



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