Tag: johns hopkins

Johns Hopkins Proves It: Magic Mushrooms Make Life Meaningful

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Baltimore’s pot-smoking parents are lightweights next to the Johns Hopkins medical researchers making news this week for delving into more exotic substances — namely psilocybin, or (as the stoner down the block might prefer to call them) magic mushrooms.  According to findings published in Psychopharmacology this week, JHU scientists figured out how to “reliably introduce transcendental experiences in volunteers,” thereby offering a sense of peace as well as “long-lasting psychological growth.”

The study wasn’t huge — it included only 18 adults, all healthy and with an average age of 46 — but it seemed to have an outsize impact on the participants:  94 percent (or all except for one lonely experimentee) counted the experiment as one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives. Nearly one in four (39 percent) called it the most meaningful thing that had ever happened to them. And the results seemed to ripple outward as well:  friends, family, and colleagues reported that participants became “calmer, happier, and kinder” during the course of the experiment.  The researchers are hoping to expand the study, exploring whether psilocybin can soothe terminal cancer patients, or help smokers quit.

Of course, the experimenters have to grapple with the legacy of drug experiments gone awry — as well as the inconvenient fact that psilocybin is classified as a Schedule One drug. But with the institutional might of Johns Hopkins behind them — and the admiration of America’s first drug czar — maybe we’ll find ourselves picking up our mushroom prescriptions at Rite-Aid in the not-so-distant future.

Sex, Drugs, and Defamation: Anonymous Gossip on Campus

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If you want to see the smiling, multicultural, frisbee-throwing side of college students, look at a university brochure. But if you were curious about their darker side — their gossip, profanity, and racist/sexist/homophobic comments, say — you’d find it all conveniently located at the school’s ACB, or Anonymous Confession Board. Until recently, that is.

The site — founded in 2008 by two college students — was controversial from the very beginning. Anonymity seemed to encourage rampant rudeness; students saw their full names attached to speculations about their sexual preference/habits, or comments about their looks. Some schools blocked the site from their wireless networks; others argued that the boards — as odious as they often were — counted as free speech. Not surprisingly, controversy led to popularity:  by January of this year, the site covered 150 schools and logged more than 20 million monthly page views.

Recently the site was bought out and underwent a name change; it’s now Blipdar, and includes a few features that seem to try to steer posters to chat about less unsavory topics — say, which buildings are good to live in on campus, rather than compiling a list of the school’s biggest sluts.

Will it work? Unclear. A fair number of posts recently up on the Johns Hopkins Blipdar were complaining about how stupid Blipdar is. And a competing anonymous Hopkins-centric site — Hopdirt.com — has sprung up. Odds are, neither site will make you feel particularly encouraged about the state of the contemporary undergraduate:  Bipdar has a post up entitled “Homosexual sex is not beautiful,” while a Hopdirt poster posts something too vulgar/irritating to reprint about a particular sorority. But it’s not all quite so dismal. There are also posts about what kinds of exercise burn calories most efficiently, and which science classes are easiest.

Ultimately, though, all the trashy talk begs quite a few questions:  Should a school try to limit students’ access to anonymous gossip sites? Are today’s students more heartless than those in days of yore, or does technology make everyone more vicious?

Johns Hopkins’ Massive Yard Sale

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Not all of us have the stamina for yard sale season. Maybe you’re tired of scouring Craigslist for nearby listings, then mapping out a way to hit the most promising yards in the most efficient way. Instead, maybe you daydream about a a huge room full of many people’s gently used clothes, furniture, and small china figurines.

If so, you’re about to have that disconcerting (yet pleasant) experience of seeing your dream become a reality on Saturday, when Johns Hopkins hosts its second annual U-Turn Sale. The idea is simple — gather together all the sweaters and electronics and books and stuff that college students can’t fit in their cars, and don’t feel like storing until next year; combine that with donated objects from students, staff, and faculty; then spend a month organizing and sticking (cheap!) price tags on things. You’ll (hopefully) wind up with a gym full of objects finding a useful second career, and a host of happy shoppers, glad to get a bargain.

Proceeds will benefit the Johns Hopkins Neighborhood Fund, a plan launched in 2007 aiming to connect the school more closely with nearby non-profits, as well as to the neighborhoods that border its campuses. In the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at the relationship between Hopkins and its neighbors — but for now, we’re content to go shopping for a good cause.

Robot Surgeons: Coming Soon to a Hospital Near You

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It was a routine surgical procedure conducted in the most fantastic fashion.

A 68-year-old woman lay unconscious in an operating room at Strasbourg Civil Hospital, in Strasbourg, France, undergoing the removal of her gall bladder. But her surgeons were not within arms’ reach. In fact, they weren’t even in the building; not even the same country. Instead, her surgeons were 4,000 miles away in New York City, performing a remote trans-Atlantic surgical operation previously deemed impossible. It sounds like a product of some screenwriter’s imagination: it took place on September 7, 2011.

Carol Reiley is a 28-year-old doctoral student in the Computational Interaction and Robotics Laboratory in the Department of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University. Her work focuses on the development of robotic systems that can help people better complete skilled tasks.

“Fact is,” notes Reiley, “we’re not there yet for robots to perform teleoperated surgeries at a distance on their own. The particular procedure from New York to France had tons of extra staff monitoring in case something goes wrong. I’ve seen doctors stop a robotic surgery halfway to switch to open surgery because they felt more comfortable.”

But getting there–enabling surgeons to achieve teleoperated surgery without live monitoring–is one of her team’s goals.

I meet Carol at her lab on a rainy spring afternoon, alongside twenty or so other eager spectators. She and her colleagues guide us through a menagerie of scientific wonder and accomplishment. Not an understatement: The students at the Computational Interaction and Robotics Laboratory are always going to be the smartest kids in the room. They spend long days pursuing every relevant experimental step Reily and her colleagues can think up and put into practice.

“There’s a huge evolution in terms of how surgery has been changing,” explains Reiley. “Minimal evasive surgery means that a surgeon can cut small keyhole incisions and insert instruments and a camera… It’s great for a patient because you have less scarring and a faster healing time.”

Tian Xia, another Ph.D. student in Computer Science agrees. “Minimally invasive surgery,” says Xia, “was a big step. You don’t have to do a lot of cutting through the body, leaving scars. People don’t like big scars. Now, with invasive surgery you might scar just a little.”

Computer-assisted surgery has been around for several years, but how do you augment it, improve upon it? These are the questions that Reiley and Xia are attempting to answer.

While surgical advancement has been great for patients, it has made life more difficult for surgeons.

“It’s hard for a surgeon,” explains Reiley “because now you have lost the hand-eye coordination: There’s a 2-D monitor somewhere far away, and you’re operating with a chopstick-like instrument.”

The Zeus Robotic Surgical System, created by the now defunct Computer Motion, which was used to conduct the original 2001 telesurgery, suffered from these very limitations. But Reily and Xia are experimenting with the superior da Vinci Surgical System designed and developed by Intuitive Surgical, Inc.

“The da Vinci Surgical System,” notes Reiley “has made it very intuitive for surgeons. Now, they have 3-D vision and wrist-like motion.”

Xia explains that the robotic system standing before us is multi-million dollar equipment, with numerous individual components costing in excess of one-thousand dollars each. The da Vinci Surgical System itself is composed of two extremely significant parts, rather unfortunately named: the master’s console and the slave device.

The master’s console allows the surgeon to operate the slave device at a distance. It is remarkably simple and resembles an arcade entertainment system. The doc places her head into the control console, from which she is able to see through and operate a camera attached to the robot/slave device using thumbs and fingers. The latter device has three primary components: a highly-sophisticated camera that renders images into 3-D and two robotic arms that are available to perform surgery. (A nurse or similarly qualified health care professional must be near the slave device at all times, so that surgical instruments can be attached to and removed from the robotic arms according to the needs of the surgery.)

What measurable value does combining human intelligence with robots have? Reiley sees many nuanced layers of worth. For example, surgeons utilizing the da Vinci Surgical System can perform procedures with micrometer accuracy, effectively correcting human error.

And, as Reiley explains, this isn’t about autonomous robotics performing surgical procedures. While that direction has been attempted in the past, Reily notes that the medical industry is “nervous” about taking that route. “Surgeons,” explains Reily “like the control.”

Marcin Balicki, another doctoral engineering student, sees one more promise of robotic systems in surgery: extended career spans for surgeons. “Surgeons, older surgeons, recognize now that their skills might be fading a bit, because of age or whatever. So if they can extend their career by, say, ten years, with the robot…”

And while robots are increasingly being used in hospitals as sophisticated tools, Reiley envisions opportunities where expert surgeons are able to reach patients from across the world, often in hazardous or poverty stricken areas, from the comforts of their local hospital.

Reiley believes that we are moving into a world where robotics are increasingly becoming the future, and sees much promise.

“Why even have any incisions?” she asks. “Now we are kind of starting to see this advancement toward natural orifice surgery… You can operate by sticking snake-like instruments down someone’s throat and performing that surgery.”

Surgeons exacting procedures without the need to cut incisions. Doctors attending to patients thousands of miles away through the use of robots. These aren’t sci-fi story lines, but rather, aspects of a medical revolution already in rapid progress.

Johns Hopkins: For Rich Kids Only?

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According to Johns Hopkins, the Class of 2015 will be “one of the most diverse in the university’s history.” Next year’s freshmen hail from all 50 states and a host of other countries; 23 percent of admits are underrepresented minorities. All encouraging facts. But as a recent New York Times article by David Leonhardt points out, economic diversity is still glaringly absent from top schools, and Hopkins is no exception.

One rough measure of economic diversity is the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants from the federal government — an approximate way to figure out how many students come from the bottom half of the income distribution. At Amherst, it’s 22 percent; nearly a third of UCLA and UC Berkeley students fall into this category. Hopkins’ figure? 11 percent.

Which is not to say that the university should be singled out for censure. Actually, it’s alarmingly in keeping with national trends. Leonhardt cites a study that examined the class of 2010 at the nation’s top 193 schools.  The economic distribution was way out of whack:  only 15 percent of students were from the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution, while 67 percent were from the top quarter. In 2003, there were more students from families that earned at least $200,000 than those in the entire bottom half of the income distribution. As Leonhardt points out, this doesn’t just mean that students from poor families aren’t attending top colleges — it means that the wealthy are increasingly pushing out the middle class.

As Anthony Marx, president of Amherst, told the Times, “We claim to be part of the American dream and of a system based on merit and opportunity and talent, yet if at the top places, two-thirds of the students come from the top quartile and only 5 percent come from the bottom quartile, then we are actually part of the problem of the growing economic divide rather than part of the solution.”

At Amherst, administrators are increasing grants for foreign students (who don’t qualify for Pell Grants) and seeking out transfer students from community colleges. At Hopkins, there’s the Baltimore Scholars program (a full-tuition scholarship for Baltimore City public high school students accepted to the university) and other need-based grant programs. But as Amherst demonstrates, it takes a lot more effort to correct the existing imbalance. 

Is this enough? Is increasing economic diversity something the university should prioritize?

Internships: Experience or Exploitation?

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When Johns Hopkins launched a new program offering paid internships with Baltimore-area non-profits, they found the response — more than 200 applications for 25 spots — “overwhelming.”

Which, if you think about it, is a little naive.  An internship is basically a necessity for today’s undergraduates, a way to make connections and build a resume. The feeling was present when I was an undergrad in the early 2000s — the sense that you’d never get a job unless you had a host of enviable institutions on your reference list; the idea that a summer spent lifeguarding or just lounging at your parents’ house, reading meant that you’d be left behind.

Which isn’t to say that all internships are worthy of these students’ time and enthusiasm. Many are unpaid, putting students in the unenviable position of having to beg to be allowed to work for free, sometimes at their fifteenth-choice organization. And of course there’s no guarantee that the work itself will be rewarding:  I got college credit for my “editorial internship” at a prestigious-sounding publication where my tasks included changing the boss’ license plate, filling out her daughter’s summer camp application (complete with forged signatures), bringing lunch to her daughter’s school when she forgot it, etc.

It’s partly in order to combat exploitative situations like this that the U.S. Labor Department recently revised its guidelines for unpaid internships with for-profit companies. Basically, if a student is getting credit for an internship, the work has to be structured like an educational experience. “The internship is for the benefit of the intern,” the Labor Department feels the need to proclaim — well, duh. But the fact that such an obvious guideline needs to be codified into law indicates how exploitative some situations have become.

So kudos to JHU for creating a program that seeks to place students in positions where they can contribute meaningfully to their community, where they’re overseen and protected by a university that takes their work seriously — and one that pays them well ($5000!). No wonder hundreds of students were interested — there’s not enough of this in the world.

Until It’s Zero: Underreported Rapes at Hopkins?

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From 2007 to 2009, JHU reported ZERO incidents of sexual assault or rape. While we would love for this to be the case, we know it’s not.

So proclaims the recently-launched Until It’s Zero project, a blog that declares itself “a space devoted to giving survivors of sexual violence an outlet until such a time as the incidence of sexual assault and rape truly is zero.” The blog features stories of assault, rape, gray-area situations, and harassment, written by anonymous Hopkins students — mostly women, but a few men as well.

As the blog’s moderators note, it’s notoriously tricky to get accurate statistics about rape/sexual assault, but some experts estimate that 1 in 4 college women has experienced some form of sexual assault in her lifetime. But a host of factors — from guilt to fear of social stigma to dismissive authority figures — means that many survivors decline to file official reports. A positive-seeming statistic — like Hopkins’ claim of no rapes or sexual assaults reported since 2007 — can actually mask a culture of shame. Over half the rapes committed on college campuses are never reported to police, the blog points out.

So far, the blog features a couple dozen stories from survivors, some set in Hopkins dorms and frat houses, others of which pre-date the writer’s time at the school. And all are heartbreaking to read: “I was 11 years old.  I was in CTY.” “The detective assigned to the case told me he only had time for ‘real rapes.'” It’s a harrowing collection of stories, many of which start out innocently — with a date, a party, a night out with friends.

Kudos to the Hopkins Feminist Alliance and Sexual Assault Response Unit for opening up the discussion. Let’s hope that someday soon that “zero” statistic does reflect campus reality.

Hopkins Hit-and-Runs: Walk Safe, Baltimore

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Parents of prospective Hopkins students often fret about Baltimore’s reputation as a crime-plagued city — hence the school’s ubiquitous flashing blue light phones and omnipresent security officers. But with four Hopkins students seriously injured in pedestrian-car accidents over the past year and a half, it’s starting to seem like the most dangerous thing a Hopkins student can do is to try and cross the street.

This weekend, two Hopkins students were injured by a hit-and-run driver at the corner of St. Paul and 33rd streets. Both freshman Rachel Cohen and sophomore Benjamin Zucker are expected to survive the accident, which took place at 2:15 AM on Saturday night; Zucker is in critical condition. In 2009, a Hopkins student died after a hit-and-run accident at the same intersection.

In February of this year, Hopkins sophomore Nathan Krasnopoler was biking down West University Parkway when he was hit by an 83 year-old driver, who has since been changed with negligent driving and failure to yield right-of-way to a cyclist in a designated bike lane. Krasnopoler is in a coma and is not expected to recover.

In October 2009, junior Miriam Frankl died after a hit-and-run collision in St. Paul Street’s service drive, at the intersection of 33rd Street. In February of this year, Thomas Meighan, who was drunk at the time of the accident, pled guilty to multiple felony charges and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

With its grassy expanses and smiling security staff, the Hopkins campus — and its Charles Village environs — can sometimes feel like a protected enclave. These accidents are a harsh reminder that that’s far from true. Remember to drive safe, walk safe, and bike safe, Baltimore.

Commencement Speakers: The Highlights

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No Oprah- or Obama-caliber superstars will descend on Baltimore this graduation season, but the speakers’ docket is still full of intriguing talent and fascinating lives. This years’ speakers include a soprano, an NFL players advocate, and a bevy of journalists and non-profit executives. A few notable speakers include:

Johns Hopkins‘ university-wide commencement on Thursday, May 26 will feature Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s flagship foreign affairs show, Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine, columnist at the Washington Post, and New York Times bestselling author.

The SAIS ceremony — also May 26 — will include a speech by Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme.

Slated to speak at Peabody  (May 26 as well) is soprano Marni Nixon, “the voice of Hollywood,” who overdubbed the singing voices in movies including My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The King and I, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

For its May 26 commencement, the Johns Hopkins School of Education snagged Gary Knell, president of the Sesame Workshop, who helped bring Sesame Street to far-flung places including Egypt, South Africa, Russia, and China.

Goucher‘s got Dr. Ian G. Rawson, the managing director of Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Haiti speaking on Friday, May 20.

On Friday, May 13 Stevenson will feature journalist Kimberly Dozier, formerly of CBS News and now with the Associated Press. Dozier recently penned an account of her time as a correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan — and her recovery after being wounded in a car bombing that killed a colleague.

Morgan State‘s speaker is Ruth Simmons, the first female president of Brown University and the first African American to serve as president of any Ivy League institution. The ceremony takes place on Saturday, May 21.

Towson’s commencement on Wednesday, May 25 will include a speech by Scott Pelley, who is slated to replace Katie Couric as CBS Evening News anchor.

DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, lends some wisdom at the University of Maryland’s graduation ceremony in College Park on Thursday, May 19.

Johns Hopkins Woos Prospective Students

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After months of  weighing the merits of anxious applicants, April is the month for colleges to feel what it’s like to nervously hope for a “yes.”

In April, Johns Hopkins sent out acceptance letters to 3,032 applicants, or 20.5 percent of all those who applied — its lowest-ever acceptance rate. But come fall 2011, most of those students won’t end up strolling across Decker Quad.

Hopkins’ yield — the number of accepted students who end up enrolling — has traditionally been solidly, well, average. In 2009, it was 31 percent, putting it in the neighborhood of Northwestern, Tufts, and other schools that are often considered to be second-choice options for those who’d really like to end up in the Ivy League. (Harvard’s yield that year was 77 percent.)

This year, Hopkins seems to be sparing no expense when it comes to wooing accepted students (and their parents). And no wonder. In order to end up with an incoming freshman class of 1245 — the University’s goal, according to the admissions office — Hopkins will have to convince 41 percent of its acceptees that they really, really want to be Blue Jays. (The 518 early decision acceptances, who have already agreed to enroll, make this a little less daunting.) That means making the University look brighter, shinier, and generally more desirable to prospective students than ever before.

To aid in the wooing, the university launched the Spring Open House and Overnight Program (SOHOP), an elaborately choreographed series of events that seems intended to convince prospective students that life at Hopkins is chock full of a capella concerts, outdoor movies, and “video game jams.” And for the first time, the first big overnight program for admitted students was held at the same time as Hopkins’ Spring Fair, possibly the only time the student body can be counted on to cut loose en masse.

Presumably any student Hopkins admitted should be smart enough to realize that not every weekend will feature fried food and free concerts on the quad; still, by aggressively presenting the school as a hub of spontaneous social activity instead of the library-centric stress fest it more honestly resembles, the school might be setting itself up to have higher yields, but more dissatisfied freshmen.

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