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A Word from the iEditor

November 30, 2011  |  by Dale Keiger  |  Add a comment

Catherine Pierre normally speaks to you from this page. But she recently gave birth to a second adorable daughter, so I have shepherded this issue of the magazine into print as interim editor. As an admirer of the late Steve Jobs, I amused myself by thinking of my temporary title as iEditor.

A substantial portion of this edition of Johns Hopkins Magazine has to do with memory, a subject that has been on my mind lately as I observed the effects of dementia on my recently deceased 90-year-old father. In conversation, he could forget what he asked five minutes before. But he could recite poetry that he had memorized 83 years ago in the second grade. Last March, when I drove him around his hometown of Cambridge, Ohio, he pointed out the houses of all his grade-school teachers. His brother told me he was right every time.

For the magazine, senior writer Michael Anft dug deep into the memory research of Johns Hopkins scientists for his story “Forgetting of Things Past.” The importance of this work is conveyed by a single sentence from the story: “If we lose our network of memories—of whom we relate to, where we’ve been, our predilections, our past—we lose something else: our selves.”

Memory plays a role in “Paying Attention to Distraction,” because when working memory, “the mind’s scratch pad,” becomes overloaded by the myriad distractions of contemporary life, our ability not just to focus but to think may be impaired. In “Unboxing History,” senior writer Bret McCabe, A&S ’94, reports on a Johns Hopkins initiative to study and catalog the archive of the Afro-American, one of the oldest family-owned, continuously published newspapers in the country. As Bret notes, the material stored in carton after carton at the newspaper forms a deep memory of the African-American community in Baltimore.

We did not devote our entire feature section to the various ways we remember. Assistant editor Kristen Intlekofer provided our cover story, the succinctly titled “Stop That,” a collection of 10 things many of us do in the name of health without realizing we might be doing our bodies no favor. This is Kristen’s first feature story for Johns Hopkins Magazine, and we were pleased to put it on our cover. Good job, Kristen.

The short and long haul

August 31, 2011  |  by Catherine Pierre  |  Add a comment

The life cycle of a quarterly magazine writer goes something like this: You spend a great amount of time consuming, on a fairly superficial level, as much news and information as possible. Then something, for whatever reason, grabs you by the throat (or the brain, or the heart) and you spend the next month or two fully devoted to the study of that topic—reading about it, dreaming about it, talking endlessly to your spouse at the dinner table about it. Then you write your story, turn it in, and put it behind you. On to the next great topic.

I was aware while editing this issue just how often those great topics revolve around people with a very different life cycle: academics. More specifically, academics who spend entire lifetimes devoted to their subjects. Take Writing Seminars professor John Irwin, subject of “Saving Hart Crane,” by David Dudley, A&S ’90. Irwin has spent the last 41 years working on a book about an American poet whose reputation is mixed at best. Even if Irwin did write other books and teach other classes during that time, that’s an amazing attention span.

Or what about the scientists in senior writer Michael Anft’s story, “The Great Unknowns”? Many of them devote their careers to chipping away at questions that may never be fully answered in their lifetimes. But they maintain the same level of intensity, interest, and passion that we bring to our two-month-long reporting projects.

Which is why we like to write about them so much. They are a fascinating—and admirable—species, and magazine writers are always on the lookout for the most compelling stories to tell. As Bret McCabe, A&S ’94, the newest member of the magazine staff, puts it: “I’m a sucker for the person behind the pursuit. I love that, say, there’s somebody out there who is dedicating his/her life to exploring the infectious diseases associated with one specific fly found only in Botswana. But I’m more fascinated by the human drive to choose those things. And through reporting/interviewing, I get to see what that is, up close and personal, multiple times a year.”

I’m happy to announce that such storytelling earned the magazine three medals in the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s annual Circle of Excellence awards: Individual honors went to Michael Anft for “The Disease Chaser” and Dale Keiger for “Immortal Cells, Enduring Issues” (both published Summer 2010). As a team, Mike and Dale also took a bronze medal in the staff writing category.

Congratulations, gentlemen!

Editor’s Note: Seriously Summer

June 1, 2011  |  by Catherine Pierre  |  Add a comment

Here in Baltimore, as I write this editor’s note in mid-May, we’re enjoying a comfortable 68-degree morning. No one is really complaining about the cloudy skies or the 80 percent chance of rain. Soon enough—next week, according to the weather report—temperatures will begin their inevitable climb into the upper 80s, then 90s, then (help us) probably the low 100s. Add to that our infamous humidity, a hailstorm or two, and the occasional Inner Harbor fish kill, and ahhh . . . it’s summertime in Charm City.

This is roughly the scenario we had in mind when we started planning our Summer issue. Of course, many of our readers don’t live in Baltimore, but wherever they are, there’s a good chance the days are getting longer and hotter, activities are heading outdoors, and—even for Johns Hopkins people—the pace is slowing down at least a little bit.

So let’s lighten up, we thought. Give our readers a magazine to flip through while sitting on the porch after dinner, or to roll up and stuff in their beach bags. Books! we thought. We’ll gather together a selection of literary escapes. Travel! We’ll carry our readers to exotic destinations. Dancing! We’ll introduce them to little boys studying ballet at Peabody—what could be more charming?

This being Johns Hopkins, it turns out that “light” is a relative term, and so we present “Our Sort Of Summery Issue,” featuring “The Johns Hopkins Magazine Not-Exactly-What-You’d-Call-Breezy Summer Reading List,” whose title, I think, speaks for itself. There’s also “Oh, the Places They Go” in which freelancer Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson explains the research subjects that lure faculty to locales that, for the rest of us, sound like really great vacation spots. And we offer associate editor Dale Keiger’s story, “Mom! It’s Ballet!” about a Peabody program that trains local boys to be the next generation’s great ballet dancers.

And because we couldn’t go an entire issue without delving into at least one serious subject, in “Man in the Middle,” senior writer Michael Anft profiles Johns Hopkins professor William Egginton, who in a new book argues that religious fanatics and atheists are equally guilty of polarizing people, and that a moderate approach to religion is the best way to keep society moving forward. But don’t worry, Mike’s got a light touch.

Enjoy the issue, and enjoy your summer!

Editor’s Note: African Tales

February 28, 2011  |  by Catherine Pierre  |  Add a comment

News out of Africa these days seems at best a mixed bag, at worst horrific. As this issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine was headed to press, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down and military rulers had instituted martial law; the potential of a new democracy is promising, but stories along the way of protesters and journalists being detained, beaten, or killed have been scary. Southern Sudan had just voted to secede from the North, but only after years of civil war and genocide. Charles Taylor was boycotting the war crimes trial against him; the former president of Liberia is accused of commanding rebels in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, and witness testimony has involved stories of slave labor, cannibalism, rape, and other acts of brutality. Tales of poverty, disease, corrupt leadership, and civil unrest seem unending.

Around Johns Hopkins, however, we often hear different kinds of stories about Africa—from researchers who’ve worked there, from students who were born there, and from alumni who’ve turned their attention there since graduating. Those stories can be full of good people and meaningful interactions, of progress, and of hope for the future. In “African Studies” (page 28), this issue’s three-part special section focusing on the continent, we wanted to share some of those stories with readers.

With that in mind, senior writer Michael Anft conducted interviews with a handful of researchers based in various African countries (“Into Africa,” page 30). Their subjects of study are along the lines you’d expect—HIV/AIDS, for example, or saving the lives of pregnant women and newborns—and those issues continue to present huge challenges. However, Mike found that these researchers were not just dedicated to a cause; they were inspired and changed by the Africans with whom they lived and worked. In writing about Africa’s seeming “paradox of plenty,” associate editor Dale Keiger writes that Nitze School of Advanced International Studies’ Peter M. Lewis, an expert on Nigeria, is optimistic about that country’s future despite its continued inability to parlay oil revenues into a healthy economic system (“The Curse of the Golden Egg,” page 38). Finally, freelancer Brennen Jensen found all kinds of interesting facts and perspectives from all around Johns Hopkins (“20 Questions: Africa Edition,” page 42).

Taken together, our stories don’t prove the daily news accounts wrong. But they do fill in the picture a little better. They also show just how far-reaching and varied the Johns Hopkins community’s collective efforts are when it comes to helping Africans solve all those problems you read about in the papers.

Editor’s Note: A Little Levity

December 6, 2010  |  by Catherine Pierre  |  Add a comment

Just for fun, I asked Margaret Guroff, A&S ’89 (MA), if she could remake one scene from the movie Star Wars, what would it be? “I guess it’d be the hologram of Princess Leia,” she told me. “Not sure why though.” Me, I’d take any scene with Chewbacca.

This wasn’t an entirely random exchange. Meg penned this issue’s “The Force Is with Her,” about fellow Writing Sems graduate Annelise Pruitt, A&S ’04, who won an Emmy this summer for her design of the website Star Wars Uncut. The site splices together 15-second user-generated clips into a single slightly insane version of the original. It won the Emmy for outstanding achievements in interactive media.

As soon as we heard about the award, and the website, we knew we had to write a story. Johns Hopkins people—and so, in turn, Johns Hopkins Magazine—regularly tackle the world’s most daunting and serious problems. See, as an example, senior writer Michael Anft’s cover story, “Outbreak Agents,” about medical and public health researchers who are on the scene at natural and other disasters to track and manage disease. Or freelancer Jay Pridmore’s account of the war in Afghanistan and the faculty at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies’ Bolgona Center who are trying to track, manage, and understand the ethnic conflicts that erupt into international war (“A New Kind of War,” page 50). How fun to shine a little light on some of the quirkier successes the university’s alumni are enjoying. Meg, who edits and publishes the website Power Moby-Dick, an online annotation of Herman Melville’s novel, seemed the right person for the job.

Of course, a little levity finds its way into the most serious of pursuits. The Epidemic Intelligence Service officers at the center of Mike’s story have a brown shoe with a worn-out sole for a logo to emphasize the shoe leather–expending aspects of their work. During the Korean War, when many joined the Service to avoid being sent to the front line, they jokingly referred to themselves as the “Yellow Berets.” My guess is that if what you do for a living is run to disaster instead of away from it, you’d better have a sense of humor.

And then there’s associate editor Dale Keiger’s story, “D.I.Y. Opera,” about several Peabody graduates who, when the local grand opera company failed, up and started their own companies. What they lack in funding and stage-management experience, they make up for with talent, drive, cleverness, and the occasional irreverent take on the classics.

So seriously, enjoy the issue. Have a laugh. And if you’re so inclined, grab your lightsaber and pretend you’re Luke Skywalker.

Editor’s Note: Happiness Is…

September 3, 2010  |  by Catherine Pierre  |  1 Comment

Working on a special issue that allows you to learn about a single subject—in this case, happiness—in its many forms and functions . . . Asking readers to write in and tell you what makes them happy, hoping to get maybe a handful of letters, and getting so many responses you can’t fit them all in the print edition . . .  Having those responses be thoughtful and funny and earnest and truly insightful about what brings contentment . . .  Asking a wish list of big-name authors—Farai Chideya, Stephen Dixon, Barbara Ehrenreich, Benjamin Ginsberg, Bill McKibben, P.J. O’Rourke—to contribute an essay about happiness and having them all say yes.

I’ve spent the past few months doing quite a bit of reading and thinking about happiness as background for this issue, and one thing I’ve learned is that, as a society, we spend a lot of time talking about it. (As the mother of a 1-year-old, I’ve been especially interested in the flood of surveys conducted and essays written about how miserable parents are.So far at least, I disagree.) I’ve also learned that the inherited bits of wisdom, and even most of the clichés, about how to be a happy person make for pretty good advice: Simplify. Be grateful for what you have. Spend time with the people you love. Do something you’re good at. Learn something. Take care of your body and mind. Help others.

As we were planning this issue, we decided to leave the “how to find happiness” material to other publications. Instead we’d pose some probing, intellectual questions to Johns Hopkins researchers. What’s funny is that, in their way, our experts all circled back to that same advice. Neuroscientist David Linden tells us that the evolutionary drive that makes our brains respond positively to food and sex also makes us feel good about meditating, learning, and volunteering (“Pleasure on the Brain,” by Michael Anft, p. 30). Happiness economist Carol Graham, SAIS ’86, explains that money, beyond what you need for the basics, really doesn’t make us happy, though consistency does (“More Money, Less Mirth,” by Dale Keiger, p. 38). And several Hopkins health care providers teach us that dealing with tragedy day in and day out is managed by focusing on the positive impact you have on people (“Keeping On,” by Deborah Rudacille, p. 46).

It seems that happiness, though sometimes elusive, isn’t that much of a mystery—and that there’s truth to that biggest cliché of all: It’s the little things. My mood really did soar when readers’ “What Makes You Happy?” letters and e-mails started rolling in (p. 52). And statistics be damned, I am definitely happier because I got to play in the surf with my daughter for the first time this summer.

Editor’s Note: Ethics and Genetics

June 2, 2010  |  by Catherine Pierre  |  1 Comment

When associate editor Dale Keiger set out to write about Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times best seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, he got a few quizzical looks. After all, the book—which tells the story of Lacks’ treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital and how the so-called HeLa cells taken from her then continue to support medical research, advancing science and, in some cases, reaping huge profits for the companies that have used them—paints a rather unflattering portrait of the institution. How could we write about that?

I figured, how could we not? After all, the story is out there—often in headlines like “Health-Care Injustice” (Newsweek) and “Henrietta Lacks’ Cells Were Priceless, But Her Family Can’t Afford a Hospital” (The Observer). Our readers would likely appreciate an honest and deep discussion of some of the issues involved in Lacks’ experience and the aftermath. Dale’s story (“Immortal Cells, Enduring Issues”) picks up where Skloot’s leaves off: Situations like Lacks’ prompted a hard look at issues such as privacy and informed consent, and hospitals have since adopted policies and procedures to protect patients. But the more medical technology advances, the more vexing such issues become.

Interestingly, the late Johns Hopkins physician and researcher Victor McKusick, Med ’46, who worked with Lacks’ descendants in his search for DNA markers that could identify HeLa cells in lab samples, appears not just in this story but in senior writer Michael Anft’s cover story about Hopkins pediatrician Richard Kelley, who specializes in treating rare genetic diseases that occur in Amish and Mennonite children (“The Disease Chaser”). McKusick worked with these populations in the 1960s, studying the effects of their genes and identifying a number of conditions specific to them. Decades later, Kelley diagnoses and treats those and other genetic diseases. But his research has raised its own controversy. Because his group of patients is so specific and small, clinical trials aren’t feasible. He treats his patients based on observation and instinct—and he’s been criticized for that.

It seems genetic research will never be without its complexities, both scientific and ethical. But it’s crucial that the Kelleys and the McKusicks of the world continue to ask scientific questions—and raise ethical ones while they’re at it. It’s also crucial that the rest of us—university magazines included—ask questions of our own and contribute to that discussion.

Editor’s Note: Priorities in Order

March 6, 2010  |  by Catherine Pierre  |  Add a comment
In January, associate editor Dale Keiger was working on our cover story, “The Buck Goes Here” (p. 36), about cost-effective public health interventions that, if funded, could save many, many lives. As he filled me in on his reporting, he and I talked about the fact that there’s actually plenty of cash out there, but not the political will to direct enough of it to those efforts. (You’ll see in his story that we have expensive tastes when it comes to cigarettes and stadiums.) This led to the expected shaking of heads and disappointed commentary about how our priorities are out of whack. If we felt frustrated, imagine how the public health experts who devote their careers to such work must feel.
And then an earthquake hit Haiti, destroying the city of Port-au-Prince. It took 35 seconds to create a massive public health emergency—and seemingly not much longer for the world to act. A number of faculty, staff, and students from Johns Hopkins were already working in Haiti; thankfully none were injured in the quake. Many of them responded immediately, including master’s students from the Bloomberg School of Public Health who traveled from the villages of Anse Rouge and Pont Sonde to Port-au-Prince to volunteer in a school and in a makeshift hospital.
Back at home, the Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response organized its first Johns Hopkins Go Team mission, and soon more medical personnel—including people from Nursing, Medicine, and Public Health—were on the ground in Haiti. Several other teams have followed since. For our “Big Question” (p. 4), I talked to Rich Lamporte, who led a team from Jhpiego to Croix des Bouquets, where they focused on the needs of pregnant women and newborns affected by the quake. Johns Hopkins students and staff raised money through happy hours and bake sales. Pediatric residents from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center collected much-needed crutches for Haiti. They hoped to get a few hundred pairs—they got more than 3,000.
It’s impossible in this small space to list all of the efforts or do justice to the hard work and sacrifice of the people involved. But if you want to know more, visit the university’s Web site, www.jhu.edu, where much of this work is documented. There you’ll also find links to blogs written by Johns Hopkins faculty and staff recounting their personal experiences in Haiti. I can tell you that the suffering they describe is devastating. Their joy at saving lives and sadness at losing them, overwhelming. And their determination to continue that work and help rebuild the area—to “build back better” as Rich Lamporte puts it—inspiring. No need to reorder those priorities.

In January, associate editor Dale Keiger was working on our cover story, “The Buck Goes Here” (p. 36), about cost-effective public health interventions that, if funded, could save many, many lives. As he filled me in on his reporting, he and I talked about the fact that there’s actually plenty of cash out there, but not the political will to direct enough of it to those efforts. (You’ll see in his story that we have expensive tastes when it comes to cigarettes and stadiums.) This led to the expected shaking of heads and disappointed commentary about how our priorities are out of whack. If we felt frustrated, imagine how the public health experts who devote their careers to such work must feel.

And then an earthquake hit Haiti, destroying the city of Port-au-Prince. It took 35 seconds to create a massive public health emergency—and seemingly not much longer for the world to act. A number of faculty, staff, and students from Johns Hopkins were already working in Haiti; thankfully none were injured in the quake. Many of them responded immediately, including master’s students from the Bloomberg School of Public Health who traveled from the villages of Anse Rouge and Pont Sonde to Port-au-Prince to volunteer in a school and in a makeshift hospital.

Back at home, the Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response organized its first Johns Hopkins Go Team mission, and soon more medical personnel—including people from Nursing, Medicine, and Public Health—were on the ground in Haiti. Several other teams have followed since. For our “Big Question” (p. 4), I talked to Rich Lamporte, who led a team from Jhpiego to Croix des Bouquets, where they focused on the needs of pregnant women and newborns affected by the quake. Johns Hopkins students and staff raised money through happy hours and bake sales. Pediatric residents from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center collected much-needed crutches for Haiti. They hoped to get a few hundred pairs—they got more than 3,000.

It’s impossible in this small space to list all of the efforts or do justice to the hard work and sacrifice of the people involved. But if you want to know more, visit the university’s Web site, www.jhu.edu, where much of this work is documented. There you’ll also find links to blogs written by Johns Hopkins faculty and staff recounting their personal experiences in Haiti. I can tell you that the suffering they describe is devastating. Their joy at saving lives and sadness at losing them, overwhelming. And their determination to continue that work and help rebuild the area—to “build back better” as Rich Lamporte puts it—inspiring. No need to reorder those priorities.

Editor’s Note: Boom!

December 1, 2009  |  by Catherine Pierre  |  Add a comment

I read senior writer Michael Anft’s cover story, “Now What?”, with special interest. I say “read” rather than “edited” because I’ve spent the last three months on maternity leave. My particular interest in Mike’s story—a roundtable discussion among Johns Hopkins scholars contemplating the future—comes from a new mother’s suddenly profound investment in what lies ahead. I’m on the lookout for good news.

And I’m not alone. We’re in the midst of perhaps the biggest baby boom in history. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there were more babies born in the United States in 2007 than there were in 1957, the peak of the last baby boom. The economy is in the dumps, reports on the environment are abysmal, the world seems determined to blow itself up—and we’re making babies. What’s up?

Well, one sort of practical theory I’ve heard is that in an economic downturn, couples who can’t afford to go out entertain themselves indoors instead. A variation is that those couples are actually seeking solace in sex rather than a good time, but either way, it produces lots and lots of offspring. Another theory is more bleak, proposing that what the human race is doing is akin to a dying oak throwing acorns in a last-ditch effort to propagate the species. Yikes.

I’m going for something a little brighter because having a baby is all about irrational optimism. We look at our newborns and see promise, potential, a second chance—we messed up, but they’re going to do better. I like to think I’ve contributed to the next generation of problem solvers. Which is why, while reading “Now What?” I was encouraged not just by the fact that some very smart people are on the case, but that in the midst of their conversation about doom and gloom, mass migration, domestic terrorism, and falling governments, they so often return to the themes of hope, innovation, education, and a turning away from self-interest in favor of civic-mindedness. If the academics are optimistic, maybe we’ve got a chance.

Having made it back to work just in time to pen this editor’s note, I hope you’ll indulge me as I use the space to express my gratitude to two extraordinary groups of people: First there are the doctors and nurses at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center who delivered my beautiful, healthy daughter. Then, of course, there’s the magazine staff, led this issue by associate editor Dale Keiger. With help from consulting editor Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, not only did they put together a great issue, they made it possible for me to enjoy my leave without worry and to focus all of my attention on my new baby at home. Many, many thanks to all.

Editor’s Note: New For Fall

October 6, 2009  |  by Catherine Pierre  |  Add a comment

You may have noticed a slight adjustment on the cover of this issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine. It says “Fall” instead of “September”—the first indication of our change from a five-times-a-year magazine to a quarterly one. As I mentioned in my June editor’s note, that reduction is the result of our challenging economic times; it’s a decline of frequency but not, the staff and I are determined, of quality.

In fact, we took this opportunity to make a few upgrades. The biggest change you’ll see is the design of our two news sections, Wholly Hopkins in the front of the book and Alumni News and Notes in the back—both of which, I think, were overdue for a tuneup. Art director Shaul Tsemach, with help from designer Pam Li, did a beautiful job of freshening up those sections, giving them a cleaner, more contemporary look and creating a more pleasant reader experience. More importantly, the new design reflects the interaction of the two sections. We think of them as bookends—the former reporting campus news, the latter news about alumni and other friends of the university. The integration of their design better reflects that connection, while still maintaining each section’s identity.

You’ll see another change on the magazine’s back page—the introduction of a new regular feature called “How To.” With it, we plan to tap Johns Hopkins expertise, whether for practical, step-by-step advice, or for something more along the lines of “don’t try this at home”—like our debut installation, “How To: Wake Up a Sleeping Spacecraft,” about New Horizons’ annual checkup during its journey to Pluto. (I love illustrator Wesley Bedrosian’s whimsical interpretation of this not-so-whimsical subject.)

One thing about the magazine that hasn’t changed is the excellence of the writing—as demonstrated by a couple of awards the staff brought home this spring. Associate editor Dale Keiger won a silver medal in the CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) Circle of Excellence Awards for “Drugs vs. Bugs,” his February 2008 story about drug-resistant pathogensand Johns Hopkins’ work to fight them. And senior writer Michael Anft won a Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award for hisSeptember 2008 article “Of Mice and Medicine,” a comprehensive study of the research mouse. The DeBakey award recognizes journalism that adds to the public’s understanding of how humane and responsible animal research contributes to scientific discovery. Mike’s win put him in the company of journalists from CBS’s 60 Minutes, National Public Radio, and LA Weekly.

Congratulations, guys!