Riding the Gravitational Waves

Around 1.3 billion years ago, two orbiting black holes smashed into one another and set loose ripples in the fabric of space-time. These gravitational waves raced through the universe at the speed of light. Eventually, those rippling waves would set off a tiny shift in the distance between two pairs of mirrors monitored with laser beams at the heart of the underground Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). This triggered the 2015 announcement of the first observation of Albert Einstein’s predicted gravitational waves. 

It was the moment Emanuele Berti, a professor in the William H. Miller III Department of Physics and Astronomy, had been waiting for. Berti had been researching gravitational waves and working to merge that research with modern-day astronomy since his time as a physics student at the Sapienza University of Rome in the late 1990s. He was in a field where scientists had been trying unsuccessfully to detect gravitational waves since the 1950s. 

“It was life changing,” he says simply. “It’s the best feeling you could have— you know, my life was not in vain. And now let’s get as much science as we can out of this.” 

illustration of gravitational waves
This illustration shows the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other. In reality, the area near the black holes would appear highly warped, and the gravitational waves would be difficult to see directly. [Credit: R. Hurt, Caltech-IPAC]

Like the Plucking of a Guitar

Berti was recently awarded the 2023 American Physical Society’s Richard A. Isaacson Award in Gravitational-Wave Science for his work on black holes and gravitational waves. In addition to pioneering connections between physicists and astronomers who were working on gravitational-wave studies, Berti was one of the first people to explore in depth how to test the theory of general relativity using gravitational waves. He published a foundational paper for using LIGO to analyze black holes via spectroscopy. He also explored how to use gravitational waves to study the history of how stars evolve, form binary systems, turn into compact objects (such as neutron stars or black holes), and eventually merge. 

Gravitational waves occur when massive, accelerating bodies—such as black holes or neutron stars—orbit each other. Berti likens the waves they give off to the plucking of a guitar. But instead of hearing the oscillation of a string, you’re experiencing the oscillation of space time. 

And just as a musician can tell the shape and material of a drum from the sound of it being played, a scientist can determine the properties of an object from its gravitational waves. All black holes should give off identical gravitational waves because they are simple objects characterized only by their mass and rotation. Because black holes devour light and can only be observed by the behavior of the material swirling around them, gravitational-wave observations allow scientists to discover, for instance, whether a suspected black hole truly is a black hole—or some other type of astronomical object. 

“All black holes play the same music, and once we know the mass and the spin, all the tones each black hole plays have to be the same,” Berti says. 

Emanuele Berti

All black holes play the same music, and once we know the mass and the spin, all the tones each black hole plays have to be the same.”

—Emanuele Berti

A New Understanding

Knowledge about the role of gravitational waves in physics and astronomy will only increase as the future detectors and observatories come online. Berti is a member of the U.S. NASA study team contributing to the European Space Agency’s upcoming Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. It’s a trio of satellites that will detect gravitational waves from space, and he is working on the science case for the next generation of ground-based detectors. 

So far, LIGO evidence points to the black holes observed as being black holes—as Einstein thought. But gravitational waves aren’t just important because they tell us Einstein was right. They’re important because someday they might tell us Einstein was wrong. 

Einstein’s theory of general relativity has governed humanity’s understanding of gravity for decades. But mysteries like the presence of invisible dark matter and now dark energy—an unknown force speeding up the expansion of the universe—hint at possible flaws that could eventually pave the way to a new theory. If that happens, gravitational wave studies could be at the forefront. 

“The dream would be to break general relativity and maybe find clues to a new theory that will explain all these things,” Berti says. 

Uncovering the Myths of Leonardo 

Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of a man in red chalk
The portrait of a man in red chalk
(c. 1510) in the Royal Library of Turin is widely, though not universally, accepted as a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Art history professor Stephen J. Campbell has been teaching about Leonardo da Vinci for 20 years at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Throughout his academic career, he’s seen interest in the Italian Renaissance artist and inventor explode with the growing value of Leonardo’s work at auction houses, the fervor created by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and the boom in biographies that followed. 

At the same time, Campbell has observed with some trepidation how biographers have increasingly veered from verifiable fact into presumption. Sometimes, transforming the historic figure into an almost fictitious one. 

“With these invented Leonardos that have come down since the 1500s to the present time, writers liberally fill in the gaps with conjecture, and conjectures that build on conjecture,” says Campbell. The lack of historical rigor has troubled the historian, and he’s found it difficult to locate texts on Leonardo’s life suitable for sharing with his students. 

Pop Culture Problem

That’s why he decided to write Da Vinci Worlds: Towards an Anti-biography of Leonardo. The book explores the different ways Leonardo has been handled in 21st-century popular culture. It looks at how biographers make speculative psychological leaps to make him fit the mold of a 21st-century “genius”—an outsider figure, a bit obsessive, a social non-conformist. 

It is a problematic endeavor, says Campbell. As with most artists of the Renaissance, not much is known about the private life of Leonardo da Vinci, despite his numerous notebooks. “In them, Leonardo doesn’t tell us anything about himself. He doesn’t write about his own life,” says Campbell. “There’s very little biographical information. It doesn’t resolve into the holistic celebrity some of us want him to be.” 

Stephen Campbell

With these invented Leonardos that have come down since the 1500s to the present time, writers liberally fill in the gaps with conjecture, and conjectures that build on conjecture.” 

—Stephen J. Campbell

Leonardo’s writings were a critical component of Campbell’s research process. He finds himself constantly reminded of their power for the reader. “Every time you return to them, it’s extraordinary in the sense that you get multiple voices and multiple selves talking to each other,” says Campbell. “Leonardo is an intersection of maker, problem solver, engineer, painter, and someone who lays claim to the role of philosopher. Many of his academic contemporaries would not have agreed with that description.” 

That’s made more powerful because the texts were often written in the second person, as if speaking to the reader. Campbell thinks therein lies part of the reason many feel compelled to flesh out the missing details of his life. “People think something has been whispered to them, some kind of mystery has been divulged,” he says. 

Ethics of the Past

Campbell says we tend to view Leonardo through a modern lens and risk turning him into something he’s not. “Our models of biography right now didn’t exist in Leonardo’s time,” he says. We invent “da Vincis” to fit the mold of contemporary celebrity—to be the equivalent of a tech visionary like Steve Jobs, to be an isolated and persecuted gay man, to suffer from attention deficit disorder, or to precociously be a vegan. 

By highlighting these tendencies in his book—which is expected to go into production this fall—Campbell hopes readers will realize how Leonardo has been repurposed to fit current interests. 

“There’s a whole ethics of approaching the past that I want people to confront while reading this book,” says Campbell. He also hopes his book serves as a caution to future biographers. “Be aware of when you are projecting and know how to signal that in your writing. Be very self-conscious about when you are doing that and why you need to do it.” 

A Game Theory Strategy to Fight Political Gridlock

Anyone who follows the news—and cares about the health of our planet —can understand Ying Chen’s focus. 

The associate professor in the Department of Economics couldn’t help but notice that environmental regulations enacted under one U.S. presidential administration were often reversed by the subsequent one. That made progress difficult, to say the least. 

“Just in the last two terms, [President Donald] Trump reversed a lot of environmental regulation when he was in power,” she says. “And then when [President Joseph] Biden came to power, he reversed the reverses.” 

Chen chose to investigate the challenges of an elected official who is committed to long-term goals and aware of policymaker turnover. She applied her expertise in game theory to identify a sensible long-term strategy that acknowledged the political realities. Her efforts, to date, suggest that leaders can improve their effectiveness—even against intense political opposition—by focusing on investments in innovations. 

“If you innovate and lower the cost of green options, the newfound incentives to go green will persist even if you are subsequently out of power,” she says. 

Games for a Complex System

Chen came to the United States from China to earn a PhD in economics from Yale University. While there, she developed an interest in game theory. Game theory is the idea of creating mathematical models of strategic interactions between rational agents. 

The economy, she says, “is such a complex system, with so many different interdependent components. I liked the challenge of coming up with a relatively rigorous way of thinking about the interactions.” 

[The economy] is such a complex system, with so many different interdependent components. I liked the challenge of coming up with a relatively rigorous way of thinking about the interactions.” 

—Ying Chen

After an appointment at Arizona State University, she joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2014. Some of her previous research has focused on the nuances of strategic communication and budget negotiations. 

She plans to submit the paper, titled “Irreversible Investment in Technology and the Dynamics of Public Good Provision,” for publication this summer. Though it uses environmental policies as an example, her idea applies to many other public goods, she says. 

Seeing Payoffs

Stepping back from mathematical modeling, Ying sees support for her theory in both the substantial gains in government-supported green innovations, and in the growth of public support, once the general public came to appreciate the payoffs of such efforts. Case in point: Wind and solar tax credits have persisted through several changes in power in Washington. 

In 2012, President Obama wanted to extend the credits, first enacted in 1992. Many members of the Republican-controlled Congress were opposed. They did not want to give Obama a win, and they did not support a market intervention that favored clean energy. Despite these political obstacles, the credit extension won approval. A few years later, during negotiations of the Republican tax reform in 2017, a rollback of the credits was brought up, but they were largely preserved in the end. 

Chen’s research offers an explanation: Those tax credits, combined with new technologies, were starting to deliver real cost savings. Reversing those advances is just about impossible, no matter which way the political winds blow. 

Protecting the Coral Reefs of Cuba

The Remarkable Reefs of Cuba book

When you go to the beach and look out on the ocean, the sensations are of a serene vista that stretches to the horizon and beyond. But that’s not the case for David Guggenheim, because he knows what’s under those waters. 

Guggenheim, who puts on scuba gear the way most slip into a jacket, has spent decades watching the devastation and destruction that has gone on beneath the waves. He has seen species disappear both from overfishing and mysterious environmental causes; he has seen canyon-like scars along delicate reefs gouged by the weights of huge trawling nets; he has seen a surfeit of nutrients from the runoff of fertilizer and excrement—animal and human— feed algae that blots out the sun; he has seen waters warmed by climate change bring about myriad shifts in the undersea world; most of all, he has seen the spectacularly beautiful coral reefs that he first encountered as a teenager virtually disappear in his lifetime. 

And he has written a book about it. What’s surprising is that the message Guggenheim wants to deliver is one of hope. “It’s not too late” is what this adjunct professor in Johns Hopkins’ Advanced Academic Programs tells readers in The Remarkable Reefs of Cuba: Hopeful Stories From the Ocean Doctor

How the Reefs of Cuba are Different

The title of the book is a bit misleading. Certainly, it does tell a remarkable story about coral reefs off Cuba. But that is really only one part of a book that is everything from an autobiography of a life spent in service to the world’s oceans—he’s former vice president of the Ocean Conservancy and founded the nonprofit Ocean Doctor—to a very accessible explanation of the delicate balance required to maintain undersea ecosystems, to a history of post-Castro Cuba’s politics and agriculture, to an at times hilarious explication of the Kafka-like bureaucracies one encounters as a U.S. citizen trying to work in Cuba. 

Those frustrations were worth it because of what Guggenheim found off Cuba’s coast, he says. It was coral of the type that he first saw as a teenager at a marine education center in the Florida Keys called Seacamp that spawned a number of marine scientists like Guggenheim, who went on to get a PhD from George Mason University. One of the common experiences there was painful: stepping on the spines of a black sea urchin called a Diadema. They were ubiquitous on coral reefs in the Caribbean and then, mysteriously, they disappeared, taking with them their ability to clean those reefs of algae.

That was only one of many indignities suffered by these reefs in recent decades, their decline not only robbing divers and snorkelers of an incomparable aesthetic experience, but also fish of breeding grounds, coastlines of protection from storms, and oceans of a key component of their ecosystem. Which is why it was stunning when Guggenheim found seemingly pristine coral off the coast of Cuba, where he has traveled over 100 times in the last two decades, spending a total of more than two years there. 

David Guggenheim

We’ve helped the Cubans be proud of their healthy reefs, with good reason to show them off to the rest of the world, something important for a nation very conscious of their magnified presence on the international stage.” 

—David Guggenheim

How to Build on Success

The reason those reefs survive is a complicated story involving international politics, in particular the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which supported Cuba’s economy for three decades after Fidel Castro took over in 1959. The simple version: without that support, Cuba’s farmers could not afford fertilizer, instead growing beautiful organic crops. With no fertilizer running off into the Caribbean, the reefs were not choked with algae and flourished as in days of old. On his dives—one with Anderson Cooper for a story on 60 Minutes—Guggenheim has seen reefs flourishing even in warming waters that have bleached them in other parts of the world. 

Bottom line: Cuba has shown us what is possible. That’s the hopeful message of The Remarkable Reefs of Cuba. Guggenheim knows the situation is fragile. The loss of Soviet support led to what’s called the Special Period in Cuba, an underreported time of incredible deprivation. An improving economy could bring back industrial-style agriculture that would be bad news for the reefs. But Guggenheim has come across many Cubans who don’t want to spoil what they have. 

“The key is to help them build on all the successes they’ve had so they don’t follow our example and destroy those reefs,” he says, noting the potentially huge economic impact of tourism that a pristine ecology can bring. “I think we’ve helped the Cubans be proud of their healthy reefs, with good reason to show them off to the rest of the world, something important for a nation very conscious of their magnified presence on the international stage.” 

Seeing Ancient Color

It’s easy to assume that color is color. That the way we see blue, for example, is the same way people saw it 100, 500, or 2,000 years ago. 

But that’s not true, says archaeological conservator and museum researcher Sanchita Balachandran. The way we see, experience, and think about color is deeply influenced by our own culture. And if we can transcend the point of view we’re used to, color can become a visceral, sensory window into a world that often feels too far in the past for genuine connections. 

Balachandran, director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and associate teaching professor, created a course called Ancient Color: The Technologies and Meanings of Color in Antiquity. Through hands-on work with ancient objects from the museum’s Eton Collection, students discover how color was created and used and what it meant. They utilized current imaging techniques along with readings about ancient objects and sites and recent scientific analyses of colorful materials found on them. 

“Color is such an integral part of many people’s experience of the world. It is an index by which people make sense of how the world is organized,” Balachandran says. “It’s not just about the visual properties of color, but all of these other sensory experiences and cultural associations that came along with color.” 

Egyptian funery masks
At left, Egyptian funerary mask of a woman, c. 30 BCE–395 CE, on loan to the Hopkins Archaeological Museum from the Eton College Myers Collection. At right, the same object in ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence reveals the presence of both ancient and modern interventions. The bright pink is madder lake, a rosy tint that was applied in antiquity to make the depiction more lifelike. The ghostly white is evidence of a modern adhesive that was applied to keep the ancient pigment from flaking off. [Photos: Jennifer Mikes]

Reimagine Ancient Statues

The snowy white statues we often see in museums may lead us to believe that their creators worked within a mostly monochrome world. But recently, scholars have pointed out that the objects appear white only because the paints and dyes that once adorned them have worn away or been purposely removed. Modern imaging technology brings researchers a little closer to how the objects were meant to be experienced. 

In class, small groups of students bend over painted plaster funerary portraits, analyzing how the surfaces were prepared and what inlaid stones and glass, paints, and coatings the artists might have used. The information offers evidence of artistic intention and choice, which can indicate which workshop produced which piece and help to trace where the materials came from, revealing the trade networks that made them available. By the end of the semester, the students will add their original findings to the museum’s online database. 

“It’s just been awesome realizing that no one has done the same type of research on any of these objects,” says Kendra Brewer, a junior majoring in history of art and Spanish. 

Brewer’s group studied a female mummy mask from 2nd-century Roman Egypt. Such a funerary mask was a likeness of the person inside the coffin it rested atop, serving as a connection between this world and the realm of the divine; mourners understood the mask to actually be the person, with the ability to communicate with the living. After experimenting with pigments and binders themselves, the students used ultraviolet and infrared light sources to study the characteristics of the mask’s materials, discovering evidence of painted earrings and a life-like skin tone. 

Using Science to Consider Art

Such results require interdisciplinary thinking and tapping into knowledge and techniques more common in fields including chemistry and materials science—all part of Balachandran’s goal for the course. 

“That’s what I really want the students to see, that staying in your siloed discipline only gets you so far,” Balachandran says. “Students are gathering evidence that no one else has seen since antiquity, but it’s messy—there is a lot of different information to try to make sense of. But that’s the reality of real research, sitting with things that don’t fit together easily and figuring out hypotheses with a team of equally curious people. And the magical part is when that dedicated inquiry brings the ancient world and its people alive again.” 

Books to Read in Spring 2023

Advanced Organice Chemistry book cover

Advanced Organic Chemistry: Reactions and Synthesis

“I appreciate reading differing histories, especially those promoting narratives that challenge my own pre-existing notions. My summer reading will consist of the shoddy scholarship (as opined by critics) in the older A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ more recent The 1619 Project. In contrast, my current read is Advanced Organic Chemistry: Reactions and Synthesis, a seminal work by Francis Carey and Richard Sundberg that I have not engaged with since my undergraduate days. I currently lead Honors Organic Chemistry, and my students push me to really dig deep!”

John Tovar

John D. Tovar

Master Slave Husband Wife book cover

Master Slave Husband Wife

“I am reading Master Slave Husband Wife by Ilyon Woo. It’s a fascinating true story about two remarkable human beings (Ellen and William Craft) who escaped slavery through sheer daring and determination. In 1848, Ellen, a light-skinned Black woman, disguised herself as a wealthy, sickly, young white man. Her husband accompanies Ellen as an enslaved man, tending to his “master’s” needs. The suspenseful emancipation story takes readers on a journey across more than 5,000 miles from bondage in Georgia to the free states of the North to England. It is a story about love, humanity, cruelty, and resilience. It is thrilling but also forces deep introspection.” 

Jerry Burgess

Jerry Burgess
Associate Teaching Professor
Earth and Planetary Sciences

On Beauty book cover

On Beauty

“Zadie Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, is a loose retelling of E.M. Forster’s Howards End. While I’d read both novels before, I recently read them back-to-back for the first time. Forster and Smith are very different writers, yet both are incisive, funny, and willing to take on complicated questions about class and gender roles (and, in Smith’s case, race). Smith builds off of elements of Forster’s story—each novel contains an unexpected inheritance, a fateful meeting at a concert, an engagement announcement that has to be hastily retracted—but Forster’s plot works as a springboard for Smith, not a map. Both books are wonderful on their own, but even more rewarding is to read the two in conversation with each other.” 

Katharine Noel

Katharine Noel
Associate Teaching Professor
The Writing Seminars

Minimizing Wildfire Damage

In her freshman year of high school in North Carolina, Nandita Balaji and her classmates were stuck inside because of smoke from distant forest fires. She was surprised how far the smoke traveled, but more surprised at how few solutions she found when researching wildfire protection. An idea was born. Balaji and three of her friends started InfernoGuard, a wildfire early detection and warning system, as part of a high school science project. They turned that project into a real venture in 2020, while completing a remote first year of college. 

Now a junior at Hopkins majoring in neuroscience and computer science, Balaji is COO of InfernoGuard, which aims to provide landowners in remote, fire-prone locations with prompt notification of wildfire risk to minimize damage and protect property. The wildfire assessment software is launching this year, serving businesses like lumber companies and national parks. 

“There are a million ways to pick at a step in the problem that is wildfires,” Balaji says. “I really resonate with the mission that this one small step could address fires across the globe.” 

A Growing Startup

The startup now has more than 15 employees at four universities. Balaji runs the business side from Johns Hopkins. This includes marketing, writing funding applications, and attending pitch competitions and national disaster conferences. The work has taken her to California, where she met with firefighters including the fire chief of Yosemite National Park. Last year she won a $100,000 grand prize from the Arizona State University Innovation Open, which funded further testing of the software and hardware. 

Part of the company’s success is due to support and resources from entrepreneurial offices at these universities, including FastForwardU (FFU) at JHU. Balaji participated in Fuel, a nine-week accelerator program for companies scaling their ventures, and the summer incubator, which gives students a six-week co-working experience with other student entrepreneurs. She’s also been a Commercialization Academy fellow at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, is a researcher at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, and is a member of the JHU Tutorial Project and JHU Ballet Company. 

“There’s nothing quite like the process of building a startup,” Balaji says. “Being at a place like Hopkins, where double majoring in neuroscience and computer science is not unheard of… it’s great to be in this environment where everyone wants to learn, and grow, and do some transformative work.” 

Yosemite and Beyond

The work is just beginning. Balaji and her partners are continuing to scale their risk analysis platform. Yosemite has been a key testing location. Balaji saw patches of burnt trees every few miles on a recent trip to the park, with smoke in the distance. Her goal is to reinvent wildfire response in the long term, she says, hopefully bringing the United States one step closer to eradicating megafires. 

Right the Wrongs of Mass Incarceration

Sometimes a single class lights a path forward for academic and professional pursuits. For Ava Levine, this class was Introduction to Police and Prisons, taught in fall 2020 by Stuart Schrader, associate research professor in the Department of Sociology. 

Levine had come to college with a broad interest in social justice issues and Schrader’s course opened her eyes to mass incarceration—the perpetuation of economic and racial injustice through the disproportionate imprisonment of racial minorities. A particular topic in the class that galvanized Levine was how women are impacted by being incarcerated—not only as incarcerated people and previously incarcerated people, but also as mothers, caregivers, and partners. 

“My interest really started to intensify at the intersection of mass incarceration and gender,” says Levine, a senior majoring in international studies and economics. “This is a topic that doesn’t get the attention it warrants.” 

Focusing on Women

Following through on this interest, Levine successfully applied for a grant from the Gender and Racial Justice Scholars Awards program at Johns Hopkins. Her research proposal—developed with Schrader’s assistance—centered on assessing the life experiences of women after incarceration in Maryland. 

Initially as part of her research, Levine also began volunteering with the Maryland Justice Project (MJP). A nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 2013 by Monica Cooper, a formerly incarcerated woman, MJP helps build support for legislation to aid those previously incarcerated. One such effort is “Ban the Box,” passed first in Baltimore and then across Maryland, limiting when employers and housing providers can ask applicants about past criminal records. 

Research to Internship

Inspired by the group’s work, Levine joined as an intern in April 2021. She has since helped MJP advocate for two new pieces of legislation. One has called for judges to consider alternatives to incarceration for women who are primary caretakers for children and elderly parents, while the other enables women who give birth while incarcerated to temporarily stay with their infants at special correctional facilities. 

Through MJP connections, Levine met with six formerly incarcerated women. These study participants described their challenges reentering society, including finding jobs and reconnecting with family members. “The women I spoke with shared so much,” says Levine, “and by working for MJP, I have tried to give back to them and their communities.” 

After graduation, Levine plans to take a gap year before applying to law school. She intends to be an ally to women, especially women of color, in righting the wrongs of mass incarceration. 

“Professor Schrader is the best professor I have ever had, and Monica is the most passionate advocate I have ever met,” says Levine. “These individuals have inspired me to make a positive difference.” 

Reining in Gun Violence

When the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting unfolded in 2012, Kobi Khong was just 10 years old. He remembers watching on TV as law enforcement led children out of the school with their eyes covered so they wouldn’t see their murdered classmates. 

Having been made grimly aware of the pervasive gun violence in American society, Khong sought a way to stem the horror. “We’ve kept seeing this constant news cycle of terrible tragedies and gun violence, and I felt like I needed to do something,” says Khong, a junior majoring in public health studies. “Now being here at Johns Hopkins, I feel like I have a chance to do so.” 

Gun Violence Solutions

Through the Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Khong is contributing to a variety of projects aimed at preventing gun violence. Under the mentorship of Shannon Frattaroli, professor of health policy and management, Khong first worked on a team studying Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) in Maryland. Known as “red flag laws,” ERPOs serve as temporary means of preventing firearm possession for people who present credible threats of harm to themselves or others. He later processed a dataset for ERPO usage in California. Using qualitative data from police filings, Khong sorted data and assigned descriptive labels to help researchers assess implementation of ERPO policies. 

Khong subsequently started a long-term solo project centered on shootings by police, under Cassandra Crifasi, associate professor of health policy and management at the Bloomberg School. Another related project Khong is pursuing involves compiling studies for a literature review focused on firearm use in road rage incidents. 

Keeping up the Work

Khong says the research experiences have been rewarding, though at times emotionally arduous. But the passion of his mentors and fellow students keeps him going. “The amazing thing at Johns Hopkins is that when I’ve looked up faculty to see if I can work with them, it turns out they are the preeminent person in the country, or even the world, who does this research,” says Khong. “I am studying under the best of the best.” 

After graduation, Khong intends to initially work in public service to help stem gun violence at the community level. Khong is then looking ahead to a possible dual master’s degree in public health and public policy, ultimately bridging academic analysis with policymaking’s imprint. 

“Once you have helpful research findings, how do you advocate for them?” Khong asks. “I want to learn about all the different aspects of bringing about real societal change.” 

Community from Film 

Cierra Gladden says there is space for everybody in film. There’s always something to learn regardless of your background, interests, or skills, and she’s dedicated to creating more opportunities in the field for people of color. That’s why the film and media studies junior is so proud of her first film short, “Sundown”; the community that helped her create it; and the way she learned to trust her collaborators. 

“The moment I step on set and I’m making a film, it’s no longer mine,” she says. “It’s all of ours. ‘Sundown’ was a labor of love for all of us.” 

The film short is a coming-of-age thriller about Mikey, a young Black man dealing with unresolved trauma. Teenaged Mikey stays out late one night against his mother’s orders and encounters something horrifying. The film follows him to early adulthood as he struggles with the emotional fallout of the incident. Gladden came up with the idea for the short in her Introduction to Scriptwriting class. She wanted to write about what frightens people the most: reality. 

A Scary Story about Mental Health

She constructed the script around genuine fears people of color face in their daily lives. She pulled inspiration from filmmaker Jordan Peele, as well as from sundown towns. Towns where Black people have historically not been welcome after dark. But as she refined the story with her crew, cast, and advisor, senior lecturer Meredith Ward, “Sundown” evolved into a story about mental health in Black men. 

“It comes from a personal place of wanting to tell a narrative about mental health and trauma within the Black community. I worked to inject this story within the medium of thriller/suspense to make for a relatable, yet engaging, viewing experience,” she says. 

Finding the right actors and shooting a movie set at dusk turned out to be ambitious. Gladden had three months to plan after winning grants from student film organization Studio North and the Hopkins Office for Undergraduate Research. The cast of “Sundown” is made up of primarily Black people, and two actors portraying Mikey at different ages. Her community helped again: of the six actors, one is Krieger School lecturer Jamie Young, and one is her cousin.

The Communal Process

The whole short was shot locally, including at friends’ and family members’ houses. She was especially grateful for the opportunity to work with and learn from non-student cast members. For example, the actor who played young Mikey. It was a different creative process, she says, to understand who he was as an actor, and to see his dedication to the craft. 

“I was so happy to have a predominately Black cast and a crew that was extremely diverse and extremely collaborative,” she says. “I very much value collaboration, diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also just taking space and making space for other people.” 

After months of editing and crowdfunding, Gladden says it was a joy to stand on the Parkway Theatre’s red carpet with her crew at the film release. She hopes this is just one step on her path to working as a creative executive at a production company or owning her own. She wants to create more stories of people of color, by people of color, and support a new generation of beautifully crafted independent films. 

Five Questions with Rachelle Hernandez, Student Affairs

Rachel Hernandez

Rachelle Hernandez became vice provost for student affairs in spring 2022 following more than 25 years in higher education. Hernandez oversees a broad portfolio including student life and leadership development, the Center for Social Concern, the Center for Student Success, housing and community living, dining, athletics and recreation, and student conduct. 

What common thread runs through your work? 

We approach everything from a student success lens, which allows us to tie together academic, extracurricular, and co-curricular success. When students feel like they’re part of the community with a strong sense of belonging, everything else works that much better. Take the example of Dining Services: Having food that’s healthy and honors students’ cultural identities makes students feel a part of the community, so Dining Services’ theme is cultural authenticity. Food that is familiar can be really important to helping a student feel like they’re at home. They go on to class and feel like, “This is my university.” 

How do you balance building foundations for students with crisis management? 

When we put energy into removing friction for students, clearing the runway, that helps reduce issues later on. We keep student development at our core, teaching students how to deal with the unexpected, while ensuring there are systems in place to support them. One of the strongest skills we can instill is how to ask for help—no one gets through life by themselves. 

Are Hopkins students different from other students you’ve worked with? 

They care very deeply about each other. When you talk with a student group, they bring up other groups and how they can collaborate and find mutual benefits. They’re interested in their own goals, but they’re always thinking about others as well: “It’s not just my thing, it’s what does this mean in the world? And how do I help make it mean something?” 

What was life like for you as an undergraduate? 

I grew up in a very small town— Cannon Falls, Minnesota—so I participated in a lot of different activities, because things didn’t happen unless everyone participated. That translated, when I went to college, that being a part of the campus meant being engaged. I was a Pell grant student [for students with exceptional financial need], and now I get to work with others to make sure that students don’t have to struggle to find community and support. 

Is there an experience you had as a student that shapes your approach? 

A professor did something that will stick with me forever. In a large lecture class, he took a picture of everybody, and by the second week he knew everyone’s name. That taught me the importance of feeling seen. He conveyed that our ideas mattered, so he helped to form my interest in the scholarship of academic belonging and identity, without my even knowing it at the time. 

Why JHU Students Love Earth and Planetary Sciences

The Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins offers two majors: Earth and planetary sciences, or environmental science and studies.

“Earth and planetary sciences is a scientific scavenger hunt. We use evidence from isotope chemistry, microbe and fossil biology, planetary observations, and mathematical modeling to uncover the histories of Earth, the moon, Mars, and other planets. I’ll never run out of questions to ask about the beautiful places I get to see.” 
Rachel Miller ’23, Earth and planetary Sciences Major 

“Environmental science and studies touches on every realm of science and has taught me so much about how everything we do impacts the environment. I love the community we’ve been able to build between students and faculty over the last four years. I also think the major is so important because not only do we deal with pressing issues like climate change, but we also look for solutions in almost everything we do.” 
Emmett Novick ’23, environmental Science and Studies Major

“Earth and planetary sciences is a fascinating interdisciplinary major that allows me to learn about the natural processes and materials that shape life on Earth as well as the workings of the universe through different scientific perspectives. What I study can feel so relevant and attributable to my own existence on our planet, while also continuing to be thought-provoking and curiosity-inspiring when I am learning about subjects that are, quite literally, out of this world.” 
Lily Kim ’25, Earth and Planetary Sciences Major

“My freshman year, I took an environmental science and studies class for fun because I cared about the Earth but didn’t know how I could turn that passion into a career. I quickly fell in love with the program and took it on as my major. That decision has changed my life, and allowed me to work in research labs, nonprofits, and a global sustainability department, all while studying something I am incredibly passionate about.” 
Emily Huang Javedan ’23, Environmental Science and Studies Major