Like many of America’s top universities in the late 1980s, Johns Hopkins School of Arts and Sciences, as it was known then, was faced with severe economic challenges. But in the fall of 1992, Zanvyl Krieger ’28 pledged $50 million to the school’s endowment and challenged supporters of the liberal arts at Hopkins to match his donation. At the time, it was the largest gift made to the university.
At a news conference to announce the gift, Krieger characterized the School of Arts and Sciences as “the nucleus of the university.” Hopkins’ then-President William C. Richardson concurred, adding that arts and sciences is “that part of Johns Hopkins that makes us a university, that brings us all together…the disciplines it teaches are the foundations of all others.” It is a place, Richardson continued, where students and faculty “grapple with the most basic questions about who and what we are as human beings and about why our universe exists as it does.”
This year, we commemorate the 25th anniversary of Zanvyl Krieger’s gift, and the subsequent naming of the School of Arts and Sciences after him, by celebrating the intellectual and life-changing work and discoveries undertaken in the Krieger School. In honor of the occasion, we share 25 of the many important questions our scholars have been exploring—and their sometimes surprising findings.
1. What’s the state of marriage in American society today?
It largely depends on your educational status, says Andrew Cherlin, the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy in the Department of Sociology. “To be a good prospect as a husband you have to have steady earnings,” he says. But given contemporary economic challenges, “very few of any demographic without a college degree are good providers.” This has led to short-term relationships that produce children, but don’t last, he notes. In contrast, “college graduates are getting married later and waiting until after marriage to have children. Their divorce rates are going down. The divorce rate for college graduates is 1 in 3. For less educated people, it’s 1 in 2.”
2. How do babies learn best?
That’s at the heart of research being conducted by cognitive scientist Lisa Feigenson and her colleagues in the Laboratory for Child Development. Among other findings, they’ve concluded that the element of surprise is key. In experiments with preverbal 11-month-olds, in which a ball was rolled down a ramp and appeared to pass—as if by magic—through a wall, the babies wanted to learn more about the ball, which had defied their expectations. “When babies are surprised, they learn much better, as though they are taking the occasion to try to figure something out about their world,” says Feigenson, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
3. What does it mean to be human?
That’s the million-dollar question that frames the academic inquiries of Yulia Frumer, the Bo Jung and Soon Young Kim Professor of East Asian Science and Technology. The native of Tallinn, Estonia—who is also fluent in English, Hebrew, Russian, and Japanese—studies the development of science and technology in Japan. She’s currently researching the development of Japanese humanoid robotics, focusing on how ideas of humanity (or human-ness) affect technological design. Says Frumer, “I argue that it is essential to consider factors such as roboticists’ non-engineering training, their engagement with science fiction and animation, their views on Buddhism and Western philosophy, and their perceived mission as educators, among the forces that shape their design of human-like machines.”
4. Is the study of the humanities still relevant?
Nothing is more important than studying the humanities, says Gabrielle Spiegel, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of History. “Anyone who says ‘no one ever died of the humanities’ has not thought much about what happens when states claim the right to define what humanity is, or who is good and evil, and therefore justify movements like ethnic cleansing,” she says. “I can’t think of anything more important than reaffirming the intrinsic humanity of all peoples, however different ethnically, religiously, politically, or even medically. The great and abiding task of the humanities is to cultivate appreciation for the immense variety of ways that peoples and societies live and think.”
5. Is it possible to rise above our upbringing?
For the poorest of our society, the answer is rarely, according to research conducted by Karl Alexander, the John Dewey Professor Emeritus of Sociology, and colleagues over more than 25 years. Beginning in the late 1980s, the researchers began following 790 Baltimore children growing up in a variety of neighborhoods. Over the years, they continued interviews and collected a mountain of data. Ultimately they found that contrary to the popular American narrative—that all have equal access to opportunity as long as they are willing to work hard—the vast majority of those born in poverty stay there.
6. Why does Jane Austen continue to be so popular, even now in the 21st century?
Mary Favret, professor in the Department of English, says it is helpful to track not only moments when Austen’s works are popular, but also the alternating desires they fulfill. “Austen’s place and value are firmly set,” she says, “but that ‘classic’ status obscures the often conflicting messages readers find in her novels.” Austen’s fiction has been used to shore up a sense of “pure Englishness” and to skewer English norms; as recipes for heterosexual romance and a haven for queer fantasies; as resource for both feminism and conventional femininity; as retreat into an all-white world or a text that welcomes adaptations, hybrids, and mash-ups. “Austen balances the promises of romance with a scalpel-like irony. Readers believe that they’re on the right side of the irony, in the special club who ‘get’ Austen. Though wildly different, those special clubs never stop forming.”
7. Can moving to a new neighborhood lift urban families out of poverty?
Since the early 2000s, sociologist Stefanie DeLuca has studied the long-term impact of programs in urban Chicago and Baltimore that help residents move from low-income, high-crime urban neighborhoods to those with lower crime and better schools. Work by DeLuca and her students converges with growing evidence that escaping neighborhood poverty increases the chance that poor children will enroll in college and that parents will experience improvements in mental health. “The families I’ve spoken to have remarked on the way that children respond to going to better schools, and how much happier they are. Parents tell me that they have more ‘peace of mind’ when they live somewhere where they don’t feel under siege all the time. Over time people say, ‘I never knew it could be like this.’” DeLuca is the James Coleman Professor of Sociology and Social Policy.
8. How did “redlining” contribute to black poverty in urban America?
In his book A World More Concrete, historian N.D.B. Connolly shows how the institutionalized discriminatory practice of redlining facilitated the creation of predatory housing markets in which African Americans paid exorbitant prices for substandard housing. Through analysis of 20th-century maps of Baltimore as part of the nationwide Mapping Inequality Project, Connolly also found that “the [redlining] maps challenge the narrative that healthy, thriving neighborhoods declined because of rioting in the 1960s or indolence. What they actually suggest is that these Baltimore neighborhoods were always struggling, but more opportunities were given to white immigrants to get out. These are not places that have ‘gone downhill.’ Rather, they are places that were always full of environmental hazards, always considered poor and getting worse, and also the only option available to black families due to housing discrimination.” Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor in the Department of History.
9. How do we know what happened at the beginning of the universe?
A team led by astrophysicist Charles Bennett, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, is pushing to find out. “When we look at the beginning of the universe, we’re looking at light coming to us from 13.8 billion years ago,” says Bennett. “The telescope we built here at Hopkins called CLASS (Cosmology Large-Angular Scale Surveyor), located in Chile, is measuring that light in large swaths of the sky. And we have had students involved in every step of building and operating this telescope. We’re gathering data that will tell us what happened at the beginning of the universe.”
10. Can bats help us understand the human brain?
Yes, indeed, says Cynthia Moss, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “We can learn general principles about spatial perception, attention, and memory by looking at how bats behave in their natural environment,” explains Moss. “In our bat lab, one big question is: How do bats use echolocation, which is a kind of biological sonar, to build ‘pictures’ of their surroundings? What we learn from bats can help us understand how mammalian brains—including the human brain—process, analyze, and interpret information from the environment. This research could eventually be used to advance technologies in fields like automated navigation and sound recognition.”
11. Besides its rings, what makes the planet Saturn unique?
Before the Cassini mission, we had only brief glimpses of what Saturn was like. Beginning in 2004 and ending this year, Cassini gave us the first in-depth study of Saturn and its system of rings and moons. Darrell Strobel, professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the Cassini Mission Orbiter Interdisciplinary Scientist for Aeronomy and Solar Wind Interaction, is analyzing and interpreting the data that has been gathered about Saturn. He says that some of the most fascinating discoveries are coming from Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, providing scientists a look at what the early Earth’s prebiotic atmosphere might have been like before life evolved. Titan’s nitrogen atmosphere contains a large suite of organic molecules and nitriles, with methane being the condensable analog to water on Earth. “It rains to sculpt the surface and fills lakes on Titan’s polar surfaces, which are more frigid than Antarctica,” he says. “Titan is a present-day natural laboratory for understanding chemical evolution in Earth’s early atmosphere.”
12. Are other democracies besides the United States struggling with immigration issues?
Yes. Erin Chung, the Charles D. Miller Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, has been researching immigration in three East Asian democracies: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. All three countries have experienced severe labor shortages due to rapid economic growth, low birth rates, and a growing elderly population. The countries have had to (reluctantly) open their borders but are now struggling with issues such as exploitation of workers, unincorporated foreign communities, and human rights. “Democratic principles can be compromised in the process of controlling immigration,” says Chung. “Diversity entails struggle.”
13. How can we plan to prevent the most severe consequences of climate extremes?
Climatologist Benjamin Zaitchik uses a combination of climate and surface modeling and satellite imaging data to develop a realistic picture of how the hydrologic cycle is evolving and to predict what will drive changes in the future. Zaitchik’s work, which is largely interdisciplinary, spans the globe—from determining the effect of climate variability on the water balance in the Nile River Basin to working with environmental engineers to study how evolving climate patterns influence water quality and sediment delivery in the Chesapeake Bay. “There will always be uncertainty,” says Zaitchik, an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, “but better information about the likelihood of these changes will allow us to plan ahead and be resilient to changes when they arrive.”
14. Can poetry remain relevant in today’s technological world?
“The internet has been a very good friend to poetry,” says poet and writer Sir Andrew Motion. “In fact, you can accurately say there are more people reading poetry now than ever before in the history of the human race.” As poet laureate of the United Kingdom, Motion partnered with sound engineer Richard Carrington to create The Poetry Archive, an online library of poetry, recordings of English-language authors reading their works, and educational tools for the teaching and studying of poetry. Established in 2005, the archive is accessed monthly by 300,000 people who listen to nearly 2 million pages of poetry. Says Motion: “Poetry has as much to do with acoustics as it does with definitions. Sound itself is an emotionally charged thing, even if it doesn’t ‘mean’ anything…But since the invention of the book, much as I love books, the printed page has tended to sideline the acoustic existence of poems. And [the Poetry Archive has] helped reestablish that.” Motion is Homewood Professor of the Arts in The Writing Seminars.
15. What do we gain by turning our attention to lesser-known African-American writers?
Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History Lawrence Jackson says doing “excavation work” for African-American studies, history, and literature is extremely valuable. “Very few of the narratives of African-American history for the 20th century—especially in terms of literary and cultural figures—have been written,” he says. “So we are having the inauguration of a large body of historical scholarship that puts in place different and very important literary and cultural movements. We have a lot of work to do in the middle of the 20th century between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, so I’m trying to work in the 1940s and ‘50s, and some in the ‘30s and the ‘60s, so we can have a robust literary and intellectual period that stands in the middle of the 20th century.”
16. How can bacteria be harnessed to fight sexually transmitted infections in women?
Around the world, most women harbor bacteria in their vaginas that markedly increase the risks of HIV and other major sexually transmitted infections—as well as the risk of preterm births, notes Richard Cone, professor emeritus of biophysics. He and his colleagues turned to probiotics to boost levels of “good” vaginal bacteria (lactobacilli), which appear to acidify the vagina and fend off the “bad” bacteria. Even better, the probiotic approach also kills the bacteria associated with premature birth and upper tract infections. “A probiotic approach that enables more women to have healthy vaginal lactobacilli is likely to have a major impact on women’s sexual and reproductive health,” says Cone, who joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1969.
17. What drives people to have negative body images and multiple plastic surgeries?
Bernadette Wegenstein, professor of media studies and author of The Cosmetic Gaze: Body Modification and the Construction of Beauty, says body modifications are about giving the impression of always being ready to be reborn as a new person, a better person. She says that the desire to modify creates a new standard of beauty that must then be met and exceeded, in a cycle that requires continuous assessments of perceived physical flaws, and ongoing financial, emotional, and time investments to change them. “The commoditization of an act like going under the knife is linked with the consumption of the images and stories of magical transformations that the media slingshots at us,” she says.
18. How can we decrease the high school dropout rate among low-income African-American males?
The research of Nicholas Papageorge, the Broadus Mitchell Assistant Professor of Economics, examines education gaps between blacks and whites, showing, for example, that economically disadvantaged black males are far more likely to graduate high school if they have a black teacher during elementary school. “I hope to use this research to influence policy to encourage more young people to realize their full potential,” he says. “I’m interested in the idea that some people are not attaining the right amount of education and under-investing in their own human capital. As an economist, I know that high school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, to collect welfare benefits, to engage in criminality, to experience poor health, and to be less civically engaged—all of which are costly to society. On ethical grounds, but also on economic grounds, we need to figure out how to narrow these gaps.”
19. What did the Haitian Revolution teach us?
“The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) represents the most thorough case study of revolutionary change anywhere in the history of the modern world,” notes historian Franklin Knight, who joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1973 and devoted his career to studying Latin American and Caribbean social and economic history. “A colony populated predominantly by plantation slaves overthrew both its colonial status and its economic system and established a new political state of entirely free individuals—with some ex-slaves constituting the new political authority.” The success of Haiti “against all odds,” he says, “made social revolutions a sensitive issue among the leaders of political revolt elsewhere in the Americas during the final years of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th century.” Now retired, Knight was the Leonard and Helen R. Stulman Professor of History.
20. What happens to archaeological field work when civil unrest breaks out?
It means making adjustments, says archaeologist Glenn Schwartz. After directing fieldwork since 1994 at the site Tell Umm el-Marra near Aleppo, Schwartz made the tough decision to begin a new field project in another country after civil strife in Syria led to unpredictable conditions. Undertaking a new project came with its own challenges, including learning how to work in a new culture, new government, new language, and new ancient materials. But in 2013, Schwartz and his team began digging at Kurd Qaburstan, an immense, urban-sized mound dating to the second millennium B.C.E., in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. According to Schwartz, Kurd Qaburstan may be ancient Qabra, a powerful city well-known from Mesopotamian texts, and work there promises an opportunity to study the nature of urban life of northern Mesopotamia, what he calls “archaeological terra incognita,” until recently. Schwartz is the Whiting Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies.
21. How can we stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks?
Michela Gallagher, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and her team have adapted an unlikely medication, originally used to treat epileptic seizures, that appears to improve memory impairment in a phase of Alzheimer’s disease that occurs at least a decade before the earliest onset of mild dementia. It won’t completely eradicate the disease, but it could prevent or greatly slow its advance. “If you can slow it down by five years, that means you can decrease the population with dementia by half. You don’t have to be a heroic genius who has connected all the dots in the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease if you can just slow it down. That’s what I’m trying to do,” she says.
22. When and where did the first alphabet originate?
P. Kyle McCarter Jr.—one of the few people alive who can decipher archaic alphabetic inscriptions—made front-page news around the world back in 1999, when he and a team weighed in with an analysis of newly discovered inscriptions found on a rock in southern Egypt. The team concluded that the first alphabet—from which all modern alphabets have evolved—dates to the 1900s B.C.E. and was probably invented in Egypt. That was centuries older than previously believed and far from the Levant region (now modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and Israel) where generations of scholars had placed the alphabet’s origins. “These inscriptions are for epigraphers what Lucy was for paleontologists,” says McCarter, the William Foxwell Albright Professor Emeritus in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies.
23. Does Israel have a future?
According to international relations expert Steven David, professor in the Department of Political Science, the answer is not clear. “Israel is the only country in the world whose existence is constantly challenged. I hope Israel has a future, but if it ceases to be either a Jewish state or a democratic state, Israel as we know it will not exist.” David says that Israel faces numerous internal and external threats, such as fundamentally opposing opinions among Israelis as to what kind of state Israel should be, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and growing international efforts at delegitimization. “The birth and survival of Israel against all odds is a remarkable story,” says David. “Decisions that Israeli leaders make now will either place them on a path of continued existence or bring about the demise of the state.”
24. Do the early practices of astrology, magic, and alchemy offer insights into today’s science?
As surprising as it might seem, yes. According to historian of science and chemist Lawrence Principe, these disciplines demonstrate the human attempt to understand the world, and the widespread practices that contributed to modern science and are as intertwined with our scientific history as much as astronomy, medicine, and chemistry. They also involved the most insightful scientific minds of the time, such as Galileo Galilei and chemist Robert Boyle, who spent nearly 40 years attempting to discover the “philosophers’ stone,” the substance believed to turn lead into gold. “We don’t want to have a history of science that’s written backwards—that only tells us where our current ideas come from,” says Principe, the Drew Professor of the Humanities. “As a historian of science, what I’m trying to get is a truer, more accurate depiction of the past—in particular, how scientific ideas developed, where they came from, who developed them, and why.”
25. When it comes to preventing and curing cancer, where do we start?
At the cellular level, says biologist Xin Chen. Living beings all start as one cell that divides, multiplies, and becomes the trillions of cells that grow into a baby. But during that process, how do cells know when and how to become, say, skin cells or liver cells or muscle cells? That process is driven by the epigenetic code. Chen, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, wants to crack that code, so that when normal cells misfire, as they do in cancer, they can be manipulated to get back on track. Her work with cell-fate decision in fruit flies is moving this research forward. “Cancer cells are dangerous because they take resources from normal cells and divide and grow for no purpose,” explains Chen. “If we can discover how to control these cells and drag them back to normal paths, we can potentially cure cancer.”
About Zanvyl Krieger
(Adapted from Arts & Sciences Update, 2000)
The youngest of 14 children, Zanvyl Krieger ’28 was born on April 1, 1906, in a house at the corner of Charles and Lee streets in Baltimore, just blocks away from where Oriole Park at Camden Yards now stands. He died in Baltimore, on September 15, 2000, at the age of 94.
Orphaned as a child, Krieger was raised in large part by four older brothers, who had inherited and taken charge of the family’s distillery business. He graduated from City College in 1924 and went on to the Johns Hopkins School of Arts and Sciences, where he majored in political science, and then to Harvard Law School.
Through hard work, canny business sense, and a rarely interrupted streak of good fortune, Krieger became of one the most successful investors and generous philanthropists of his generation. Early in his career, Krieger purchased a brewery just before the repeal of Prohibition, and a West Baltimore meadowland, which is now Security Boulevard, before the development of the Baltimore Beltway. In the 195os, Krieger was one of several key investors to bring the Baltimore Orioles and later the Baltimore Colts to the city. Both teams won championships, and Krieger enjoyed pointing out that, at the time, no one else was qualified to wear both World Series and Super Bowl rings. Later, Krieger became the primary investor in and chair of the board of what would become the United States Surgical Company, one of the world’s most successful medical supply and biomedical engineering businesses.
Krieger was a quiet man with a modest demeanor, and was characteristically understated when explaining his record-setting gift to the School of Arts and Sciences. “Fifty million,” he explained, “sounded like a good, round number.” Philanthropy, to Krieger, was one of life’s most pleasurable activities and a way to be a path-breaker.
“It gives me great satisfaction to do things of an innovative nature and to be a pioneer in giving,” he said. “My philosophy in giving has been to create opportunities and to set the pace for other giving. In other words, I don’t think my giving should be the end of it. I think it should motivate others to give.”