University celebrates Catalyst and Discovery awards winners

Recipients lauded for 'irresistible curiosity and the love of discovery' that are Johns Hopkins' hallmarks

The university celebrated its own this week—from a poet assembling the life of a poet laureate to a scientist probing an insect's nose. They were among the recipients of Johns Hopkins' third annual Catalyst and Discovery awards, the largest institutional commitment to faculty research in the nation.

Welcoming the 2018 winners on Oct. 2 at the Peabody Library, JHU President Ronald J. Daniels quoted conservatory founder George Peabody when he said that the Mount Vernon landmark had been designed for "everyone [with] an irresistible love of science or literature."

And, in particular, Daniels said proudly, "the highest and the best."

And then he congratulated more than 100 of the best at Hopkins for winning this year's Catalyst (up to $75,000) and Discovery (up to $100,000) honors. The Catalyst Award winners, he said, spanned eight academic divisions and 24 departments, while Discovery Awards went to 30 "innovative teams comprising more than 100 creative, passionate faculty."

It is money, the president told the crowd, dedicated to giving the recipients "the ability to just dream" in advance of the fabled "ah-ha" moment from which all progress proceeds.

Daniels was followed at the lectern by university Provost Sunil Kumar, who said the "precious" allotments would be best spent if "used to take calculated risks … beyond departmental boundaries."

Based on the vast array of projects described in the evening's program, what can only be imagined today might result one far-off day in screenings for ovarian cancer, noninvasive removal of lesions and tumors on the brain, and tests to diagnose concussions before the appearance of symptoms.

The evening of food and drink and joyous congratulations took place in the shadow of the Washington Monument, while less than a couple of miles away in pretty much any direction lie the struggles at the heart of Catalyst winner Kamila Alexander's work.

An assistant professor of nursing and a veteran of the Peace Corps, Alexander is examining Social Norms and Relationship Dynamics Among Disadvantaged Black Emerging Adult Men in Baltimore.

More simply, she is looking for ways to provide better futures for young city males prone to leaving school before graduation and committing violence against intimate partners.

"I'm looking at masculinity norms" as they relate to trauma both inflicted and received, said Alexander, whose preliminary "small study" was based on 25 males at the Youth Opportunity Baltimore program for out-of-school youth.

The unrestricted Catalyst grant will help Alexander create a much larger proposal to identify "perceived social norms … susceptible to change" and the creation of "trauma-informed" intervention.

On the other side of the room, Tom Pisanic, an assistant research scientist in the Whiting School of Engineering's Institute for NanoBioTechnology, and Tian-Li Wang, a professor of gynecologic pathology at the School of Medicine, talked about their work in identifying "markers" that would signal the risk or presence of ovarian cancer before it is visible. They were given a Discovery award with two other team members: Ie Ming Shih, also a professor of gynecologic pathology in the School of Medicine, and Jeff Tza-Huei Wang, a professor of mechanical engineering in the Whiting School.

"I've been doing cancer research for 15 years," said Tian-Li Wang, who noted that her mentor in the field was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and seems to have stabilized, but that those diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she says, do not have the same prospects for survival.

Explained Pisanic, "Most of the tools necessary for identifying markers" indicating the probability of ovarian cancer "are out there. We're using them to try and find those markers.

"It's called epigenetics," he said. "We're doing [digital] methylation analysis. We're at least five to seven years away from taking something to the FDA at the earliest, but we're trying to show that it's feasible."

And in that simple idea—the labor that goes into attempts to show that something spectacular might work—lies the soul of what the entire evening was about, what President Daniels earlier called "irresistible curiosity and the love of discovery."

This was the motivation that led poet David Yezzi, an associate professor in the Writing Seminars, to begin a decade-long project—with Catalyst funding allowing him to cross the finish line in a couple of years—on the life of former poet laureate of the United States Anthony Hecht (1923-2004).

"The claim my [biography] will make for Hecht is that he is the greatest American poet of the Holocaust," said Yezzi, who had just returned from Emory University in Atlanta, where Hecht's papers are kept. "As an American GI, he witnessed it firsthand when [his unit] liberated the Flossenburg concentration camp" near the Czech border.

A poet of genocide, a troubled city that sometimes seems to be committing genocide against itself, cancers composing death notices before anyone knew they were sick, plus research into the olfactory systems of mosquitoes to figure out why bug repellant isn't as repellant as it should be, ongoing problems with exposure to lead, and more than 30 other projects—these are some of the scenarios upon which the Catalyst and Discover awards hope to shine a light.

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