The Education Review

Journeys of Discovery: Unique Academic Research

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

At George Washington University, law professor James E. Starrs is using forensics to uncover whether famous explorer Meriwether Lewis actually committed suicide -- or was murdered.

At the University of Maryland in College Park, senior Trevor Young is attempting to develop micropower plants to bring electricity to rural villages in Africa.

At George Mason University, psychologist Todd Kashdan is investigating the benefits of human curiosity.

These projects and the two others showcased here are but a tiny sample of a dizzying array of research efforts taking place at area colleges and universities. Professors and students are studying the origins of swine flu, ballots that voters could verify, why the incidence of thyroid cancer is growing so rapidly and how cognitive function deteriorates with age yet wisdom increases. They're creating software to help intelligence analysts understand terrorists, tracking vermin, improving the imaging of beating hearts, researching magma.

Some of the discoveries will make headlines, change laws, save lives. Others will spur new investigations, new experiments -- and new ways to think about the world, one tiny molecule or footnote at a time.

***

Cab-driving senior wins competition to light up homeland

Trevor Young

School: University of Maryland

Specialty: Rural electricity

By Karen Houppert

As a child growing up in Sierra Leone, Trevor Young planned his life around an occasional three or four hours of electricity. That was on the good days, when his family could spring for fuel to run the generator outside their home.

These days, the situation in Sierra Leone is even more dire; what infrastructure there was has crumbled under 11 years of brutal war.

"Imagine a city full of cars with no electricity for traffic lights," Young says. "And no streetlights." In many rural areas, there is no electricity to run an overhead light or plug in a radio, let alone charge a computer or power a plant.

But Young intends to change all that.

The 33-year-old senior at the University of Maryland in College Park has a plan to light up the developing world -- one rural village at a time. A pipe dream? Not according to the university, which gave him $5,000 in seed money and two of its top prizes, totaling $25,000, in its annual business plan competition.

"I guess I am what you'd call a 'nontraditional' student," Young says.

He attends classes all day and drives a cab at night to help support his wife and four kids (DarVor arrived in late 2008). And somehow, in the course of doing homework, he has developed a plan to produce electricity through the construction of specialized micropower plants.

Young, an agriculture and natural resources major, makes it sound simple, sketching out the details of an enterprise that will convert a combination of palm fruit oil effluent and pig manure (or goat, cow or even human waste) into energy. He got the idea last year while considering an English assignment: Write about a problem and spell out a solution. Young bypassed conventional undergraduate problems -- star-crossed lovers, cruel parents, painful shyness -- and aimed higher, at world poverty.

"When you go back home to Africa, you feel guilty that you are living such a comfortable life in the United States and that people in Africa are seriously struggling," he says.

Young was 9 when his parents sent him from Sierra Leone, which was becoming increasingly dangerous in the years leading up to the war, to New Jersey to live with an uncle. His mother died of cancer shortly afterward, and his father died later of complications from a stroke suffered when rebels used him as a human shield in an attack on the capital during the war.

When the war ended, Young returned to his homeland and was deeply troubled by what he found, especially the amputee camps.

"I was one of the lucky ones, not to have been in the country during the fighting," he says. "Seeing how the people had suffered, I wanted to do something. And there was so much that just needed to be done."

He seized on one of the most intractable problems: the lack of electricity in rural areas.

At first, Young saw solar energy as an answer, as sunshine is plentiful in many parts of the world where there is little or no electrical power. But equipment costs would make it prohibitively expensive. So he turned to water. Hydropower could capture the energy in falling water through pipes and a simple turbine.

One of his professors urged Young to stay with the concept and enter the University of Maryland contest for emerging entrepreneurs. Then, while surfing the Internet one day, Young came across information that sparked an idea. What if he used biomass, the waste from processing a local agricultural product, and combined it with animal waste, capturing the gas, which is high in methane, as it decomposed? This natural gas could be used to generate electricity.

And what if he created a mill to process the agricultural produce -- in this case, palm fruit -- into an exportable, income-producing product for locals? Palm oil, used in soap, cosmetics and household cleansers, has rich commercial potential. And processing the palm fruit would produce enough fibrous waste to feed a power plant.

Bingo!

"Here, the local community is using resources in that community to improve the quality of life in that community," Young says.

In rural Sierra Leone, palm fruit often languishes on trees because it is too expensive for locals to transport it to the few commercial processing plants in urban hubs, and pressing it by hand is an arduous and time-consuming process, Young explains. But a mini-mill, costing about $140,000, could generate income and electricity for residents.

Young is drawing on the expertise of Stephanie Lansing, an assistant professor of ecological engineering in the environmental science department, and is learning about the energy-generating potential of palm oil effluent.

"What's truly unique about Trevor's business plan is that he is synthesizing all this information and creating a full circle," Lansing says.

In addition to finding a renewable energy solution and infusing capital into the village, his plan would help clear waterways of discarded palm oil effluent.

"Basically, it closes the loop," Lansing says.

Young also will have the support of the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute, which runs the business plan contest and provides student entrepreneurs with advice, networking support and access to funding.

After his graduation at the end of the year, Young plans to move his family to Sierra Leone to start his company. An optimist, he said he has named the business after one of his daughters: Tseai, which means sunshine.

***

Legendary law professor helps unearth history's truths

James E. Starrs

School: George Washington University

Specialty: Forensics

By Karen Houppert

Professor James E. Starrs lives for the dead. Their remains tell powerful truths, he says. And in some of history's most famous murder mysteries, their decaying bones have guided him to dramatic conclusions:

That convicted cannibal Alfred Packer indeed was a murderer (and not just a desperate man) who ate his five gold-prospecting buddies while stranded for months during an 1874 blizzard in the Colorado mountains.

That Huey Long, Louisiana's populist former governor, could not have been assassinated by the young doctor accused in the 1935 crime.

That Albert DeSalvo, the man who confessed to murdering 13 women in the Boston area in the 1960s, may not have been the so-called Boston Strangler.

Such findings have brought the 79-year-old George Washington University law school professor worldwide acclaim and made him a much sought-after forensics expert. Inside the classroom, where he has spent the past 45 years talking his students through the finer points of forensics, he is a legend. While he recognizes that his students are likely to end up using evidence collected from fresher corpses, historical figures are his real passion.

These days, Starrs is after the corpse of Meriwether Lewis, half of the explorer team that made up the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800s. Lewis's body has been decomposing in a Tennessee grave since his death in 1809. But historians continue to debate whether the evidence points to suicide -- as declared at the time -- or murder.

The truth, Starrs says, lies just beneath the ground.

"The first thing we're looking for is well-preserved remains," Starrs begins, discussing his quest during dinner at a Bertucci's restaurant after class one September evening. He looks like a professor: slightly balding, white beard, brown tweed jacket, dark slacks, blue oxford. He reaches for a roll, tears it in half, dips it in olive oil.

"Lewis had a monument put up at his grave site in 1848," he says, taking a bite.

"Could have been some cover, protecting him from water. His remains may be decent."

Chew. Chew. Chew.

"Not like Jesse James."

Sip of wine.

"Terrible condition. Totally water-logged."

The professor shakes his head, recalling that 1995 exhumation, and drags a roll through the olive oil.

"We tried for the long bones, the femur, the tibia. No luck."

Pops the roll in his mouth.

"But we did find the teeth. They were wonderful."

Chew. Chew. Chew.

"And Alfred Packer, you know about him?" Starrs asks, referring to the Colorado cannibal.

"Decent," Starrs says, characterizing the quality of the five prospectors' remains. "Buried cheek by jowl."

Digging up their "defleshed bones" on "Cannibal Plateau" in 1989 was a challenge, but Starrs remembers it fondly. "My first exhumation," he adds, picking up his own knife. He lops off a piece of the chicken before him, spears it with his fork, consumes it.

Starrs accepts no fees for the exhumations, which he finances through the money he makes testifying as an expert at various trials and from sales of his small magazine, Scientific Sleuthing Review. He assembles teams of scientific experts to assist in the research and shares their findings in academic reviews, books and media interviews.

The Lewis case has been the most challenging yet. Starrs has spent 14 years trying to cut his way through the red tape that surrounds the explorer's remains like a mummy.

Starrs has signatures from 198 of Lewis's descendants in support of the exhumation (with just one objection). And he has acquired -- through the matrilineal line -- the requisite DNA he will need to confirm that it is indeed Lewis's body buried beneath the monument on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee.

Year after year, though, he has shown up at the Lewis family reunion with the same update: "Things are progressing -- slowly."

Holding things up, Starrs says, are National Park Service officials, "rigid authoritarians," demanding plans for "every nitpicking thing you can imagine" before giving the go-ahead.

But National Parks Service spokesman William Reynolds insists the application process is standard. Applicants must include a public comment period and information about who will cover the costs associated with the exhumation, as well as what impact it will have on other park visitors, he says.

Many of Starrs's previous applications were rejected because "exhuming bodies is against National Park Service Policy," Reynolds says, but the agency will consider making an exception.

As Starrs sees it, he would be doing a public service, using the latest in forensic science technology to answer whether Lewis killed himself (as most historians believe) or was murdered.

"People say to me, 'What do you think it was? Homicide or suicide?' " Starrs says. "But I don't know. It depends on what I find."

And that may take longer still.

"The National Park Service said to us a month ago, 'Don't expect to do it this year,' " Starrs reports. "It might take till 2010. Maybe 2011."

"That's okay," the professor adds, finishing his meal.

He feeds his arms back into his tweed jacket and reaches for his cane. The pain from knee surgery in June causes him to wince as he stands.

"I plan to tough it out and live that long," he says.

Take Lewis away from him? Over his dead body.

***

From sonnet to slame, teaching the power of verse

Lesley Wheeler

School: Washington and Lee

Specialty: Poetry

By Susan Kinzie

Right off the bat, Lesley Wheeler plays videos of poetry slams, showing her students how intense and powerful she believes poetry can be.

Then she tells them they're going to have a haiku death match.

She's not kidding, although she is likely to laugh herself to tears when it actually takes place.

The Washington and Lee University students pull on Japanese headbands, bow to the judges, and recite haikus that others in the class have written -- sometimes emotional and deeply personal, more often silly, nearly always about sex.

The idea is to show students how powerful and easy and, yes, fun poetry can be.

Some of them come to class with a sense that poetry is pretentious gibberish (but requires less reading than the other English courses). Wheeler, 42, wants them to find poetry they love -- whether it is the quiet elegance of an Elizabethan sonnet or the angry elbows of a slam poem shouted out to a packed bar. Or both.

She thinks poetry matters now, more than ever, as other things have taken over some of the space that poetry used to fill in people's lives. In a world that's fast and hectic and demanding, poetry is one way to slow down, be quiet and think, Wheeler says.

But poetry has evolved along with culture. As a cheap, often free, art form, it's nimble and adaptable. The rhymes that sounded stilted to many of Wheeler's classmates when she was in college have a different resonance -- more current maybe, more real -- for this generation of students, who grew up with hip-hop. And although for much of the past century, poetry was found most often in quiet libraries and in classrooms, the past couple of decades brought it into the street and cafes, onto HBO and YouTube.

People snarl poems, scat them, stomp them, scream them.

Wheeler studies the ways technology is bringing writer and audience together in new ways, with poems online, audio files and videos. And she is researching how technology creates unexpected communities of poets; identity and ideas can link people in ways that are changing how people understand, and write, about the world, she said.

It used to be easy to identify the major American poets, said Julia Spicher Kasdorf, an associate professor of English and women's studies at Penn State, who is familiar with Wheeler's work. Now, there's a huge variety in the types of poems being written and the ways they're published or distributed, creating more schisms among different types of poets. But Wheeler is one who bridges those gaps, Kasdorf said.

"I love them all!" Wheeler says.

"There's a lot of disagreement about what poems should look or sound like among contemporary poets, critics and audiences," she explains. "Some slam poets or other independent writers would say that poet-professors are stuffy elitists who drive away poetry's natural audiences; some university-based poets do say, in print, that slam isn't poetry at all." There are divisions among "academic poets," as well, Wheeler says. "In any art form there's always a vanguard, people who view themselves as enlightened and innovative, and a traditionalist faction, people who view themselves as keepers of a sacred flame. "

But she argued in a recent book that despite those schisms, poets are united by a shared obsession with "voice," which can mean the way the poem is presented or be a metaphor for the sense of the author's presence in the work. And she has described 21st-century poetry as an international and technological field now that writers are sharing ideas with others online. As poets become increasingly dependent on these online networks for developing ideas and reaching audiences, she said, they will have a profound impact on the writing of poetry.

Wheeler fell into poetry at the urging of a somewhat batty elderly nun at her Catholic high school in New Jersey. The teacher often entered students into writing contests, seemingly at random, and one day told Wheeler to write poems.

To Wheeler's surprise, she won first place. Not only that, but the judge told her he could just tell she'd been reading a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins. She'd never heard of the Victorian poet -- and when she read him, it was too heavy for her -- but now she laughs and says maybe the Keats she was studying in school, and the Ginsberg she was reading on her own, simmered up into some sort of a dense, Hopkins-esque pudding.

She went to Rutgers University, where her world became wrapped around the literary magazine (she married one of the editors). She didn't tell her parents she wasn't going to law school until she got a fellowship to study poetry at Princeton.

"I always felt being a poet was my secret superhero identity," she says of a part of herself she was nervous to expose.

This spring, she published her first volume of poetry, "Heathen," titled after her high-school nickname.

"I'm not a religious person," she says. But poetry gives her that stillness, the thoughtfulness, the grace that religion might. "Maybe it fills the role of prayer for me," she says.

***

Pyrotechnics ignites passion of chemistry professor

John Conkling

School: Washington College

Specialty: Pyrotechnics

By Susan Kinzie

Sparks are flying. And things are sizzling and flaring up, sending out acrid chemical smells and huge plumes of thick, dark smoke bubbling up like mushrooms.

Every now and then, a huge boom makes students jump. "What are you grabbing me for?" one woman asks another, laughing, after a loud bang.

You never realize just how many things blow up until you go to John Conkling's seminar, the Chemistry of Pyrotechnics and Explosives, held every year at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., for the past 27 years. He's one of the country's few scholars specializing in pyrotechnics, and every summer he offers a crash course in the chemistry behind the explosions.

It's for the growing number of people who regulate, control, invent or use volatile materials, including police officers, soldiers and technicians who design fireworks displays.

In the lab, students see how to make flames white, red, yellow, blue, even such subtle shades as peach and honeydew melon. They learn how to create thick smoke, ash that squirms and writhes and coils up like a snake, or a quick, brilliant burst of light.

Conkling, a solid, steady presence in a volatile field, says things like: "This is another one you don't want to breathe. It's very toxic."

And his lab assistant, more of a loose cannon, is saying things like, "If you light it right at that taper, your hat flies off." When samples don't ignite as quickly as he'd like, he gets out the blowtorch.

Students stick fingers in their ears. Boom! A white flame shoots up in the display box and hisses out seconds later.

Conkling got into this by accident. He was doing research in organic chemistry at Washington College, where he now teaches, then at Johns Hopkins University, when he realized that studying pyrotechnics could be a lot more fun.

Conkling has studied propellants and explosives, but most of his work has been in pyrotechnics, in which the reactions are designed to produce colored lights, smoke and other effects, either for entertainment such as fireworks, or for defense purposes such as flares. And his specialty has been sensitivity -- what sets off a reaction, which could be anything from a heavy impact such as a blow from a hammer to the slightest tap of a finger, or friction or flame, depending on the chemicals involved. His findings have often been used to make the manufacture, transport and use of the materials safer.

The field has changed dramatically since Conkling, 65, began studying it in the 1960s. Many of the chemicals used then are better understood now -- including the ways that they break down over time and can affect people's health -- and are no longer allowed in the United States.

And after terrorist attacks such as the Oklahoma City bombing and Sept. 11, 2001, there has been far greater concern about security and access to chemicals. At the same time, the Internet has made information instantly available to anyone who looks for it.

"That concerns me a lot, that people would try and do some of this at home," he said. "If you spark them, hit them, rub them the wrong way, friction can ignite these materials. That's not common knowledge."

In some cases, just a tiny buzz of static electricity from a person is enough to touch off an explosion.

He leaned back, rested thick, ruddy forearms on his head of white hair and said, "I don't think anyone sets out to get into pyrotechnics.

"It's not taught at colleges and universities, it's not something most people have exposure to. Other scientists looking at the field may think ... it's not the same as trying to find a cure for cancer.

"But to me, I thought there was a real compelling need for more safety information in the field."

At one point in class, he explained what the ratings on the materials really mean. "'Negative' means there's less probability," he told the students. "It certainly doesn't mean never. There have been explosions of all of these materials. ... You could get just the right amount, and it goes boom."

It was easy to see how unpredictable it is in the lab, where things sputtered and went dark, burned bluish instead of greenish, or lighted with a wallop that made students gasp.

Conkling said he never gets bored. Much of his research starts by chance, when the phone rings and someone asks a question.

For example, the Army asked him to solve a problem it was having with grenades used to protect armored vehicles. The grenades, which were designed to produce enough smoke to hide the vehicles from heat-seeking weapons, weren't igniting. Conkling analyzed the system used to set them off and realized that "it was shattering the chemicals, so they were not burning." The Army was able to fix it right away, he said.

Although many of his discoveries have made people safer, the research continually builds on past findings. He has never had a big stop-everything breakthrough moment, he said.

Then he laughs. "Surprises are not something you like to get, in this business."

***

Curious? Psychology professor says that's the key to joy.

Todd Kashdan

School: George Mason University

Specialty: Curiosity

By Susan Kinzie

You're out at a bar, and you see that girl in the Pixies T-shirt, hyping your favorite band. You're dying to talk to her, but you hesitate, worried that she'll think you're a jerk when you walk over there.

Clinical psychologists study that kind of crippling social anxiety all the time, says psychologist Todd Kashdan. But, as Kashdan sees it, they hadn't paid much attention to the flip side, the magnet pull in the other direction, the thing that makes the other guy plunge right ahead to strike up a conversation: curiosity.

Kashdan, a professor at George Mason University, has written a book arguing that it's one of the keys to a happy, fulfilling life. "Curious?" the cover blares, thick black letters on a bright yellow field, as though daring the reader to reach out and grab it. The book, written in a breezy self-help style, is backed by some of Kashdan's and others' research, making a case for curiosity and suggesting techniques for overcoming the anxiety that holds people back.

The 35-year-old professor could be a walking advertisement for his latest work. He boogie-boards, climbs rocks, obsesses over his favorite bands' live shows, studies sex and responds to students' comments in class with remarks like, "That's [expletive] awesome."

He has also thrust himself into the pool of positive psychology, the study of the emotions, values, social factors and other concepts that help people flourish, rather than merely exist -- a field that is dismissed by some researchers as fluff, with insufficient rigor to its research.

"There's a good portion of clinical psychologists that don't see much merit in positive psychology. I would say most people are skeptical of it," said Patrick McKnight, one of Kashdan's colleagues at Mason. "And a small minority just think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Kashdan says he's not so much positive psychologist as provocateur.

"He's always questioning the norm in the field," said Jeffrey Froh, an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University. "I don't know where he gets his ideas. He's hands-down one of the most creative people I've ever met in my life."

It's never too late in life to foster curiosity and even in the midst of the most mundane tasks, Kashdan says. Even the painful, the repetitive, the most mind-numbing tasks can keep people engaged.

If people train themselves to be more attentive to the details, rather than drifting along on autopilot, they'll find that "there's beauty and intrigue around us everywhere -- as long as we're open to what's around us," Kashdan says, sitting in an almost-dark office at George Mason with a single bright desk light, casting his face in shadow. A cover of a Jimi Hendrix song by a hard-core band plays on his computer.

Kashdan says he thinks people can spark their curiosity to stay engaged in family life by learning from the way a small child can be transfixed by a sponge, say, or play happily with a stick for an hour. A child's sense of wonder and delight over the ordinary is instructive, he says.

McKnight, Kashdan's colleague, points out that there are downsides to curiosity, too: Some of their colleagues treat patients who are unable to finish projects because they're so easily distracted. Kashdan touches on some of that in the book, nothing the pathology of excessive curiosity: stalkers and flashers and people with morbid interests that dominate their thoughts.

But Kashdan says that what he likes about the curiosity theory is how simple it is: In the end, people need to have a sense of purpose in their life, he says, and curiosity helps them define what that is and keep it fresh.

He says he knows it sounds obvious to recommend that, instead of fixating on the things that are going wrong, people think through their values, set priorities in life and then spend their time on the things that really matter. But pulling it off is tough: It takes willpower, and often a lot of courage, to stick to those principles. Or just to take the leap.

That, he knows firsthand. It was his own curiosity that led to his career.

After college, while working on Wall Street monitoring stocks as an assistant for a specialist firm, he found his happiest moments after midnight on weekends. He'd be sitting around with old friends on a deserted golf course pretty drunk and talking about life.

One night, he was talking about practical versus creative intelligence and the way intelligence is measured in schools. "'The way schools are structured, they don't focus on what we're passionate about -- we're force-fed,'" he was saying. "One of my friends turned around and said, 'If you're so interested in intelligence and love and education policy, why don't you do that as a career, and follow the stock market when you're home?' "

Kashdan says he knew all the risks: quitting his job, horrifying his family, losing his income, switching from a high-powered job to an unpaid research assistant gig, and then grad-school debt.

But now, he wakes up at 3 a.m. and fires up the computer because he has so many ideas. He can't wait for Mondays, when he goes back to the lab. And he publishes new research papers so often that it makes his colleagues nervous.

When it came down to it, he says, he didn't think himself out of the life he wanted to live. "We don't always have to listen to our brain," he says.

***

Karen Houppert is an author and freelance writer in Baltimore who covers social and political issues. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Susan Kinzie covers philanthropy for The Post. She can be reached at kinzies@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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