All Together Now
By Carrie Tahu ′09
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
Collaborative research between faculty and students is fast becoming the norm at Rhodes, and thanks to the liberal arts environment, there is often crossover between disciplines. During the fall semester, Andy Crooks ’09 served as a research assistant to Professor Jeffrey Jackson on his forthcoming book, Paris Under Water, and discovered an ideal outlet for his passion for history and French culture. At the 2008 Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, three student research fellows gained the opportunity to design, implement and interpret a psychology experiment from start to finish alongside Professor Kimberley Gerecke. These student-faculty teams found that their collaboration not only fostered a mutually beneficial working relationship, but also enabled scholarship to exceed the boundaries of the classroom.
Connecting and Collaborating
The torment and destruction Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the United States’ Gulf Coast region in fall 2005 raised major issues of how cities confront disaster. Two months before Katrina, those issues came to the forefront of History professor Jeffrey Jackson’s mind during a self-guided tour of the Paris sewer system. There, he encountered a photograph display that revealed that the City of Lights had endured its own devastating moment of natural disaster nearly a century before.
In the early 20th century, Parisians delighted in living in one of the greatest urban centers in the world. They never expected that in January 1910, nature would wage war on their seemingly indestructible city. Weeks of torrential rainfall flooded the River Seine, bringing raging water through the streets and infiltrating the sewer system. With their homes washed away in the flood, thousands of Parisians were forced to flee their city and seek shelter from the elements.
Intrigued by the pictures he saw on his sewer tour, Jackson looked further into the flood. His preliminary research revealed surprisingly little history of the event.
“There was one book in French, maybe a few little articles here and there but nothing more than that, certainly nothing in English that I could find,” he says.
It seemed as if the flood of 1910 was a decidedly forgotten moment in Paris’ history. Making a natural connection between the pressing concerns of Katrina’s aftermath and his passion for French history, Jackson knew this was a project he needed to pursue.
That he did. Jackson’s forthcoming book, Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910, will be the lead title in Palgrave Macmillan’s 2010 catalogue to coincide with the Paris flood’s 100th anniversary. It recreates the untold narrative of the flood using images and the preserved voices of those whose lives it affected.
In fall 2007, Jackson was on sabbatical, funded by the Spence Wilson Faculty Travel Grant, at the Columbia University Institute for Scholars at Reid Hall in Paris. There, he found the flood springing to life in hundreds of photographs: Many of the flood images were reproduced at the time on postcards published as collector’s items.
“I went to a flea market and asked a vendor if he had any flood postcards. He knew exactly what I meant and pulled out three thick stacks that were bound together by theme.”
Jackson also uncovered the voices of Parisians whose lives were impacted by the flood as he delved into Paris’ city and governmental archives. With their homes and shops destroyed, many people wrote letters to the government expressing their need for financial assistance.
“There’s a lot of correspondence, so you actually do hear these voices,” he explains. “That’s the impetus from the book’s perspective—to tell that story because it hasn’t been told.”
On returning to Rhodes, Jackson inquired in the French and History departments for a student research assistant who could help him add a virtual dimension to his project: an interactive Web site. He found the best of both disciplines in Andy Crooks ’09, a French and History double major. When the two discussed the project for the first time in spring 2008, they instantly found a common ground through their shared interests.
“Professor Jackson told me what his book was about and I was immediately interested,” Crooks says. “I grasped right onto it because my primary interests are 19th- and 20th-century history and, of course, French culture. It worked perfectly.”
Crooks began working on the project last summer by first reading Jackson’s manuscript of the book. He quickly realized the profound impact the images could have not only as an educational tool, but also as a way to complete the story. Likewise, Jackson hopes that the Web site will function as a virtual museum exhibition of the dramatic images to help bring the book’s narrative to life.
Although Jackson found hundreds of images depicting the flood while on sabbatical, the same kinds of pictures tend to be ubiquitous. One of Crooks’ responsibilities is to locate new images from various sources, including Web sites, postcards, newspapers and magazines. For Crooks, the interaction between his French and History backgrounds gives him an ideal perspective for finding unique images.
“We only really want one picture of people floating down the street in a rowboat—you don’t need 10 of those,” he says. “Many of the Web sites that have amazing pictures are in French, so it’s easier for me to navigate them. It also helps to have an understanding of French culture and life during the period.”
One of the greatest challenges facing the collaborators has been conveying the true essence of the flood through the images.
“It was hard to show the personal side of the flood because a lot of the images were taken with a purpose,” Crooks explains.
While many of them depict people working together and saving each other, they do not reflect the reality of human suffering. From Crooks’ perspective, finding images that convey the reality of the tragedy “brings the destruction and severity of the event home.”
Jackson and Crooks plan to incorporate interactive features on the Web site that will to help people understand the flood both geographically and chronologically. First, they envision a map that allows visitors to navigate the flooded areas, selecting a particular neighborhood in Paris and then seeing images of how the flood impacted it. A second idea provides a narrative account of the flood that tells the story in both words and pictures, including some quotes by eyewitnesses.
For those who may not read Jackson’s book, which will appear in late 2009, the Web site will provide a brief account of the story in words and pictures. On the other hand, those who read the book will be able to access the story from a visual perspective.
“We want whoever goes to the site to be able to read the book in pictures,” Crooks explains. “When I first read the manuscript, I kept wondering, ‘Where are these pictures?’ I think if you look at the pictures, you’ll want to read the book and if you read the book, you’ll want to see the pictures.”
According to Crooks, weekly Friday meetings with his mentor keep him on his toes and provide opportunities to brainstorm and acquire direction.
“Professor Jackson is very encouraging and easy to work with,” he says. “I feel really lucky that he has written this book that feeds strictly and directly into what I’m interested in. You don’t get to have an experience like this very often.”
For Jackson, the opportunity to team up with a student who exudes such passion for the subject has provided invaluable insight.
“Andy has re-introduced me to many elements of this history by seeing them in a different light than I have in the past. Working on a project like this for so long, I am sometimes too close to the material to see what I have,” Jackson says. “Andy has been able to bring fresh eyes to this research and to highlight parts of the story and photographs that someone reading about it for the first time would want to know more about.”
This fall, Jackson and Crooks expanded their scholarly collaboration, partnering with Danita Barrentine, a student in Memphis College of Art’s MFA program. Adding her graphic design talent and HTML coding abilities to the mix, Barrentine will assist with developing and designing the interactive Web site. The target launch date or ParisUnderWater.com is tentatively set for March 2009.
In conjunction with the Web site, the professor-student research team hopes that their work will shed new light on a significant—yet almost forgotten—moment in French history.
For six weeks during the summer, 12 students and five faculty members converged at the 2008 Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, making the rich culture of Memphis and the Mid-South their laboratory for scholarly research.
From music and theater to religious studies and history, student-faculty teams pursued comprehensive research projects while collaborating in group meetings and excursions with their colleagues from different liberal arts perspectives.
When Religious Studies professor Milton Moreland, director of the institute, approached Psychology professor Kim Gerecke about participating in the program, she saw it as an ideal summer opportunity. Not only would she be able to engage in research pertaining to her own area of expertise, she would also have the chance to work directly with students.
“One of the big reasons that I came to an undergraduate institution was to have a lot of opportunities to mentor students, whether in research or in the classroom,” she says. “It was the best of all possible options.”
Neuroscience major Sarah Barowka ’09 (recipient of the Elizabeth Rodgers Dobell Scholarship) and psychology majors Stephen Spainhour ’11 and Rachel Trout ’10 (who holds the T.M. Garrott Jr. and Lina H. Garrott Scholartship) teamed up with Gerecke as her student research fellows. For these students, the summer opportunity promised not only directed research experience specific to the field of psychology, but also the unique ability to collaborate with their peers and professors from other disciplines.
“I spend all of my time in the sciences,” Barowka says. “The institute was a place to meld our research with other disciplines and learn how to present science to non-science people.”
Recognizing that a vital part of Memphis’ identity is serving as home to nationally-acclaimed medical research institutions like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Gerecke’s team aimed to add a uniquely scientific perspective to the interdisciplinary mix.
Gerecke specializes in research concerning mechanisms of neuroprotection. To this effect, she designed an experiment for the institute that enabled her student fellows to investigate ways of protecting the brain against the potentially detrimental effects of methylphenidate, a prescription drug widely known as Ritalin.
Methylphenidate is a schedule II regulated drug according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration standards. It is often administered to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders in children and adolescents. Interestingly, despite the fact that the drug is liberally prescribed—and arguably overprescribed—by physicians, very little is known about the negative long-term effects it may have on the brain.
“From a pharmacology standpoint, methylphenidate looks a lot like cocaine. It acts at the same transporter; it has a lot of the same sort of effects in the brain,” Gerecke explains. “We would not allow our children to have cocaine, but a lot of folks give Ritalin, and they give it chronically. There hasn’t been any good data about what the long-term effects are.”
After researching past animal studies, Gerecke and her students found that preliminary evidence suggests methylphenidate may affect short-term memory and generate addictive behavior. Using 48 mice obtained from Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor, ME, they sought to contribute to this body of knowledge by modeling chronic therapeutic use of the drug in animals. They were specifically concerned with addressing two central questions: Does methylphenidate use cause these adverse behavioral reactions, and if so, is there a way to protect the brain against them?
Members of the group hypothesized that mice given regular doses of methylphenidate would exhibit addictive behavior and decreased capacity for short-term memory. They further posited that mice housed in an enriched environment would be more protected against these potentially detrimental effects than mice contained in standard housing.
To put these hypotheses to the test, the researchers first assigned half of the mice to standard housing and the other half to an enriched environment. Standard-housing animals resided in a cage in which only their basic needs for food and water were met. In contrast, the enriched environment cage contained running wheels, tunnels and toys to provide the mice with mental stimulation and social interaction, two factors believed to be essential to protecting the brain against the influence of harmful agents.
“These environmental factors really benefit the mice’s brains, just as an environment with social and learning components benefits human brains,” Gerecke says. “Studies have shown that athletes, for instance, are less likely to become addicted to drugs, and it may be because they exercise and have the social support structure of a team. The enriched environment is a way to model this in animals.”
The students then performed a “condition place preference” test and an “object recognition” test on the mice in order to investigate methylphenidate’s potential to cause addiction and affect short-term memory. Using both standard-housing and enriched-environment mice, they compared the behavior of mice administered daily 5 mg/kg doses of methylphenidate against a control group that was administered saline injections.
Both tests yielded negative results, with the standard-housing and enriched-environment mice showing no significant difference in behavior. Although their findings were not in line with their initial hypotheses, the group maintains that they are not only pertinent, but also encouraging.
“I was pleased that we did not have significant results, because what that means is that methylphenidate does not cause addiction and does not interfere with short-term memory. Those are both really positive things,” Gerecke asserts.
Adds Stephen Spainhour, “The results are a good thing for society, considering how often methylphenidate is prescribed.”
Nonetheless, they also warn that more research is necessary, as results of this study may be shortsighted. With only six weeks to complete their own study, they concur that a more longitudinal study may come closer to the truth of the drug’s long-term effects.
“Without this knowledge, there is no way to truly determine how safe or dangerous it can be,” Trout emphasizes. “For a drug that is so heavily prescribed and used by our nation’s youth, we are leaving far too much to chance.”
The group received feedback on their research from their fellow scholars at the institute. Whether in formal group meetings or during a casual lunch, they immersed themselves in constant discussion with people from other liberal arts disciplines.
“Everybody was engaged, everybody was interacting and talking about their work. It was really satisfying from an intellectual standpoint,” Gerecke says.
At the end of the institute, student research fellows must submit a final paper on the projects they complete with their faculty mentors. Although Gerecke’s team performed their study as a group, the students added an interdisciplinary dimension by tailoring their approach to the paper to their own personal interests.
Keeping in mind his ultimate goal of attending law school, Stephen Spainhour used the debate surrounding methylphenidate’s safety as an outlet to explore the relationship between law and medicine. In examining the legal boundaries surrounding the prescription and use of methylphenidate, he found that great disparities exist between American and international regulation of the drug.
“There is an especially good model I found in France that I thought was more appropriate for distribution of the drug. France has very strict regulation laws in place, which presents an interesting contrast with America,” he says.
Rachel Trout approached her paper from the standpoint of behavioral psychology, analyzing factors that may contribute to abuse of methylphenidate outside of its therapeutic use.
“Some people take the drug for a lot longer than they originally intended, which is a problem because we don’t know what the true effects are—who knows 10 or 20 years down the road how it might affect them?” she suggests.
Trout found that abuse of the drug often begins in high school, where students perceive it as a way to help manage a strenuous workload.
Sarah Barowka plans to pursue a degree in osteopathic medicine after graduating in May. Utilizing her knowledge base of both psychology and medicine, she examined the results in terms of the divergent opinions regarding methylphenidate use that exist between scientific researchers and those in the medical field. According to Barowka, the two perspectives clash in terms of reasoning.
“A researcher would say we should be very careful about the potential negative effects and restrict the drug. On the other hand, the medical field advocates prescribing it because it hasn’t been proven that anything bad can happen,” she says.
This multi-perspective collaboration took to the international stage in November as Gerecke and Barowka traveled to Washington, DC, to present the students’ results at the 38th annual Society for Neuroscience conference. Barowka served as the presenting author on the project poster, fielding questions from her undergraduate peers and professionals with Ph.Ds. For Barowka, the collaborative nature of the Rhodes institute provided excellent preparation.
“I did not realize there would be thousands of people at the conference. I felt that both my time at Rhodes and my experience with presenting the research to the summer institute prepared me well to answer questions about our research,” she reflects. “It was also a great way to network with the neuroscience community and to be a part of the constant discussion on our topic.”
Gerecke hopes to continue to be a part of this “constant discussion” regarding mechanisms of neuroprotection at the 2009 Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, where she will take on another group of student fellows. However, she maintains that her experience of working with Barowka, Spainhour and Trout has provided integral insight into her roles of scholar and mentor.
“The summer fellowship is a unique and beneficial experience among small liberal arts colleges for both students and professors. But, from a mentoring standpoint it is also hugely satisfying.”
Gerecke is not alone in this sentiment. From the students’ perspective, the collaborative power of working directly alongside a professor to complete an experiment from start to finish is an incomparable enhancement of their college careers.
As Spainhour says, “It’s something you just can’t do during the school year. There comes that time when you stop just talking about your lab work and you develop a deeper relationship with your mentor.”
What a way to spend the summer.