Field Notes

By Brennen Jensen

photo of Kirsten Burke

Kirsten Burke ’17 never expected to find a new path of research in a deck of playing cards.

A Stacked Deck

At a campus graduate seminar last January, art history major Kirsten Burke ’17 found a new research calling in an unusual place: a pack of playing cards. The imagery on this luxury, 16th-century deck by Nuremberg artist Peter Flötner shows a world seemingly turned upside down. And Burke’s academic world took a similar spin as she excitedly realized she’d found a new artistic lens through which to examine the age.

“These are an undiscovered gem of Renaissance art,” Burke says. “The field of German playing cards is very under published and most of the materials are in German.”

The deck is at once familiar and strange. There are 48 cards of a similar size and shape of modern cards and there are four suits: hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. The number cards go from 2 to 10, while the face cards depict King, Upper Knave, and Under Knave. Of greater interest to Burke is the decorative imagery Flötner added to many of the cards, depictions she sees as serving to subvert the rigid, hierarchical society of their day dominated by nobles and clergy. Take the seven of hearts, which shows a woman in red holding a mirror up to a pair of well-dressed gentlemen. The mirror’s image depicts the men wearing fool’s caps.

“The mirror becomes a subversive weapon that she wields to expose them as fools, so this became the jumping-off point for my going deeper into the cards than perhaps anyone has looked before,” Burke says. The cards also depict pigs parodying human activities, fools running amok, and multiple instances of the woman in red appearing to manipulate and expose others.

Besides this ornate version of the cards, a mass-produced, wood-block version was made, so Flötner’s imagery did get some exposure. Was he simply moralizing, as some have suggested, or was he willfully seeking to create some cracks in society?

“We don’t know exactly what his modus operandi was because he’s still very much a neglected figure,” Burke says. “But based on his other prints and artworks, he tends to lean towards the anti-clerical. His mocking and comedy seems directed at the authorities in Nuremberg, be they political, social, or ecclesiastical.”

photo of Sean Costello

Shawn Costello ’16 conducts research that changes the way we understand cellular movement.

Hot Potato Proteins

The inner workings of cells can be studied in vivo, within a living organism, or in vitro, within a test tube or other vessel. Both are commonly done in a lab setting with sophisticated equipment. Shawn Costello ’16, who completed research with the laboratory of Karen Fleming, a professor in the Department of Biophysics, chose another path. Armed with nothing but a laptop and a grande iced coffee, he was able to expand our working knowledge of specific cellular activity while sitting at the corner Starbucks.

He created a computational model for the development and movement of outer membrane proteins in E. coli bacteria. These proteins perform a variety of critical functions once they are perched on a cell’s perimeter. However, they are created in the cell’s interior and can only achieve their final form and “gatekeeper” location after a problematic intra-cellular journey. They’re assisted by helper proteins called chaperones that take turns binding with the outward-bound proteins to keep them from sticking together, or aggregating, which can damage or kill a cell. This process has been well studied, both in vivo and in vitro, and the various actions and reactions are well documented. But the big picture was lacking.

“The idea with my project was that we have little bits of information about the process and let’s see if we can put all those together,” Costello says. “A big part of the work was collecting all the numbers from literature, which wasn’t very interesting. But once we have it all, we can do a lot of interesting things.”

Using his laptop-based cell simulator, he can tweak inputs and change reaction rates and then make predictions about a cell’s health. His work led to an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which proposes a shift in our understanding of how chaperones assist in the journey of outer- membrane proteins.

Costello and his colleagues came up with a way to help lay people visualize it all: Imagine you have a hot potato and a room full of people tasked with getting the scorching spud from a doorway to out a window. Each person can only handle it briefly before tossing it on. The fastest way would be to line everyone up, bucket-brigade style, efficiently moving the potato, one person to another, until the window is reached.

Now, if you think of the people as chaperones and the potato as an outer-membrane protein, this is how it was widely thought the cellular process worked. But this requires a cell to somehow direct the process, and possibly expend energy in doing so. Now suppose the people were standing all over the room and they just passed the potato around randomly. It might take a while, but eventually it would end up by the window.

“That’s what we’re proposing is actually happening,” says Costello. “That there is no highly ordered structured pathway and it’s just a stochastic, non-directed process.”

photo of Andrew Greenhalgh

Andrew Greenhalgh ’17 hopes to find better ways to treat the wounds of injured service members.

Less Failure, More Healing

As the son of a former Navy flight surgeon, Andrew Greenhalgh ’17 grew up amid the armed services and with a strong desire to follow in his father’s footsteps into a career in military medicine. While double majoring in molecular and cellular biology and the history of science and technology, he spent three summers doing research at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in his hometown of Bethesda, Maryland.

“There are a multitude of injuries that are not quite what you see in the civilian world,” Greenhalgh says of military medicine. “They are what drive my research in how we might use bio-markers to formulate the best treatment plan for injured service members once they come back.”

Some of the most severe soft tissue injuries, including those requiring amputation, are treated with what are called “flap surgeries;” essentially, sealing wounds with a flap of skin and tissue either from the area around the wound itself, or when there is too much local damage, grafted from elsewhere on the patient’s body. These involved operations sometimes fail, however; particularly when infections later develop beneath the flap, necessitating that the wound be reopened. This traumatic turn of events is referred to as “wound failure.”

Greenhalgh’s work involved looking for ways to better predict when wound failure is more likely to occur before operating. It focused on chemokines, a family of specialized proteins that help draw white blood cells to areas of injury. Analyzing data from 73 wounded service personnel, he found a correlation between the amounts of a specific chemokine called IL-8 and the propensity for wound failure.

“The importance of this is if you see a certain concentration of IL-8, you can predict whether a wound will fail or not and so you can start to formulate a treatment plan in case the wound does fail, or else try a less invasive approach,” he says.

More study is needed before testing for IL-8 could become a routine part of flap surgery preparation. And Greenhalgh looks to be in the field if it ever does. “This research was particularly rewarding for me in that I got a better sense of military medicine,” he says. “It only reaffirmed my decision that this is something I want to do.”

photo of Nicole Mihelson

Nicole Mihelson ’17 explores connections between health outcomes and social status of mothers with infants and young children.

Ladder of Success

Research projects can arise from the oddest places. Neuroscience major Nicole Mihelson ’17 has a conversation on the Hopkins shuttle to thank for her research on the psychological distress of mothers of young children—work she published last summer in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

As the bus bumped along, she overheard a pair of public health students from the Bloomberg School discussing Associate Professor Sara Johnson’s work exploring how early social experiences—including stress, poverty, and maternal mental health—can shape a child’s physical, cognitive, and emotional development. “It sounded really fascinating and I asked them for her contact information,” Mihelson says.

In broad terms, Mihelson’s work looks at the relationship between health outcomes and social status, which can be measured a couple of ways. An individual’s objective socioeconomic status is pretty cut-and-dry, as it is generally based on income, educational attainment, and occupation. Subjective social status is a different animal. In her work, it is based on an individual being presented with the image of two 10-rung ladders and then asked to indicate where they feel they stand in terms of social status (both within their immediate community and the country as a whole).

“There is a really well-documented relationship between objective social status and health outcomes,” Mihelson says. “However, more recently it’s been shown that subjective social status is an even stronger determinate of health. The reasons why could be that subjective social status—where you rank yourself—can capture things like hopes, self-efficacy, spirituality—all things that are difficult to measure but nonetheless influence health.”

Mihelson used surveys from a socioeconomically diverse group of mothers of 5-year-old children that Johnson had already amassed, examining the heretofore-unstudied relationship between subjective social status and psychological distress among such mothers. (Previous studies in this area had focused on pregnant women and mothers of infants, despite maternal psychological distress being more common in mothers of young children.)

Her findings suggest that subjective social standing in one’s community is associated with maternal psychological well-being. She found the most robust relationship involving African-American women, where lower community social standing rankings translate into increased instances of psychological distress. Because determining subjective social status is quick and much less intrusive than asking people for personal data, such as income, it could be a tool clinics and other healthcare providers employ to quickly identify patients at risk for social isolation and depression, particularly those in marginalized communities.