Field Notes

By Brennen Jensen

headshot photos of 4 student researchers

photo of student researcher Mike Tritsch

Egyptian Endeavor

Mike Tritsch remembers exactly when he became obsessed with ancient Egypt. In his elementary school library in the first grade, he came upon a book about the lost civilization. “It was one of those books with clear pages that lets you peel back the layers to see into various structures, and I was entranced and wanted to know more about this ancient culture,” Tritsch recalls.

Having been fascinated for so long, imagine how the sophomore—a Woodrow Wilson Fellow double-majoring in archaeology and Near Eastern studies—felt over winter intersession when he found himself in Luxor, standing before the Temple of Mut. Tritsch traveled to Egypt with Betsy Bryan, the Alexander Badawy Professor in Egyptian Art and Archaeology and the Krieger School’s vice dean for humanities and social sciences, and her team to assist with the excavations she’s been doing at the site for close to 20 years. “It was incredible—10 times better than anything you’ll ever see in a book,” he says.

Much of Bryan’s research has been to gain an understanding of how this area was utilized in the first and second millennium BCE and the rituals performed there in relation to the namesake goddess Mut. Tritsch spent the month excavating an area outside the temple walls at the possible site of a domestic dwelling of a priest, or perhaps a craftsman, associated with the temple. Analyzing the findings will help the team make a more nuanced assessment.

“We found a large array of pottery sherds, stone tools for polishing and maybe cutting, a good number of animal bones, and some agate, possibly used for tools or for some kind of cultic purposes,” Tritsch says. One of the more fascinating things to come out of the ground was a blue scaraboid bead bearing the image of a king holding a crook and standing on two uraei (reared cobras). But the more mundane finds—such as the large amount of red and white painted mud brick, which may have been used for furniture, covering of walls, or fresco scenes—might actually be more useful for Tritsch in interpreting the site.

“We’re still in the interpretation phase, so I’m going to be working with the bricks to determine their exact use—basically comparing the painted surfaces found at Mut Temple to those found at other sites of relatively contemporaneous time periods throughout Egypt and Sudan, as well as to tomb paintings from this era to see if any of the scenes display evidence of the use of painted mud brick,” he says.

Tritsch, who has also done archaeological work around the state of Maryland in conjunction with the Smithsonian, will excavate in Israel as the JHU/AIAR Undergraduate Archaeological Fellow this summer. He plans to return to the Temple of Mut during the next two intersessions to further his research. “It’s touching people’s lives from 3,000 years ago,” he says.


photo of student researcher Shahmir Ali

The Flow of History

The ancient people who populated South Asia’s Indus Valley more than 4,000 years ago were sophisticated water-management pioneers. Not only did they develop the first enclosed sewer pipes and freshwater systems allowing sizable cities to flourish, they are also credited with creating an early version of the first flush toilet.

Today, most of this region is within Pakistan, an increasingly parched nation that needs all the breakthrough water technologies it can get. The International Monetary Fund ranks it the third most water-stressed country in the world, with population growth and climate change contributing to the crisis. Making matters worse, as water gets drawn from deeper and deeper underground, it often comes up contaminated with arsenic.

Sophomore Shahmir Ali, double majoring in public health studies and political science, is exploring how teaching high school students in his native Pakistan about the region’s ancient approaches to water and its contemporary challenges might empower the country’s next generation of public health professionals to solve the water woes.

“I’m designing a course on water management in Pakistan from ancient and modern perspectives. I’m going to see how I can try to combine a curriculum of history and cultural heritage with a more standard public health curriculum,” he says.

The course will be recorded on video and include interactive animations as well as interviews with water management experts at Johns Hopkins and other institutions. In the fall, it will be presented to about 50 students in a school in Lahore, Pakistan. Ali is an unabashed champion of an interdisciplinary approach to education, particularly when it comes to public health, which he says is not a “standard subject” and can be seen as a “spread-out concept” that’s hard for students to grasp. “I want to see if the incorporation of a historical perspective will make them more interested in the subject matter,” he says.

The history, at the very least, can be inspiring. “They will see that the people in Pakistan have found innovative ways to deal with these issues throughout history, and it’s almost a tradition to deal with such problems,” he says. “No, we can’t implement ancient ideas with today’s population of millions, but the drive to solve water issues is an aspect of our cultural heritage that we should embrace.”


photo of student researcher Alizay Jalisi

Bridging the Divide

It’s not hard to imagine that the life of an undocumented Latino immigrant in this country can be stressful and perilous, particularly given recent changes in deportation laws. And Senior Alizay Jalisi, double majoring in molecular and cellular biology and Spanish, doesn’t have to imagine their challenged lives, as she has learned about them first-hand.

Since 2015, as a way to combine her interests in health care, Spanish, and—as someone whose parents were born in Pakistan—the immigrant experience in America, she’s been attending weekly Baltimore meetings of the mental health support group Testimonios, run by the Centro SOL (Salud/Health Opportunities for Latinos) a health care initiative organized by Johns Hopkins faculty.

“A common theme across both the men’s and women’s sessions is a very real fear and anxiety attached to deportation,” Jalisi says. “They are afraid of losing touch with their families and being sent off to a country that isn’t really theirs any more, or one they might have fled because of violence.”

Jalisi says other sources of stress that can erode mental well-being among the undocumented include a fear of persecution and an inability to turn to the police for help: Women express fears of sexual assault, and men worry about being robbed or beaten up. Health insurance is almost unheard of, despite many participants working 12 to 15 hours a day. Jalisi’s interest developed into a research project evaluating the Testimonios program to learn more about the demographics of its participants, their barriers to health care, and ways to improve outreach.

“I worked with the Centro SOL advisory board to design a short, 15- to 20-minute telephone survey,” Jalisi says. “Some questions were geared towards just getting feedback on some of the logistical aspects of Testimonios. We also asked participants why they chose to attend the program—were they struggling with depression or substance abuse? Most of them felt that the program had been effective in giving them a space to talk about their stress and symptoms and in providing a physical connection to other community resources.”

As a side project, she started a blog where people tell their personal stories as immigrants in Baltimore. Photographs are included, though for a variety of reasons, Jalisi thought it best not to depict faces. So she artfully photographed close-ups of their hands instead. This aesthetic compromise has a power of its own. “I personally think that people’s hands can say a lot about them,” Jalisi says “For example, alot of the male participants are painters so they had paint under their nails. Some of the women had very work-weary hands because they work long hours in restaurants. Creating the blog was really helpful for me to humanize the statistics that I had generated from the survey.”


photo of student researcher Gillian Waldo

National Park Disservice

When Gillian Waldo was a freshman, she and her sister took a Greyhound bus from Baltimore to South Dakota to see Badlands National Park. It was a long trek, but one with a big payoff. “I was just kind of awestruck,” says Waldo, a senior film and media studies major. “I’d lived on the East Coast all my life, and I hadn’t really experienced that sort of wonder and grandeur in the outdoors. I became interested in exploring these different spaces.”

Her subsequent research involved reading up on the history of the national parks, and some of what she found wasn’t awesome or wonderful: like conscious efforts to exclude African-Americans from enjoying the spaces and marginalizing the role of Native Americans when parks were carved out of their ancestral lands. “The slogan that the national parks are ‘America’s Best Idea’ is problematic because implicit in that statement is a negation of this other history that doesn’t get talked about,” Waldo says.

The first part of her project involves writing a paper exploring ways racism and exclusion have played out in the parks since the National Parks Service’s creation just over a century ago. Waldo says one method to discourage blacks from visiting parks during segregation was relegating them to smaller, less-scenic spaces with substandard facilities and dowdy campsites and bathrooms. “Basically, following the egregious separate-but-equal policies that were anything but,” she says. For native peoples, it was often a case of displacement and not having a seat at the table when the Park Service created the spaces and directed their ongoing stewardship.

The second part of Waldo’s project involved shooting a short film last summer as she and a friend spent a month visiting national parks and monuments, including Death Valley, Olympic, Black Canyon, and Bears Ears. She calls the resulting 17-minute film—shot on 16 mm film, not video—a non-political “essay film,” exploring the diversity of landscapes. She hopes to submit it to some small film festivals.

Since she began her work, the Park Service announced sizable increases to admission fees for several popular parks, which Waldo feels “just adds another barrier to people who want to experience them.”

“This project was a good way of investigating how [national] parks fit into the greater thread of American history and echo a lot of historical events, while also speaking to the tensions that we see in our society today,” Waldo says. Despite the thorny history and recent challenges, everyone Waldo interviewed about our national parks—park rangers, visitors, members of allied nonprofits—remain bullish on them. “Everyone was unanimous in saying that the parks could really be a force for good,” she says.