Discovery – Summer 2009

By: Magazine Editor
Jun 21, 2009

Shakespeare: Page to Stage

Michele Osherow is one of UMBC’s rising stars in the humanities. An assistant professor of English, she serves as director of the Humanities Scholars Program and as the associate director of the Dresher Center for the Humanities. Osherow also runs a monthly Shakespeare reading group and organizes events such as an April marathon reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets – put together with UMBC associate professor of theatre Alan Kreizenbeck.

But Osherow’s Bard-ic efforts don’t stop at the edge of Hilltop Circle. In addition to having won multiple awards as an actress, she is also the resident dramaturg at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. It’s a job in which Osherow uses scholarship and a love of theater to aid in getting Shakespeare plays such as The Winter’s Tale – produced by the Folger, appropriately enough, last winter – from the page to the stage.

“The role of the dramaturg is essentially the scholar in the rehearsal room,” Osherow says. But the job starts long before the actors turn up for the first read-through of lines.

“The majority of my work is done actually before the rehearsals start,” she says. “I will work with the director on concept. Why are we attracted to this play? Actually, I carry it around in my pocket for awhile. What’s the story that we want to tell? And how are we how are we going to make that classical – that 400-year-old – story accessible to a modern audience? There’s a lot of discussion, and a lot of arguing, and a lot of reading that goes on.”

Dramaturgs also tackle the daunting task of cutting Shakespearean texts down to a playable length. What’s editing the Bard like?

“It’s actually kind of fun,” says Osherow. “And it’s often a case where I make more cuts than a director does.” But she adds that the point of the cutting is to clarify language and plot points and, of course, make sure that Shakespeare’s wit and humor land with the intended effect.

Dramaturgs add as well as subtract, observes Osherow. “I will suggest some scholarly work [to the director],” she says, “because the idea is to infuse the production with a kind of scholarly energy that can be helpful, as opposed to getting in the way of a story.”

The dramaturg also answers actors’ questions about context. Osherow says that in her experience, such context is “particularly helpful for women. Shakespeare gives us some very strong women, but those women were unusual – especially considering the constraints placed on women.

“Women were supposed to be chaste, silent and obedient,” Osherow continues. “Silence was equated with chastity. A woman who spoke a lot was called a ‘whore.’” In a play like The Winter’s Tale, where Queen Hermione remains dignified and even silent under the mistaken assault leveled on her virtue by her husband, Osherow argues that knowing that context is key for actors and for the audience.

“Hermione’s refusal to speak in certain situations is not because of fear,” Osherow says, “but because she is a true gentlewoman.”

— Richard Byrne ’86

No NO = No Migraines

Pain relievers can often “take away” a headache. But those who suffer migraines often find it much harder to obtain relief. Elsa Garcin, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is investigating ways that might someday directly attack the migraine at its creation.

Her migraine work builds on research she has already done on immune systems problems like arthritis and inflammation. In the human body, nitric oxide (also known as NO) plays many roles. It is the molecule that regulates blood pressure and transmits signals between nerve cells. As part of the body’s immune response, NO also attacks bacteria, viruses, and tumors. But a problem can arise: If the immune system makes too much NO, says Garcin, “it also attacks your own molecules.”

Trying to lower NO levels in just one part of the body is a tricky problem. The three respective enzymes that produce the molecule to regulate blood pressure, carry nerve signals and perform immune work are almost identical. Block one enzyme to reduce the overall presence of NO in the body and you can get awful side effects from having also interfered with the other two.

Garcin has found a way to be more choosy, she and 20 colleagues reported last fall in the journal Nature Chemical Biology. She solved the targeting problem by making a drug molecule that binds most strongly to the immune version of the enzyme.

Designing this discerning drug molecule proved tricky, since the three enzymes are identical in shape at the place where they produce nitric oxide. Finding the right enzyme is also crucial because that specific target is also the place where a drug would bind in order to block the enzyme.

Using a technique called x-ray crystallography to look at the 3-D structure of the three NO-producing enzymes, Garcin discovered that the immune-system enzyme has what she calls a “sweet spot” – located far from the spot where the enzyme makes nitric oxide. That distance allowed her to design a drug molecule that not only blocks the NO-producing site but also possesses an extension that reaches around to bind specifically with the immune enzyme at its sweet spot.

The extension on the experimental drug molecule allows the immune version of the enzyme and the drug molecule to become inseparable, thus shutting down overproduction of NO. The extension, she says, makes the drug molecule bind 3,000 times more strongly to the immune enzyme than to the other two.

Garcin is now looking for ways to interfere with the brain version of the enzyme that produces NO, while leaving the other two enzymes unperturbed. Finding a way to do so might eliminate a key trigger for migraines. “If you target this one but do not target the one in blood pressure,” she says, “there’s a potential for migraine treatment.”

— Lila Guterman

Research Rewarded

As the Spring 2009 semester ended, three UMBC faculty members received prestigious awards that will allow them to travel and continue research in history, emergency health services and biology.

Kate Brown, associate professor of history, was named a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow for 2009. She is working on a tandem history of two cities (Hanford, Washington and Maiak, Russia) that were located near the world’s first two plutonium plants.

Brian Maguire, clinical associate professor of emergency health services, has won a 2009 Fulbright Scholarship. He will travel to Australia to pursue research on the occupational risks among ambulance personnel.

Stephen Miller, associate professor of biological sciences, has won a 2009 Fulbright Scholarship. He will travel to Germany to continue his work on the origins of multicellularity – the ability of higher plants and animals to create many different kinds of cells.

The Good Stuff

Theresa Good has a knack for forging the demands of a career in science into tangible rewards: cutting-edge research in Alzheimer’s disease, prestigious awards for her research and mentoring, and intense camaraderie with colleagues. As a professor of chemical and biological engineering, Good excels in motivating and training her students to untangle thorny research problems, all the while creating lifelong collaborations with them and with other colleagues.

In February, Good was named a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineers, a distinction bestowed upon the top two percent of the field. And in 2007, she won UMBC’s Donald Creighton Memorial Faculty Award for Graduate Student Mentoring.

The accolades come as no surprise to current and former graduate students. “She’ll give you the freedom you need as a researcher to make the project your own and to pursue ideas that others may not,” says James Henry, a former graduate student who is now an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Louisiana State University.

Good’s research explores why the brain’s nerve cells die in Alzheimer’s disease. “Most of the questions we ask are trying to understand the relationship between the structure of the [Alzheimer’s] protein and how it interacts with cells,” she explains. To do the work, she and her students develop new tools and techniques, including new spectroscopy methods. Some of the findings, such as the ability of certain polymers to lessen the toxicity of Alzheimer’s proteins, could even lead to treatments for the disease.

Though her methods and discoveries have influenced other scientists, none of her attempts to stop Alzheimer’s disease has yet reached the clinics where doctors are grappling with the disease. “I’m not going to become rich anytime soon,” she laughs. “But it’s probably contributed to the way that people think about targets for disease and some of the approaches we can use.”

Good grew up near Rochester, N.Y., and taught science in the Peace Corps in the Democratic Republic of Congo before getting a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She then taught at Texas A&M University before joining the faculty at UMBC in 2002. To celebrate her promotion to full professor in 2007, she bought herself a 26-foot sailboat, in which she often sails with her students on the Chesapeake Bay.

Good also encourages students to run the Annapolis Ten Mile Run alongside her each year. In the first few years, Good jokes, “I told them that if they didn’t allow me to beat them, I wouldn’t sign their forms to graduate.” Now, she says, “they don’t have to pretend to go slower than me.”

While the honor from the engineering institute is flattering, Good says, she was even more touched by the mentoring award since she was nominated by her own students. “I think I do some good research,” she says, “but what I really produce is people.”

— Lila Guterman

Nine Digit Histories

From behind his large, tidy wooden desk at the Social Security Administration’s headquarters in Woodlawn, Larry DeWitt, ’04 M.A., history, will happily discuss the philosophical underpinnings of social insurance and the importance of knowing the past when making future decisions about the nation’s economic safety net.

But DeWitt, the historian at this vast federal agency and the lead editor of weighty new tome of primary source material about the agency, Social Security: A Documentary History (CQ Press) can’t conceal the plain truth. He is just itching to get out of his seat and show off his collection.

It doesn’t take long to see why. The adjoining office is crammed with pamphlets, placards, books – and even old agency telephone directories. A wartime poster reminds why it’s important to hold on to Social Security cards: “Replacing 1.8 million cards last year cost Uncle Sam the price of 550 jeeps.”

Dig deeper into one file, and there’s a shopworn report from 1952 about problems with account numbers. In another, a 33 1/3 rpm record with comedy bits from Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart – each introduced by a 30-second pitch for Social Security from Nipsey Russell.

Suddenly, DeWitt scampers up a small ladder. “Ooh, let’s see if I can find…” he says, eventually retrieving another public service announcement, this one recorded by Johnny Mathis.

The Social Security history tour continues in a small museum just a few steps down the hall. DeWitt points out a 1795 pamphlet by Thomas Paine calling for creation of an old-age insurance scheme, the earliest US proposal for social insurance he has found. (He adds, with a laugh, that back then, 50 was considered old age.) There is a pen used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign the 1935 law establishing Social Security is on display, as well as the agency’s first PC – purchased for $9,600 in 1983 and reliant on two floppy disks. Still more artifacts and documents fill a musty overflow storage room upstairs, but DeWitt hopes a new museum and archives set to open in August will have room for it all.

The attention to its past is a bit surprising for an agency best known to many for doling out nine-digit numbers. But while most government offices don’t share such a commitment to their history, DeWitt points to others, like the military branches, which do share it.

“An institution this large and this important in American life has to have a sense of its history,” he explains, pointing out that Social Security is the largest single category in the federal budget. Nearly 51 million Americans – retired and disabled workers and their dependents, and survivors of deceased workers – will receive $650 billion in benefits.

DeWitt began his working life as a Social Security claims representative in Los Angeles 31 years ago, and has been the historian here since 1995. In addition to setting up exhibits and giving tours of the museum, he also manages the archive, helping those inside and outside the agency with research, and does his own writing and research on the institution and the program’s legislative history.

Attracted to UMBC because of its welcoming approach to mid-career professionals and part-time students, DeWitt completed his master’s in historical studies in 2004, writing his thesis on a little-known program run by the Social Security Administration that provided assistance to the families of Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II and helped internees with relocation and job placement when they were released.

DeWitt is now working on a Ph.D. in public policy, and plans to write his dissertation about the tenure of Arthur Altmeyer, a high-ranking executive during the first two decades of Social Security who oversaw the program’s founding, as well as its first major expansion, to include dependents and survivors. Somehow, he also maintains a personal website,, which touches on history, philosophy, public policy, and poetry.

After he retires from his historian’s post, DeWitt hopes to teach at a university. But his documentary history of the agency’s past is already providing a new tool for those who teach about America’s social contract. Social Security: A Documentary History was intended for university libraries, and it relies on primary documents, such as speeches, committee reports, congressional testimony, and letters – many drawn from the agency’s archive – to trace the legislative development of the program.

It’s weedy stuff for the general reader. But for students of the program, such a complete overview in a single spot, with detailed treatment of expanding benefits to new categories of workers, indexing payments to the inflation rate, and other issues is invaluable. It is also clear evidence that today’s debates about privatization and solvency really aren’t new. Not convinced? Check out the debate over 1939 amendments, designed to shrink the size of the program’s projected surplus – deemed too tempting while the federal budget was in constant deficit – or a 1983 report from the Cato Institute that pushes for private accounts.

DeWitt doesn’t like to weigh in on current arguments. But he insists that those who do should know their stuff. “We historians believe that in order to understand contemporary policy debates correctly, you need to have a historical context for them. And that’s what we try to provide,” he says. “We don’t take positions. We try to show how we got to where we are.”

For all his Social Security knowledge, there is one historical detail that eludes DeWitt. In that familiar photograph of Roosevelt signing the program into law, surrounded by dignitaries such as Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who is the bow-tied man standing at the back? “If I could solve this, I could retire.”

— Holly Yeager

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