Vandna Jerath, a Johns Hopkins University junior from Martinez, has created a Web site to give people with autism a forum for expressing themselves through writing and visual arts.
Autism Netverse: A Literary Journey for the Autistic Mind is online at www.jhu.edu/netverse. Visitors will find poetry, sketches, paintings and photographs by people of many ages.
Jerath, 20, is the daughter of Dr. Ravinder Jerath and Dr. Rita Jerath of Martinez.
On paper, Jerath's major and minor, neuroscience and writing seminars, are at opposite ends of the academic spectrum. But the two disparate disciplines meet online thanks to a $2,500 grant provided by the Provost's Undergraduate Research Award program, which affords students at Johns Hopkins the opportunity to conduct independent research during their undergraduate years.
Jerath was inspired to seek a grant to launch Autism Netverse after conducting research in summer 2002 with neuroscientist Manuel Casanova, then of the Medical College of Georgia. Her assignment was to compile an anthology of poetry by highly functioning autistic individuals.
Jerath found her project rewarding and wanted to take it further by persuading journals and nonprofit groups to dedicate sections of their publications to the creative works of autistic people, but didn't have any luck. Jerath, who also conducts autism research with Stewart Mostofsky at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, didn't want to wait any longer for others to decide her idea had merit. Thanks to PURA, Jerath was able to strike out on her own and create Autism Netverse.
"I realized that I didn't need a degree to make an impact on the autistic community," said Jerath, who intends to pursue a career in medicine. "The provost grant provided me with this opportunity. If I hadn't explored the concept behind the Web site, someone else surely would have in the future."
Jerath ultimately received 30 submissions from as far away as India.
Tristan Davies, her PURA adviser on the project and a senior lecturer in the writing seminars, said he thinks "the idea can't really lose."
"It's a glimpse into this very confusing world," he said. "Certainly, it's got to be a tool for parents of an autistic child who are struggling with this by providing hope that there's something that their child might connect to. Finally, it shows the perfect union of three things: the humanities, scientific research and technology. It's a Web site that might really make a difference."
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