Originally created 01/12/04

Student's research on autism gets her on Web



Former high school standout Vandna Jerath continues to make a name for herself and to establish a voice for others as she pursues her education at Johns Hopkins University.

Ms. Jerath, salutatorian of Augusta Preparatory Day School's class of 2001, has been awarded a $2,500 Provost Undergraduate Research Award by the university in Baltimore to establish a Web site that will publish poetry by autistic individuals.

A junior majoring in neuroscience, she is currently conducting autism research at the Kennedy Krieger Institute under the supervision of Dr. Stewart Mostofsky, a pediatric neurologist.

The project, called Autism Netverse, was inspired during the summer after her freshman year in 2002, when she conducted autism research with Dr. Manuel Casanova, a neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia. As part of her research, she compiled an anthology of poetry written by high-functioning autistic individuals.

After concluding her research and writing an article on poetry as therapy for the autistic, she contacted several autism-related organizations and proposed including a poetry section in their publications. When she got little response, she took matters into her own hands, proposing the idea for the Web site.

"Her effort is audacious, akin to building an airplane while flying it," Drs. Manuel Casanova and Emil Roy write in the opening remarks on the Web site, which is now under construction.

Autism Netverse will provide an opportunity for the autistic to be heard and to increase the awareness of autism. Ms. Jerath's goal is to complete the launch of the literary Web site by March.

"Poetry by those with autism is not rare, just scattered," she said. "The major role of Netverse is to bring it together. ... It allows them to be published and express themselves in a way speaking doesn't. It eliminates the social pressures and distractions that come along with social interaction."

Many people with autism, a state of mind characterized by disregard of external reality, have difficulty with social interaction and language, she said.

The Johns Hopkins University Office of Design and Publications will assist in the Web site's design and production, and there will be a Johns Hopkins domain for it. Ms. Jerath will be responsible for maintaining the site after it is launched. She said she would one day like to have a literary magazine for the autistic.

So far, she has received eight poetry submissions and 10 art submissions.

"It should be celebrated, inspire others to write. It should just be heard," Ms. Jerath said.

Her request for submissions also has put her in touch with many people who suffer from autism.

"I get so many e-mails every day, sometimes just to communicate with me," she said. "It just brings a smile to my face. Sometimes I find myself ignoring my other work."

The project isn't the only thing on her plate. She is currently taking an overload of classes to free up time in the spring to take the medical school admissions test. She also is an admissions representative and is on the university's tennis team.

VANDNA JERATH

AGE: 20

FAMILY: Daughter of Drs. Ravinder Jerath and Rita Jerath, of Martinez

EDUCATION: Majoring in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University

QUOTE: "Autism is a very mysterious condition, and people need to be educated about it. It's something somebody had to do. I thought I could wait and get a degree, or I could do it now. Why wait?"

Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, ext. 113, or melissa.hall@augustachronicle.com.