Nanotechnology involving materials and devices at extremely small length scales—sometimes just a few atoms wide— is providing novel solutions to health and environmental problems. Nano-sized components are found in hundreds of applications, from targeted cancer therapies to stain-resistant clothing.
So that the scientists and engineers of the future will be better prepared to answer questions regarding nanotechnology, Johns Hopkins University faculty members specializing in disciplines ranging from engineering to public health are collaborating to develop a new undergraduate minor in nanotechnology risk assessment and public policy. Funding for development comes from a two-year, $200,000 National Science Foundation grant and will be administered through the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT). If their work goes as planned, faculty members anticipate that the minor will be ready to accept its first students by the fall of 2009.
Students in the nano-risk minor will explore both the scientific properties of nanomaterials and the public policy ramifications of their use.
“We want them to learn about the potential risks associated with the development of nanotechnological solutions, as well as come to understand the risks presented by not developing some of these nanoscale solutions,“ says Justin Hanes, associate professor in the Whiting School of Engineering (WSE), who co-authored the grant with Edward Bouwer, WSE professor and director of the Center for Contaminant Transport, Fate, and Remediation, and Jonathan Links, professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health (BSPH). All are INBT affiliated faculty members.
“Nanoparticles are small enough to cross cell membranes. They also possess a large surface area, which enhances their reactivity,“ Links says. “However, little research has been done to examine the toxicity potential of these ultrafine particles. Some concerns have been based only on the extrapolation of studies on other substances such as quartz, asbestos or particulate air pollution.“
Bouwer adds, “The proposal makes clear that the effects of nanoparticles on public health or the environment are not well understood. The program’s goal is to train scientists who are better prepared to lead research, development, and eventual commercialization of safe nanotechnologies.“
The new minor will likely involve a suite of courses on topics such as risk science and public policy; nanotechnology ethics, law and policy; environmental engineering; emerging environmental issues; environmental health; public health; and public health toxicology. Faculty members who will develop or teach the courses are affiliates of INBT, WSE, and BSPH, as well as the Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute, Berman Institute of Bioethics, Center for Law and the Public’s Health, and Center for Educational Outreach (CEO).
“The program complements with the large group of students in the Public Health Studies major who also explore environmental health, health policy and other public health-related topics, but from a broader perspective,“ says James Yager, senior associate dean for academic affairs at BSPH.
A new course to be offered in the spring of 2008—Nanobiotechnology 101—and developed by INBT co-directors Peter Searson, professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Denis Wirtz, professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, will likely be a prerequisite of the nano-risk minor.
“The combination of leading faculty from across disciplines in the University exemplifies the mission of INBT by blending and leveraging expertise,“ Searson says. “It is a marvelous opportunity to bring together pre-existing, but largely separate, activities in nanotechnology within the university to impact our students and beyond.“
Additional INBT Training Opportunities
In addition to this new minor, INBT administers three other educational programs including the graduate Nano-Bio Medicine program funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship in Nanobiotechnology funded by the National Science Foundation, and a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates program.
Part of the proposal for the nano-risk minor requires that students from these graduate training programs be involved by training of K-12 classroom instructors through the Center for Educational Outreach (CEO). CEO will translate components of the coursework for use in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curriculums in underprivileged school settings.