Exploiting the fact that electrical charge moves through organic materials may give new insight into neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or mad cow disease. Stephen Diegelmann, who is a second year pre-doctoral student studying chemistry through the NanoBio IGERT at the Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins, hopes to monitor and direct cell growth with organic semi-conductors. Funded by the National Science Foundation, IGERT stands for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship.
Electric charge can travel through certain organic materials in a manner conceptually related to the way that it moves through metallic or semi-conducting inorganic materials, Diegelmann’ explains, but organic materials that exhibit semi-conductivity are not as efficient nor do they have the transport capabilities that metals do. “There are ways to optimize this conduction,“ he says.
Working in the lab of J.D. Tovar, assistant professor of Chemistry at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and INBT affiliated faculty member, Diegelmann studies the electrical conductivity of the oligothiophene. This a organic molecule—comprised of strings of four carbon rings with a central sulfur atom can promote cell adhesion, growth and differentiation. It also can be used to monitor the formation of insoluble amyloid plaques, such those found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease or mad-cow.
Diegelmann earned a bachelor’s in chemistry in 2006 from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. He came to Johns Hopkins with the desire to learn more about biochemistry and recently completed requirements for his master’s degree before applying to INBT’s NanoBio traineeship. “I never really realized how much interdisciplinary crossover you must have when you get to this level, but INBT really encourages a lot of interdepartmental collaboration,“ he says. “In the realm of nanobiotechnology, there are so many disciplines involved that you really need to spread yourself around and cover as much ground as possible.“
After he earns his PhD, Diegelmann envisions himself teaching in a small university setting. He grew up in Richmond where he enjoyed frequent trips to the beach and played Division 3 football for his college.