Students conducting research at Johns Hopkins University. Credit: Homewood Imaging and Photographic Services/JHU.
Anyone interested in nanobiotechnology can confirm there’s still much to learn about this small scale science. Few know this better than the more than 30 students and fellows participating in nanobiotechnology related educational programs offered through the Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) at Johns Hopkins University.
Since its inception in May 2006, INBT has helped train the next generation of scientists and engineers to work in various aspects of nanobiotechnology. INBT serves as home to several programs in nanotechnology for biology and medicine. Programs funded by the National Science Foundation include an IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates), and an IRES (International Research Experience for Students). The Howard Hughes Medical Institute funds a NanoBio Med pre-doctoral fellowship, and the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute funds a postdoctoral fellowship program focused on Nanotechnology for Cancer Medicine.
For example, those interested in global research focused on nanobiotechnology may apply to INBT’s brand new IRES program, which sponsors students to conduct an intensive two-month research project in the laboratories of the Inter-university MicroElectronics Center (IMEC) in Belgium. Both undergraduates and graduates are eligible to participate in this highly competitive program that fosters collaborations between Johns Hopkins University students and IMEC researchers at their world-class microfabrication facilities in Leuven.
INBT also recently launched a postdoctoral fellowship in Nanotechnology for Cancer Medicine. Funded by the National Cancer Institute, the goal of this new postdoctoral training program is to ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is available to assume leadership roles in biomedical, behavioral and clinical research. Postdoctoral fellows will learn new methods for molecular imaging, develop high-throughput diagnostic tools, and engineer novel drug, antibody, or genetically based delivery systems to treat human cancers. The program is directed by Denis Wirtz, professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, and Kenneth Kinzler, professor of Oncology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Wirtz is INBT’s associate director and Kinzler is a member of INBT’s executive committee. Applications are now being accepted for this one-of-a-kind program that will allow two new postdoctoral fellows to enter the program each year.
Participants in all of INBT’s programs quickly discover that they must become experts in multiple fields. “Not a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, but rather an expert across disciplines,“ explains Wirtz. “Even if the student’s primary area of study is physics, for example, he or she should be also capable of producing the quality of biological research expected of biologists.“
For example, students in the IGERT or HHMI training programs move out of their academic comfort zones in a number of ways. It begins with student-led tutoring sessions, where those studying one discipline share their expertise with those in other fields. Journal clubs, common in biological disciplines but practically unheard of in engineering circles, gather students together to discuss current papers from published literature. Add to this mix, the annual NanoBio Symposium, a fall retreat, a professional development program, seminars and numerous poster sessions and one starts to grasp just how comprehensively INBT’s directors have embraced their mission for multidisciplinary research in nanoscience.
“The innovation of INBT graduate programs is the bringing together of talented students from a wide variety of backgrounds. We teach each other about our fields, which also requires learning our own more in depth,“ says Laura Ensign, a first-year student in the HHMI NBMed program.
Students also participate in laboratory rotations, working for a while in one type of lab and then in another until they choose two or more faculty members to serve as their mentors. Ultimately, participants become full members in at least two diverse research settings. “The students, in a sense, play ‘matchmaker’ for researchers who might not otherwise work together. This helps everyone involved produce work that uniquely advances nanobiotechnology in a way that it could not have been, had these researchers been working independently,“ Wirtz says.
In the summer REU program, undergraduates experience similar multidisciplinary training albeit, in a much more compressed fashion. During the 10-week REU, which selects less than a dozen top scholars through a rigorous and competitive application process, students conduct research, attend seminars and present posters. Students are placed with faculty members whose expertise mesh with, but do not exactly mirror, the applicant’s academic background.
INBT REU students Sean Virgile and Tiara Byrd at the Small Animal Imaging Research Program at the School of Medicine. Credit: JHU
“I came to this program with no expectations,“ says Sean Virgile, a junior biomedical engineering major from the University of Rochester. “I am leaving with a more developed career goal.“ Furthermore, working alongside more experienced graduate students provided training Virgile had not received from his studies. “I really broadened my understanding of molecular biology and was able to work with quantum dots and use lab techniques such as gel electrophoresis or PCR that I had only read about.“
For those not committed to long-term training in nanobiotechnology, INBT also offers opportunities for independent study and workshops. In the course “Animation in Nanotechnology and Medicine,“ INBT’s web/animation director, Martin Rietveld, shows students how to use computer-based tools to convey scientific concepts in a lively medium. During the winter intersession, students in “Communicating Science to the Public“ work with INBT’s science writer, Mary Spiro, to produce news stories, conduct interviews, and learn the significance of explaining scientific research to nontechnical audiences.
Also under development is an undergraduate program in nanotechnology risk assessment that will teach students how to weigh the medical benefits of a nanotechnology application against its potential environmental risks.
For more information about all of INBT’s educational options, go to http://inbt.jhu.edu/trainingprograms.php
Specific questions may be directed to INBT’s education program coordinator Ashanti Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by Mary Spiro