Chemical and biomolecular engineer Denis Wirtz named Smoot professor

Denis Wirtz. Photo by Will Kirk/JHU

Denis Wirtz. Photo by Will Kirk/JHU

Denis Wirtz, Johns Hopkins University professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of the Engineering in Oncology Center, has been named the Theophilus Halley Smoot Professor in the Whiting School of Engineering. University president Ronald J. Daniels and the Board of Trustees determined the recipient.

Wirtz is the founding associate director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. He was recently named a 2009 fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science in the Engineering Section for his contributions to cell micromechanics, cell adhesion, and for the development and application of particle tracking methods that probe the micromechanical properties of living cells.

He is on the Editorial Boards of Biophysical Journal, Cell Adhesion and Migration and J. Nanomedicine. In 2005, he was named a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. Wirtz won the National Science Foundation Career Award in 1996 and the Whitaker Foundation Biomedical Engineering Foundation Award in 1997.

Wirtz came to Johns Hopkins faculty in 1994 and completing a postdoctoral fellowship in Physics and Biophysics at ESPCI (ParisTech). Wirtz earned his PhD in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University in 1993.

An announcement from the Whiting School’s dean Nick Jones stated that, “Throughout his time at Johns Hopkins, Denis has distinguished himself as an outstanding scholar and teacher. Additionally, Denis’ role as a catalyst for interdisciplinary research and collaboration at the university has proven extremely effective, both in terms of the research he conducts and the support he has attracted over the years. I am confident that his current research into the physical basis for cell adhesion and de-adhesion will prove critical to our understanding of the metastasis of cancer and enable important breakthroughs in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in the years to come.”

The Smoot Professorship was established in 1981 through the estate of Theophilus H. Smoot, who joined Johns Hopkins as a research assistant in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 1942 and later a research associate in the department in 1946. Upon the passing of Mr. Smoot in 1976 and his widow, Helen A. Smoot in 1980, the Theophilus Halley Smoot Fund for Engineering Science was created.  The first Smoot Professorship was awarded in 1981 to Stanley Corrsin, a professor and former chair in the department of mechanical engineering. Robert E. Green, Jr., professor in the department of materials science, held the professorship from 1988 through 2007.

Presentation of the Smoot professorship will occur in the spring.

Wirtz Lab

Named Professorships of The Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center

Story by Mary Spiro and from materials provided by the Whiting School of Engineering.

INBT, EOC directors named AAAS 2009 Fellows

The Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering faculty members who direct the Institute for NanoBioTechnology and Engineering in Oncology Center both have been awarded the distinction of AAAS Fellow. Election as a Fellow is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers.

Peter Searson, INBT director. Photo by Will Kirk/JHU

Peter Searson, INBT director. Photo by Will Kirk/JHU

Denis Wirtz, EOC director. Photo by Will Kirk/JHU

Denis Wirtz, EOC director. Photo by Will Kirk/JHU

Peter C. Searson, the Joseph R. and Lynn C. Reynolds Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, was named for distinguished contributions to the field of surface chemistry and nanoscience. His research interests include surface and molecular engineering, and semiconductor quantum dots.

Searson directs the interdivisional Institute for NanoBioTechnology launched in May 2006, which brings together researchers from medicine, engineering, the sciences, and public health to create new knowledge and develop new technologies to revolutionize health care and medicine. INBT currently has more than 190 affiliated faculty members. Searson has secondary appointments in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Department of Oncology.

Denis Wirtz, the Theophilus H. Smoot Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, was elected for his contributions to cell micromechanics and cell adhesion. He also was distinguished for his development and application for particle tracking methods to probe the micromechanical properties of living cells in normal conditions and disease state. Wirtz studies the biophysical properties of healthy and diseased cells, including interactions between adjacent cells and the role of cellular architecture on nuclear shape and gene expression.

Wirtz directs the newly formed Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center. The EOC is a Physical Sciences in Oncology program center of the National Cancer Institute launched in October 2009 with a $14.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. EOC brings together experts in cancer biology, molecular and cellular biophysics, applied mathematics, materials science, and physics to study and model cellular mobility and the assorted biophysical forces involved in the spread of cancer. Wirtz also serves as co-director of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology and has a joint appointment in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Department of Oncology.

A total of seven Johns Hopkins faculty members were elected to AAAS this year. Read about all of them in a Johns Hopkins University press release listed in the links below.

This year 531 members have been awarded this honor by AAAS because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. New Fellows will be presented with an official certificate and a gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) rosette pin on Feb. 20 at the AAAS Fellows Forum during the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego.  AAAS Fellows were announced in the AAAS News & Notes section of the journal Science on Dec. 18,  2009.

Story by Mary Spiro with materials provided by AAAS.

Seven Johns Hopkins Researchers Named 2009 AAAS Fellows

Searson Group Lab page

Wirtz Group Lab page

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

Whiting School of Engineering

A Perinuclear Actin Cap Regulates Shape

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On new lab chip, heart cells display a behavior-guiding ‘nanosense’

Johns Hopkins biomedical engineers, working with colleagues in Korea, have produced a laboratory chip with nanoscopic grooves and ridges capable of growing cardiac tissue that more closely resembles natural heart muscle. Surprisingly, heart cells cultured in this way used a “nanosense” to collect instructions for growth and function solely from the physical patterns on the nanotextured chip and did not require any special chemical cues to steer the tissue development in distinct ways. The scientists say this tool could be used to design new therapies or diagnostic tests for cardiac disease.

Leslie Tung, left, and Andre Levchenko, right, both of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, with Deok-Ho Kim, a doctoral student in Levchenko’s lab, who holds a nanopatterned chip able to cue heart cells to behave like natural heart tissue. Photo: Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Leslie Tung, left, and Andre Levchenko, right, both of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, with Deok-Ho Kim, a doctoral student in Levchenko’s lab, who holds a nanopatterned chip able to cue heart cells to behave like natural heart tissue. Photo: Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

The device and experiments using it are described in this week’s online Early Edition issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work, a collaboration with Seoul National University, represents an important advance for researchers who grow cells in the lab to learn more about cardiac disorders and possible remedies.

“Heart muscle cells grown on the smooth surface of a Petri dish would possess some, but never all, of the same physiological characteristics of an actual heart in a living organism,” said Andre Levchenko, an associate professor of biomedical engineering in Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering. “That’s because heart muscle cells—cardiomyocytes—take cues from the highly structured extracellular matrix, or ECM, which is a scaffold made of fibers that supports all tissue growth in mammals. These cues from the ECM influence tissue structure and function, but when you grow cells on a smooth surface in the lab, the physical signals can be missing. To address this, we developed a chip whose surface and softness mimic the ECM. The result was lab-grown heart tissue that more closely resembles the real thing.”

Levchenko said that when he and his colleagues examined the natural heart tissue taken from a living animal, they “immediately noticed that the cell layer closest to the extracellular matrix grew in a highly elongated and linear fashion. The cells orient with the direction of the fibers in the matrix, which suggests that ECM fibers give structural or functional instructions to the myocardium, a general term for the heart muscle.” These instructions, Levchenko said, are delivered on the nanoscale—activity at the scale of one-billionth of a meter and a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Levchenko and his Korean colleagues, working with Deok-Ho Kim, a biomedical engineering doctoral student in Levchenko’s lab and the lead author of the PNAS article, developed a two-dimensional hydrogel surface simulating the rigidity, size and shape of the fibers found throughout a natural ECM network. This biofriendly surface made of nontoxic polyethylene glycol displays an array of long ridges resembling the folded pattern of corrugated cardboard. The ridged hydrogel sits upon a glass slide about the size of a U.S. dollar coin. The team made a variety of chips with ridge widths spanning from 150 to 800 nanometers, groove widths ranging from 50 to 800 nanometers and ridge heights varying from 200 to 500 nanometers. This allowed researchers to control the surface texture over more than five orders of magnitude of length.

“We were pleased to find that within just two days the cells became longer and grew along the ridges on the surface of the slide,” Kim said. Furthermore, the researchers found improved coupling between adjacent cells, an arrangement that more closely resembled the architecture found in natural layers of heart muscle tissue. Cells grown on smooth, unpatterned hydrogels, however, remained smaller and less organized, with poorer cell-to-cell coupling between layers. “It was very exciting to observe engineered heart cells behave on a tiny chip in two dimensions like they would in the native heart in three dimensions,” Kim said.

Collaborating with Leslie Tung, a professor of biomedical engineering in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the researchers found that after a few more days of growth, cells on the nanopatterned surface began to conduct electric waves and contract strongly in a specific direction, as intact heart muscle would. “Perhaps most surprisingly, these tissue functions and the structure of the engineered heart tissue could be controlled by simply altering the nanoscale properties of the scaffold. That shows us that heart cells have an acute ‘nanosense,’” Levchenko said.

Johns Hopkins researchers developed this chip to culture heart cells that more closely resemble natural cardiac tissue. Photo: Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

Johns Hopkins researchers developed this chip to culture heart cells that more closely resemble natural cardiac tissue. Photo: Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

“This nanoscale sensitivity was due to the ability of cells to deform in sticking to the crevices in the nanotextured surface and probably not because of the presence of any molecular cue,” Levchenko said. “These results show that the ECM serves as a powerful cue for cell growth, as well as a supporting structure, and that it can control heart cell function on the nanoscale separately in different parts of this vital organ. By mimicking this ECM property, we could start designing better-engineered heart tissue.”

Looking ahead, Levchenko said that he anticipates that engineering surfaces with similar nanoscale features in three dimensions, instead of just two, could provide an even more potent way to control the structure and function of cultured cardiac tissue.

In addition to Kim, Levchenko and Tung, authors on this paper are postdoctoral fellow Elizabeth A. Lipke and doctoral students Raymond Cheong and Susan Edmonds Thompson, all from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Department of Biomedical Engineering; Michael Delannoy, assistant director of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Microscope Facility Center; and Pilnam Kim and Kahp-Yang Suh, both of Seoul National University.

Tung and Levchenko are affiliated faculty members of the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology. Thompson is a member of INBT’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship in nanobiotechnology. Funding for this research was provided by the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association.

Related Web sites

Andre Levchenko’s Lab

Leslie Tung’s Lab

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

Story by Mary Spiro

Cell’s ‘cap’ of bundled fibers could yield clues to disease

Newsletter readers! If you are looking for the 2010 NanoBio Symposium story go to: http://inbt.jhu.edu/outreach/symposium
Doctoral student Shyam Khatau, left, and Denis Wirtz, director of the Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center, played a key role in finding a bundled “cap” of thread-like fibers that holds a cell’s nucleus in its proper place. Photo by Will Kirk, Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu.

Doctoral student Shyam Khatau, left, and Denis Wirtz, director of the Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center, played a key role in finding a bundled “cap” of thread-like fibers that holds a cell’s nucleus in its proper place. Photo by Will Kirk, Homewoodphoto.jhu.edu.

It turns out that wearing a cap is good for you, at least if you are a mammal cell.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center have shown that in healthy cells, a bundled “cap” of thread-like fibers holds the cell’s nucleus, its genetic storehouse, in its proper place. Understanding this cap’s influence on cell and nuclear shape, the researchers say, could provide clues to the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer, muscular dystrophy and the age-accelerating condition known as progeria.

“Under a microscope, the nucleus of a sick cell appears to bulge toward the top, while the nucleus of a healthy cell appears as a flattened disk that clings to the base,” said principal investigator Denis Wirtz, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and director of the Engineering in Oncology Center. “If we can figure out how and why this shape-changing occurs, we may learn how to detect, treat or perhaps even prevent some serious medical disorders.”

Scientists have known that misshapen nuclei are an indicator of disease, Wirtz said, but they were not certain how a cell controlled the shape of its nucleus, the structure in mammal cells where genetic material resides. In a study published in the Nov. 10 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, the research team led by Wirtz reported the discovery of a fibrous structure that holds the nucleus in its place. The researchers call this new network structure the perinuclear actin cap.

“In healthy cells, the perinuclear actin cap is a domed structure of bundled filaments that sits above the nucleus, sort of like a net that is tethered all around to the perimeter of the cell membrane,”

Wirtz said. This configuration pushes the nucleus down toward the base of the cell and also creates the distinctive flattened shape of normal cells. Cells with cancer, muscular dystrophy or progeria, however, lack this distinctive cap, allowing the nucleus to float upward toward the top of the cell’s membrane. These diseased cells may appear more rounded and bulbous.

“The cap controls the shape of the nucleus by controlling the shape of the cell itself,” Wirtz said.

The perinuclear actin cap was discovered while the team was trying to find out if cell shape controls nucleus shape. By growing cells on a surface with alternating sticky and non-sticky stripes, the researchers noticed that as cells grew along a sticky stripe, their nuclei elongated as well. Using a confocal microscope — a special kind of microscope that can view an object one “slice” at a time — doctoral student Shyam Khatau was able to reconstruct the cell in three dimensions. By stacking the confocal microscope images together, Khatau, who is affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology, was able to produce short movies showing the 3-D structure of the cells, the nucleus and the perinuclear actin cap. (The movies are online here or below.)

“That’s when we saw the cap,” Khatau said, “and Dr. Wirtz realized we were on to something.”

The cap’s role in disease became evident when Khatau tested cells without the gene to produce lamin A/C, a protein found in the membrane of the nucleus of normal cells but absent in the nuclear membrane of cells from people with muscular dystrophy. Cells without lamin A/C failed to produce the perinuclear actin cap.

“We next plan to study how the cap’s effect on the shape of the nucleus affects what genes the cells express,” said Wirtz.

Khatau, who is pursuing his doctorate in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is lead author of the journal article.

Additional Johns Hopkins authors on this paper are Wirtz; doctoral student Christopher M. Hale and senior Meet Patel from the Whiting School of Engineering’s  Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; and Peter C. Searson, a professor in the school’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Other co-authors were P. J. Stewart-Hutchinson and Didier Hodzic from the School of Medicine at the Washington University in St. Louis and Colin L. Stewart from the Institute of Medical Biology, Singapore.

This work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Story by Mary Spiro

PNAS journal article.

Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Engineering in Oncology Center will probe forces that cause cancer to spread

Center director Denis Wirtz and associate director Greg Semenza

The Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center at INBT will be headed by Denis Wirtz, left. Gregg Semenza will serve as associate director. (Photo by Will Kirk/JHU)

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology have been awarded a $14.8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to launch a research center aimed at unraveling the physical underpinnings that drive the growth and spread of cancer. The new Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center at INBT includes 11 Johns Hopkins faculty members affiliated with the INBT and four investigators from partner universities. The project’s participants say that they hope this new line of research will lead to never-before-considered approaches to cancer therapy and diagnostics.

The Johns Hopkins center is one of 12 being launched by the National Cancer Institute to bring a new cadre of theoretical physicists, mathematicians, chemists and engineers to the study of cancer. During the five-year initiative, the NCI’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers will take new, nontraditional approaches to cancer research by studying the physical laws and principles of cancer; evolution and evolutionary theory of cancer; information coding, decoding, transfer and translation in cancer; and ways to deconvolute cancer’s complexity.

“By bringing a fresh set of eyes to the study of cancer, these new centers have great potential to advance, and sometimes challenge, accepted theories about cancer and its supportive microenvironment,” said NCI Director John E. Niederhuber. “Physical scientists think in terms of time, space, pressure, heat and evolution in ways that we hope will lead to new understandings of the multitude of forces that govern cancer, and with that understanding, we hope to develop new and innovative methods of arresting tumor growth and metastasis.”

The NCI, which is an agency of the National Institutes of Health, will allocate the Johns Hopkins-based Engineering in Oncology Center’s funding over five years. As the name of the center suggests, the researchers will look at how physical sciences play a role in the way cancer spreads, commonly called metastasis.

Wirtz, Semenza to direct EOC

Denis Wirtz, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, will direct the center, and Gregg L. Semenza, a leading researcher at the School of Medicine, will serve as associate director.

“Metastasis is a highly coordinated, multistep process,” Wirtz said. “Cancer cells break free from a primary tumor, penetrate into the bloodstream, evade host defenses, stick to the interior walls of blood vessels and travel to other organs, where they set up new cancer cell colonies. During this cascade of events, tumor cells push on and are pushed by mechanical forces within their microenvironment. Cells translate those mechanical forces into biochemical signals that affect cell growth and function. If we can gain a better understanding of this process, we may find new and better ways to treat cancer.”

Wirtz, who is principal investigator, also serves as associate director of the university’s Institute for NanoBioTechnology, a cross-divisional institute launched in May 2006 with 185 Johns Hopkins faculty members who are using nanoscience to answer questions in medicine, the basic sciences and public health.

The new cancer center will similarly draw on Johns Hopkins researchers with diverse expertise to study the role of physical forces involved in the development and spread of cancer.

“Mechanical forces inside the body, such as shear exerted by blood flowing through blood vessels, typically destroy the millions of cancer cells that are constantly shed from tumors,” Wirtz said. “But the ‘fittest’ of cancer cells survive these Darwinian-like selective pressures and may become the culprits that spread cancer. Little is known about the effect of mechanical forces on the regulation of cancer cell growth. That is what the Engineering in Oncology Center and the National Cancer Institute want to find out. The results should point us to therapies and diagnostic tools that complement existing genetic or molecular treatments.”

In a congratulatory letter to Wirtz concerning the new center, Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels wrote, “This is a terrific achievement that highlights the value of interdisciplinary research and collaboration across the university, and the increasing importance this approach will have in the coming years. I am especially proud to see Johns Hopkins lead the way in this manner. … Not only will you be embarking into a new realm of scientific collaboration, you will be, at the same time, establishing Johns Hopkins as a leading center of excellence in this field. The ongoing fight against cancer demands new ideas, perspectives and approaches, and that is precisely what you are creating in [this] center.”

Semenza, the associate director, is affiliated with the School of Medicine’s departments of Pediatrics, Medicine, Oncology and Radiation Oncology, and the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine. He is the C. Michael Armstrong Professor in Medicine and founding director of the Vascular Program at the school’s Institute for Cell Engineering. He also has ties to the School of Medicine’s Department of Biological Chemistry and to the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

Center will focus on three primary research aims

Semenza and Sharon Gerecht, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, will lead one of the center’s three key research projects related to how cancer spreads. They will focus on analyzing the makeup and physical properties of the extracellular matrix, the three-dimensional scaffold in which cells live.

“Normal cells live in a flexible scaffold, but cancer cells create a rigid scaffold that they climb through to invade normal tissue,” Semenza said. “We will study how this change occurs and how it is affected by the amount of oxygen to which cancer cells are exposed. Our studies have shown that cancer cells are deprived of oxygen, which incites them to more aggressively invade the surrounding normal tissues where oxygen is more plentiful. Hypoxia-inducible factor 1 controls the responses of cancer cells to low oxygen, and we have recently identified drugs that block the action of HIF-1 and inhibit tumor growth in experimental cancer models.”

The center’s second key research project teams Wirtz with Greg D. Longmore, a cancer cell biologist at Washington University in St. Louis. The two will study the physical basis for cancer cell adhesion and de-adhesion and how it increases the likelihood that cancer cells will break free, move into the bloodstream and migrate to other tissues. “Cancer cells are able to modulate proteins on the surface almost like a protein ‘brake’ that allows them to adhere or de-adhere in response to mechanical forces,” Wirtz said.

The center’s third primary research project will be led by Konstantinos Konstantopoulos, professor and chair of the Whiting School’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Martin L. Pomper, who holds appointments in the School of Medicine’s Department of Radiology and the Kimmel Cancer Center. These two researchers will investigate the effects of fluid mechanical forces at different oxygen tension microenvironments on tumor cell signaling, adhesion and migration.

“Fluid flow in and around tumor tissue modulates the mechanical microenvironment, including the forces acting on the cell surface and the tethering force on cell-substrate connections,” Konstantopoulos said. “Cells in the interior of a tumor mass experience a lower oxygen tension microenvironment and lower fluid velocities than those at the edges in proximity with a functional blood vessel, and are prompted to produce different biochemical signals. These differential responses affect tumor cell fate—that is, whether a cell will live or die, and whether it will be able to detach and migrate to secondary sites in the body.”

All three projects will combine experimental and computational/theoretical results to develop a better picture of how these mechanical forces influence cancer metastasis.

An educational component for graduates and postdoctoral fellows

In addition to the research component, the Engineering in Oncology Center will have a multidisciplinary training program for predoctoral students and postdoctoral fellows. The training program will be co-directed by Peter Searson, INBT’s director and the Joseph R. and Lynn C. Reynolds Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and the School of Medicine’s Kenneth W. Kinzler, who is among the world’s most-cited cancer biologists and who serves as co-director of the Johns Hopkins Ludwig Center.

Other Johns Hopkins researchers affiliated with the Engineering in Oncology Center are Sean X. Sun, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and two faculty members from the Department of Biomedical Engineering: Kevin Yarema, associate professor, and Aleksander S. Popel, professor.

In addition to Longmore, the researchers from other institutions who will participate in the Johns Hopkins-based center are Timothy C. Elston, a theoretical and computational biophysicist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Yiider Tseng, an experimental biophysicist and biochemist at the University of Florida; and Charles W. Wolgemuth, a theoretical and computational biophysicist at the University of Connecticut.

The center will incorporate two dedicated research facilities, also known as cores. The EOC Imaging Core will be established under the existing Integrated Imaging Center on the Homewood campus. J. Michael McCaffery, associate research professor of biology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, will oversee the Imaging Core and facilitate imaging resources for EOC faculty. Searson will oversee the EOC Microfabrication Core, which will assist researchers in making the needed materials and devices for their experiments.

The Engineering in Oncology Center will be administered by the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, located on the Homewood campus, where research will occur in renovated laboratory facilities. Training and collaboration with investigators located at the four other research universities on the grant will occur through periodic onsite visits and via Web-based platforms.

Related Links:

National Cancer Institute’s Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers program

Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center at INBT

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology

Johns Hopkins nanobio summer internship helps undergrads learn research ropes

Summertime flies by when it is spent hard at work in a laboratory; but the 12 student researchers selected for Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) still had plenty of fun. Here are highlights of their experience working, living, and playing at Johns Hopkins University this summer. INBT’s NanoBio REU is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Ten weeks of intensive research

Nanobio REU 2009: First Row, l-r: INBT ed. prog. coordintor Ashanti Edwards, Olusoji Afuwape. Second Row: Lawrence Lin, Stefanie Gonzalez, Stephanie Naufel, Hannah Wilson, Amber Ortega. Back row: Chao Yin, Steven Bolger, Ranjini Krishnamurthy, Alex Federation, John Jones Molina. (Spiro/INBT)
Nanobio REU 2009: First Row, l-r: INBT ed. prog. coordinator Ashanti Edwards, Olusoji Afuwape. Second Row: Lawrence Lin, Stefanie Gonzalez, Stephanie Naufel, Hannah Wilson, Amber Ortega. Back row: Chao Yin, Steven Bolger, Ranjini Krishnamurthy, Alex Federation, John Jones Molina. (Spiro/INBT)

Each REU student conducted research for 10 weeks in the lab of an INBT affiliated faculty member who served as their principle investigator (PI). Students were mentored by a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow in the faculty member’s lab and developed research projects that could be feasibly completed within this time. Findings were presented at a collaborative poster session. (See section below.)

“When I came to Johns Hopkins, I expected people to be more cutthroat about their work. What I found was that people are very serious about their work, but at the same time they were laid back, approachable and helpful, which made it even better. I would recommend this program to anyone.”  ~Alex Federation, University of Rochester

“I had previously planned to just get my master’s degree and stop, but I had such a great experience that I am now considering getting my PhD.” ~ Ranjini Krishnamurthy, Johns Hopkins University

Beyond the lab

Chao Yin worked at the School of Medicine (Bailey/JHU)
Chao Yin worked at the School of Medicine (Bailey/JHU)

To expose the REU students to concepts and ideas beyond the laboratory, INBT hosted four professional development seminars during June and July. Anyone on campus was welcome to attend these seminars. REU participants had the opportunity to listen to professionals discuss  wide-ranging topics. Talks covered intellectual property, how to market a new technology, how science makes it into the news, and what to expect after graduation. These hour-long talks featured speakers John Fini, director of Intellectual Property for the Homewood schools; Charles Day, senior editor at Physics Today; Tim Weihs, professor of Materials Science and Engineering and co-founder of Reactive NanoTechnologies (makers of NanoFoil®); and Matthew Lesho, Biomedical Engineer with Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems and Hopkins alumnus.

“My lab was great. Everyone was hard working but at the same time they joked around so that made it fun. I enjoyed INBT’s professional development seminars because they gave insight to subjects outside of basic science.”   ~ Chao Yin, Duke University

Unique opportunities

REU student Kayode Sanni, 3rd from left, and assistant prof. Jeff Gray, center, travelled to the RosettaCON 2009 conference in Leavenworth, WA, where Sanni presented his research poster. (Gray Lab/JHU)
REU student Kayode Sanni, 3rd from left, traveled with PI assistant prof. Jeff Gray, center, and the entire Gray Lab to the RosettaCON 2009 conference in Leavenworth, WA, where Sanni presented his research poster. (Gray Lab/JHU)

 

Students integrated fully into the labs where they worked. Research completed by an REU participant could be published on its own, or become part of published work via their PI at some point in the future–and this is a goal.  Principle investigators and mentors work with students to quickly design projects of scientific merit so that research is not merely an exercise, but fulfills the goal of being a “research experience for undergraduates.”  INBT labs to which students are assigned engage in some of the most advanced nanobiotechnology research in the world.  Some students may be able to travel to scientific conferences to present their findings.  Even without this opportunity, however, INBT’s REU participants truly learn what the life of a researcher is like.

Laboratory tours

 

Research undergraduates toured the Molecular Imaging Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (Spiro/INBT)
Research undergraduates toured the Molecular Imaging Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (Spiro/INBT)

The students had an opportunity to tour the Molecular Imaging Center and Cancer Functional Imaging Core, located in the Broadway Research Building Animal Facility at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The Molecular Imaging Center contains facilities for PET and SPECT scans, MRI and spectroscope, ultrasound, optical imaging, a “faxitron” radiography system and an irradiator. A collection of small research animals used for research also is housed in this building. Elena Artemova, administrative coordinator for the center, provided the students with a comprehensive tour.

Collaborative poster session

At the conclusion of the REU program, participants gathered with other research students from across the John Hopkins University campus for an interdisciplinary research poster session at the School of Medicine. More than 80 students from four divisions, including engineering, medicine, arts and science, and public health, presented posters at this session.

 

Stephanie Naufel and Olusoji Afuwape at collaborative poster session. (Spiro/INBT)
Stephanie Naufel and Olusoji Afuwape at collaborative poster session. (Spiro/INBT)

“I learned a lot and definitely learned how to be a researcher. I gained a better appreciation for the amount of work that goes into each research project.” ~ Stefanie Gonzalez, Milwaukee School of Engineering

“It was challenging and I consider that fun. Originally I was only interested in neuroscience, but through this project, I was exposed to the field of epigenetics so that is something I am willing to pursue. It definitely changed my perception about what I wanted to do.” ~ Olusoji Afuwape, University of Illinois at Chicago

Enjoying life in Baltimore

Baltimore  is a city rich in cultural diversity, and there is always plenty to do.  INBT’s summer nanobio REU students saw the Baltimore Orioles play basebal, enjoyed pizza parties and ice cream socials, and had a chance to try some authentic Maryland steamed crabs. They also got to make friends from different parts of the country who were interested in different disciplines. The REU program provides housing, a stipend, and organized group activities with other summer research program participants so that students have the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds.

 

Maryland's authentic steamed crabs. (Spiro/JHU)
Maryland’s authentic steamed crabs. (Spiro/JHU)

“INBT’s summer REU program is a great way to have networking opportunities with other students, to be interdisciplinary in your research and to learn about different areas of research that you had not thought about before.” ~ Amber Ortega, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

“Although working in a lab with a principle investigator like Doug Robinson was really intense, it pushed me to my limit and I learned a lot. Also the city aspect was nice since I have lived in a small town all my life. There is a lot of culture in Baltimore and that’s what I like.” ~ Lawrence Lin, Rice University

Meet all of INBT 2009 summer nanobio REU students here.

For more information about the  INBT Nanobio REU, click here.

Story by Mary Spiro

Nano education website features INBT mission, programs

The website TryNano.org now features a comprehensive article on Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology  (INBT) and its mission, programs and outreach.

Visit INBT's profile on TryNano.org.

Visit INBT’s profile on TryNano.org.

The TryNano.org website contains feature articles, links, information boxes, videos, and interviews with professionals focused on research and applications of matter at the nanoscale. Generally, the nanoscale is considered to be dimensions from 1 to 100 nanometers, with 1 nm equal to 10-9m. This site strives to a one-stop resource for students, parents, educators and professionals seeking information about nanoscience and nanotechnology. Trynano.org is sponsored by IBM, IEEE and TryScience.

To check out INBT’s profile on TryNano.org, click here.

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Baltimore nonprofit partners with INBT to sponsor ‘at-risk’ summer scholars

A stable home and a good education are keys to success that many children take for granted. Two Johns Hopkins faculty members have teamed up with a local nonprofit to make sure two academically capable but life-challenged teens from Baltimore can have these same opportunities. Initiated by Doug Robinson, associate professor of cell biology in the School of Medicine and faculty affiliate of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT), two young men from Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore participated in summer internships in Johns Hopkins laboratories. INBT financially supported the Boys Hope scholars with stipends.

Matthew Green-Hill and Deepak Kalra working in the Montell Lab (Mary Spiro/INBT)

Matthew Green-Hill and Deepak Kalra working in the Montell Lab (Mary Spiro/INBT)

“The main goal was to immerse them in a scientific lifestyle and culture. Their success was measured in terms of each student’s individual progress,” Robinson says. Robinson hosted scholar Donté Jones; Craig Montell, professor of biological chemistry in the School of Medicine, opened up his lab to Matthew Green-Hill. Jones, a sophomore and Green-Hill, a junior, both attend Archbishop Curley High School.

Unlike other programs that try to help children in troubled circumstances by placing them in court-ordered foster homes, students voluntarily apply to Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore to have access to the services it provides, such as a stable home, tutoring, and counseling. Scholars may live together in an adult-supervised home in Baltimore city, but they don’t have to, says the organization’s executive director Chuck Roth.

Scholars attend local private schools, meet with tutors if they need to, earn a weekly allowance for personal expenses, and receive other types of emotional and financial support as needed. The organization has no legal guardianship of the children, Roth adds. As long as their school responsibilities are met, scholars may visit with their families whenever they wish. Roth emphasizes that scholars don’t have records of misbehavior or crime. “These are kids with good potential and who are motivated. They recognize education as a way out of their circumstances,” he says.

Students typically learn about Boys Hope Girls Hope through their school counselors, teachers, relatives, and even their peers. “One of my best friends got into the program, and I didn’t see him for a week. But then he came back and told me about it,” explains Green-Hill. “I literally was one of those kids who knocked on the door of the Boys Hope house and asked to be accepted. I want to be the first person in my family to go to college,” he adds.

At first Green-Hill joined Boys Hope as a non-residential participant, but his home-life was still unsettled. Between middle school and high school, Green-Hill attended seven different schools and moved between several eastern cities. Once his family settled more permanently in Baltimore, he was able to re-apply and move into the supervised Boys Hope home full-time.

Jones had been truant from school for more than two years before he reached the 7th grade and, by his own account, was headed for a “life on the streets.”

Donte Jones and Cathy Kabacoff in Robinson Lab. (Mary Spiro/INBT)

Donte Jones and Cathy Kabacoff in Robinson Lab. (Mary Spiro/INBT)

“It wasn’t that I didn’t like school,” Jones says, “It was just that no one made me go.” After Jones went to live with his aunt, all that changed. She encouraged him to apply to Boys Hope because she saw his academic potential.

Over the summer, Green-Hill was mentored by doctoral student Deepak Kalra in Montell’s biological chemistry lab at the School of Medicine. Kalra involved Green-Hill in as many components of his research as possible and taught him several molecular biology techniques.

“I found Matt to be very sharp and hard working,” Kalra says. “He kept a good record in his lab notebook. Sometimes when he would come to me with a question, I would be intentionally hard and tell him, ‘Go back and look it up in your notebook!’ After a few moments, he would figure it out.” Undaunted by Kalra’s “tough” mentoring, Green-Hill even came in on the weekends to help in the lab.

“At first I thought I wanted to work with athletes and become an orthopedic surgeon,” says Green-Hill, “but after a summer working in the lab, I also might want to go into research so that I can discover ways to help people heal faster.”

Jones also has his heart set on medicine but intends to study nursing when he graduates from high school. Working with research technician Cathy Kabacoff in the Robinson lab, Jones practiced basic lab skills, such as conducting a restriction enzyme digest and measuring protein concentrations. Because Jones had missed several years worth of school, Kabacoff, a former middle school teacher, also helped him improve his writing and mathematics skills. He developed a study plan to research answers to questions of interest to him, such as “What is the Big Bang Theory?” and “What is DNA?”

“For the last two years I’ve been thinking that I wanted to become a nurse, but I also like the science part; I wouldn’t mind working in a lab,” Jones says. “I am taking biology this school year and think I will be better prepared because of all that we worked on.”

Along with their lab work, Robinson and Montell required that the scholars participate in the weekly journal club meetings of the Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP).  PREP, a minority outreach program that targets recently graduated minority students with the goal of helping them hone their skills in preparation for application to PhD programs, provides a good source of young role models.

Montell says it was exciting to see how each scholar progressed. “They arrived with different skill sets and with different interests so their experiences have not been the same. But the earlier that you can participate in someone’s career, the more impact you can have. Due to our location in east Baltimore, we have a responsibility to give back to the community and this is one way we can do that,” Montell says.

Both scholars agree their experiences were positive.

“I know that you have to have teamwork in sports to be successful, but I didn’t know that you have to have teamwork in academics to be successful. This is why I like working with this lab,” Jones wrote in a summary report at the conclusion of his internship.

In his summary, Green-Hill wrote, “…I am happy to have been exposed to this field of medicine…it has made an impact on my thoughts of my future career and has also given me the experience that I will need to have for my college laboratory sciences.”

Story by Mary Spiro

For more information:

Doug Robinson’s Lab

Craig Montell’s Lab

Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baltimore