NanoBio Internship Puts Knowledge Into Action

Picture of Steve WuSteve Wu, intern at Liquidia Technologies. Credit: Mary Spiro / JHU

Skills and knowledge learned in the classroom come alive when a student takes on the challenge of a summer internship. That’s what Steve Hu, a junior in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Johns Hopkins University, discovered when he spent ten weeks working at a paid internship offered through a partnership between the Institute for NanoBioTechnology and Liquidia Technologies of Research Triangle Park, N.C.

“It was really important to have a first-hand experience in a corporate and business environment“ Hu says, “The goals of corporate research are different than goals of academic research, and it was interesting to learn about how that worked.“

Hu is no stranger to academic research settings. During the summer following his freshman year, he completed a National Science Foundation REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) at the University of New Mexico Center for Micro-Engineered Materials. On the Johns Hopkins campus, he has worked in the laboratory of David Gracias, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and an INBT affiliated faculty member.

“In an academic lab, you can pursue a question for as long as you want; there are no boundaries,“ Hu says. “But in a corporate setting, you are developing a product to cater to a certain market, so you are more driven by profit. That’s not a bad thing though, because the purpose in both settings is to solve a problem.“

While working at Liquidia, Hu was fabricating and testing the behavior of polymer nanoparticles of various shapes and sizes designed to encapsulate drugs for targeted delivery. “A cylindrically shaped polymer with an aspect ratio of 5:1 would behave in a completely different way than a spherically shaped one,“ Hu says.

He conducted light scatter analyses, ran particle-size distribution tests, and used AFM (atomic force microscopy) to study the nanoparticles. “We wanted to find out what had been created and how it worked, in vitro and in vivo.“

The application process for INBT’s internship at Liquidia was not complex. Hu submitted his resume to INBT, and after an initial internal review, his application was forwarded to representatives at Liquidia who called him to North Carolina for a face-to-face interview. Hu says he fit in well with the laid-back atmosphere of the start-up company and enjoyed the camaraderie of two other interns hired over the summer. Liquidia awarded Hu both housing and a stipend for his living expenses.

Hu says he would encourage others to seek out research opportunities, whether on campus or off. “There are lots of opportunities here at Homewood or at the School of Medicine. There is probably an opportunity for everyone who wants one, so go for it!“

Future nanobio-related internships offered through INBT will be announced on the INBT Web site as they become available, so please check our “announcements“ link on the institute’s home page. Other types of research opportunities may be available through individual academic departments. Please consult your department chair for more information.

To learn more about Liquidia Technologies, go to .

Story by Mary Spiro

Tiny Medical Tool Nets Gracias New Innovator Award

Self assembling cubes and David Gracias. Credit: Gracias Lab/JHU, Will Kirk/HIPS/JHU

David Gracias, Johns Hopkins University assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering, received the prestigious 2008 New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health. Gracias, an affiliated faculty member of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, builds medical tools smaller than a speck of dust. The NIH grant, worth $1.5 million in direct research costs over five years, was awarded September 22, 2008. Gracias was among 31 scientists from universities and institutes throughout the United States selected to receive this year’s New Innovator grants, designed to support novel research projects. Ronald Cohn, Johns Hopkins assistant professor of pediatrics and neurology at the McKusick-Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, was also chosen for the award.

“Nothing is more important to me than stimulating and sustaining deep innovation, especially for early career investigators and despite challenging budgetary times,“ NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni said. “These highly creative researchers are tackling important scientific challenges with bold ideas and inventive technologies that promise to break through barriers and radically shift our understanding.“

Kristina M. Johnson, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at The Johns Hopkins University, added, “There is keen competition for major awards such as these. We are extremely pleased that the NIH has recognized the fine research being conducted by Ronald Cohn and David Gracias. This financial support will help move them closer to their goals of producing important new medical treatments and tools.“

David Gracias will use his New Innovator award to continue to develop minimally invasive microscale and nanoscale tools and devices for medicine. Microscale tools are designed to perform procedures such as biopsies or to deliver medication at the cellular level; nanoscale tools operate in the realm of proteins and viruses.

A key advantage of the tiny containers and grippers already developed in Gracias’ lab is that they can release drugs and grasp tissue without requiring batteries or a wire connected to an outside power source. Instead, Gracias’ miniaturized tools are moved from afar by magnets and are activated by chemicals or temperature changes.

“Tomorrow’s medical devices will be smart,“ Gracias says. “We want to get rid of the wires and build an entire mobile, miniaturized surgical toolbox, including devices that can access diseased areas that are difficult to reach with the currently available, tethered, minimally invasive tools.“

Gracias has already demonstrated that his prototypes work in lab experiments, and animal testing is under way. With the New Innovators grant, he hopes to advance this research and move closer to the day when physicians will be able to use his tiny tools on patients. “We have some ambitious goals, and there is a lot of work to be done,“ Gracias says. “But if we succeed, the payoff could be enormous. It could give doctors important new tools to help them diagnose and treat medical problems.“

Gracias was raised in Mumbai, India, and earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. He received his doctorate in physical chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, and was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University before joining the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2003.

Regarding Gracias’ New Innovator Award, Nick Jones, dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, said, “We’re thrilled that David has received this well-deserved recognition. The award acknowledges more than his pioneering work in micro-to-nanoscale tools and devices for medicine. It is also a confirmation of his role as an exceptionally innovative engineer and recognition of the tremendous potential his research holds.“

The New Innovator Award program was launched by NIH in 2007 to support a small group of new investigators who propose bold new approaches that have the potential to produce a major impact on a broad area of biomedical or behavioral research. The program currently supports 61 investigators—30 selected last year and 31 more this year.

David Gracias’ INBT Faculty Home Page

Information about the New Innovator Awards:

Story adapted from original first posted by the Office of News and Information, Johns Hopkins University.


Picture of Mustapha JamalMustapha Jamal. Graduate student in the Nanobio Igert program. Credit: Mary Spiro / JHU

Cells that give rise to connective tissue, known as fibroblasts, promote wound healing and repair following injury or disease. Mustapha Jamal, a PhD student in the NanoBio IGERT with the Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University, is using nano- and micro-fabricated structures to direct the growth of fibroblasts. Funded by the National Science Foundation, IGERT stands for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship.

Jamal works in the lab of David Gracias, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering. One aim of the Gracias Lab is to build very small devices and integrated structures (click here for an example), and to study these systems using microscopy and spectroscopy. Expanding the biological research focus of the Gracias Lab has been one of Jamal’s biggest challenges since coming to work at Johns Hopkins.

“When I was an undergraduate, I always had graduate students that I could go to for help if I had a question, but now I am the graduate student managing undergraduates who are looking to me for guidance,“ Jamal says. “I have a whole new appreciation for what those other graduate students did for me!“ In 2007, Jamal earned a BS/MS degree in chemical and biochemical engineering from UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County), where he was a Meyerhoff Scholar.

“My advisors in the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program really encouraged me to do undergraduate research,“ Jamal says. “I worked in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UMBC where I modeled cell deformation.“

This experience has helped Jamal with his work on fibroblasts conducted under the direction of his co-adviser Roselle Abraham, assistant professor of medicine and a cardiologist in the School of Medicine. Both Gracias and Abraham are Hopkins faculty members affiliated with INBT.

Raised in Indiana, Jamal moved to Maryland during high school. He enjoys basketball, soccer, and listening to all types of music. In the future, he says, “I really enjoy research, but I also would like to be a philanthropist so that I could give back to those organizations that have really helped me, such as the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program or the National Society of Black Engineers.“

For more information on the Gracias Lab, click here .

Story by Mary Spiro

Potential Health Impact of Inhaled NanoMetals to be Studied by Multidisciplinary Team at Johns Hopkins

X-ray of lungs. Credit: Clara Natoli / MorgueFile

Every day, everywhere we go, whether we know it or not, we are exposed to nanomaterials—particles with one dimension no bigger than 1/100,000th the width of a human hair. They can be found in cosmetics, sunscreens, pharmaceuticals, fabrics, and in the air we breathe. It is a challenge to measure how often we encounter these ubiquitous bits of next-to-nothingness and what, if any, impact they may have on our health in an open environment. But three Johns Hopkins University researchers affiliated with the Institute for NanoBioTechnology hope to gain some insight on those effects by studying the ability of nanometals to access lung tissues, their potential to trigger pro-inflammatory reactions by cells that line the lung airways, and even the extent to which workers are exposed in a nanomaterials manufacturing setting.

The National Science Foundation awarded nearly $400,000 to faculty members Shyam Biswal, Patrick Breysse, and Justin Hanes for their collaborative investigation on the toxic health effects of nanometal oxides. “Exposure to nanomaterials in occupational settings is measurable, while exposure in non-occupational settings is hard to characterize,“ says Biswal, a toxicologist at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and principal investigator on the project. “The knowledge we gain from these studies will help in understanding the health effects of nanoparticles that we might encounter in everyday situations.“

Breysse directs the division of Environmental Health Engineering in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Hanes, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, is director of Therapeutics for INBT.

When used in consumer products, nanomaterials provide many benefits, and production of items that use nanomaterials is on the rise. The National Science Foundation estimates that 2 million workers will be needed to support nanotechnology industries worldwide within 15 years*. There is already a large body of research on how exposure to metals impacts both humans and animals, linking it to a range of inflammatory diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. However, little is understood about the toxic potential of metal oxides manufactured at the nanoscale.

Biswal, Breysse and Hanes plan to look at how workers become exposed to nanomaterials, how they are transported through the body, and then assess any potential adverse health effects. One goal of the project will characterize the basic physical and chemical properties of the engineered nanometal oxides. Another goal will be to determine what size, what type and how much nanometal oxides are found in the exhaled breath of exposed workers.

Biswal says the project is an excellent representation of a multidisciplinary collaboration between experts in exposure assessment, aerosol science, nanotechnology, the protective mucus barrier, and pulmonary molecular toxicology.

“The nanometal particle is not only important from an occupational point of view. We think that what we learn from these particles will help us understand the effect of other nanoparticles to which we all are exposed,“ Biswal adds. “These studies also will develop the knowledge base required for future studies on larger populations exposed to nanometal particles.“

Other collaborators on this research include Biswal’s research associate Rajesh Thimmulappa; Alexendra Stefanik, an industrial hygienist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who previously conducted research with Breysse; and Jana Keshavan of the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. This current project grew out of a previous study (Toxicological evaluation of nanoparticles in mice model of chronic lung diseases) funded with seed money from INBT.


Story by Mary Spiro

Artificial Collagen Plays More Than a Supporting Role in Cell Growth

Transmission electron micrographs of reconstituted type I collagen fiber from mouse tail tendon after incubation with gold nanoparticles. The white arrows indicate positions of nanoparticles on collagen fibers. Credit: AMS

Faculty Profile: Michael Yu

Collagen, the body’s most abundant protein, serves as a natural scaffold for cells and directs when and where they will grow. Researchers at the Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University are discovering new properties and uses for a synthetic molecule that mimics collagen. When used with nanoparticles, this molecule, called collagen mimetic peptide (CMP) could produce detailed images of tumors, detect deadly buildup in arteries, deliver drugs, and improve blood supply to implanted tissues. Several useful properties of CMP are described in a paper by S. Michael Yu, associate professor of materials science and engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, and Martin Pomper, professor of radiology and oncology at the School of Medicine, and published in the journal Biomacromolecules (June 12, 2008). Both are INBT affiliated faculty members.

“Collagen is a great house for a cell to grow, but there are places where you should not have collagen,“ Yu says. “Tumors or blood clots that can lead to a stroke are primarily made of collagen.“

The research shows for the first time that synthetic collagen binds to natural collagen in an unpurified ex vivo state—that is, in unprocessed natural tissue specimens (The binding of CMP to purified and prepared collagen grown in a Petri dish was previously reported by Dr. Yu). CMP accomplishes this feat by weaving itself into collagen’s rope-like triple helical structure. The study also shows that CMP incorporates into collagen fibers at precise points along each strand.

“The collagen mimetic peptide was able to ‘sneak’ into the natural collagen fibers at regularly spaced intervals where the structure of collagen was more loosely bound,“ Yu says. Using nanoparticles attached to the CMP molecules, the researchers were able to visualize the entry points with transmission electron microscopy. Each entry point appears as an evenly spaced row of black spots along the length of the collagen fiber, like the markings on a ruler.

To test the CMP’s ability to interact with natural collagen on an intact tissue sample, Yu and Pomper attached a molecule that would emit fluorescent light to the end of the synthetic collagen. Then, a solution of fluorescently tagged CMP molecules was used to stain a sample of human liver tissue. The brightly glowing CMP produced an image that was essentially identical to images achieved by staining with collagen-specific antibodies, the most commonly used method to image collagen, Yu says. “That tells us that in a natural system, the collagen mimetic peptide is binding only to the collagen and not to other proteins—and that has never been shown before.“

The tiny nano-sized CMPs also are able to produce images with greater resolution than antibodies, Yu says. “CMP can penetrate tissue that the antibodies, which are at least 20 times larger, cannot.“ Better images give radiologists like Pomper the ability to see accumulations of collagen in places where it should not be.

Finally, the researchers observed that when the environment heats up—to around 37 degrees Celsius or body temperature—CMPs quickly lose their grip on natural collagen and are released. But by making the CMPs chains a little longer, the researchers could control the amount of time the synthetic collagen would remain bound to its natural counterpart. “The longer the chain, the longer CMP tended to stay in place,“ Yu says. This property would allow CMP to be customized for therapeutic or diagnostic purposes—a short one for a quick dose and a long one to deliver a more sustained treatment.

Yu adds that the potential uses for collagen mimetic peptides are limited only by the types of molecules that one is able to attach to them, and he and Pomper have several patents pending on diagnostic or therapeutic applications. With nanoparticles or nanoshells attached, for example, functionalized CMPs could be used for imaging and drug delivery.

“One of the areas we’re working on now is targeted delivery of these functionalized CMPs,“ says Pomper. “The key will be whether we can make them recognize the difference between normal collagen and pathological collagen.“

Synthetic collagen may also be able to improve the chances of survival for engineered tissue implants. Natural collagen contains chemical signals called growth factors that tell cells how and where to grow and direct the formation of blood vessels. Using growth factors that are linked to CMP, Yu is working on creating collagen scaffolds that can tell cells to form organized networks of blood vessels. A paper focused on this research will be published in the September online issue of Biomacromolecules.

But Yu knows that prospect is a long way off.

“Collagen is a very complicated system and we still don’t know a lot about it,“ Yu says. “Using synthetic systems can give you a lot of information and are great for mechanistic studies of cell and scaffold interactions, but eventually many scientists come back to the natural scaffold that Nature has provided, the collagen, when they need to create artificial tissues.“

Collaborating on this work with Yu and Pomper were doctoral students Allen Y. Wang and Xia Mo, from the Department of Materials Science; instructor Catherine Foss, from the Department of Radiology; and master’s student Shirley Leong, from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

More Online

Read the entire scientific paper here:

Spatio-Temporal Modification of Collagen Scaffolds Mediated by Triple Helical Propensity. Allen Y. Wang, Catherine A. Foss, Shirley Leong, Xiao Mo, Martin G. Pomper, and Seungju M. Yu. Biomacromolecules, 9 (7), 1755-1763, 2008.

Visit the Yu Lab Web site.

Visit the Pomper Lab Web site.

Story by Mary Spiro

New Postdoc Program in Nanotechnology for Cancer Medicine Launched at Johns Hopkins

New postdoc program in nanobiotechnology at Johns Hopkins University. Credit: HIPS/JHU.

The Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) has recently launched a postdoctoral fellowship in Nanotechnology for Cancer Medicine (NTCM). 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. This is the first T-32 grant awarded in the Whiting School of Engineering. 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.

Denis Wirtz, professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering, and Kenneth Kinzler, professor of Oncology at the School of Medicine will co-direct the NTCM training program. Wirtz is associate director of INBT and Kinzler is a member of INBT’s executive committee.

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, Wirtz explains. “They will be laying the foundations for technologies that will enable an inside-view of cancer cell functions, as opposed to the limited ‘blackbox’ input-output techniques currently used,“ Wirtz says.

NTCM fellows will view interactions between nanostructures and biological systems in physical, biological, and biomedical terms and will become adept at emerging concepts in biomolecular engineering, protein engineering, materials synthesis and surface modification. Fellows will be able to take advantage of research and clinical resources at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the National Cancer Institute-designated Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics and Therapeutics, The Sol Goldman Pancreatic Cancer Center, and the In Vivo Cellular and Molecular Imaging Center, as well as the educational resources and experimental facilities available through INBT.

Each fellow will be supported for two years and will be co-advised by a faculty member in oncology or medicine and a faculty member in engineering. (There are 20 participating faculty members, please go to to view the full list.) Fellows will take a core lecture course in either nanotechnology or cancer biology, a core laboratory course in nanobiotechnology for cancer medicine, and will attend a weekly journal club. In addition, fellows will participate in an annual retreat in the fall and the annual NanoBio Symposium in the spring. After two, 6-week rotations in the laboratories of participant faculty, fellows will embark on co-advised research in nanotechnology for cancer medicine.

Only U.S. citizens and permanent residents are eligible to apply for the NTCM program. Requirements for admission include a PhD in an engineering discipline or biological/oncology discipline or an MD degree. A concentration in cancer is helpful. Interested applicants should send their C.V. and two letters of recommendation to: Ashanti Edwards / Prof. Denis Wirtz, Institute for NanoBioTechnology, Johns Hopkins University, NEB 100, 3400 N. Charles St. Baltimore, MD 21218. For more information, e-mail

The Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University brings together internationally renowned expertise in medicine, engineering, the sciences and public health to foster the next wave of nanobiotechnology innovation. Faculty members affiliated with INBT are members of the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Whiting School of Engineering, School of Medicine, Bloomberg School of Public Health and Applied Physics Laboratory. For more information about INBT, go to

Story by Mary Spiro

INBT REU Scholars Showcase Summer Research

Deonnae Lopez presenting her poster at the 2008 Johns Hopkins University summer scholars poster session. Credit: Will Kirk / Homewood Imaging and Photographic Services.

Eighty visiting scholars, both undergraduate and high school students, from more than 60 different institutions spent their summer discovering what it’s really like to conduct research with faculty members at Johns Hopkins University. They displayed the results of their hard work—which included studies on topics as wide ranging as public health, genetics and nanobiotechnology, during a poster session held in Turner Concourse on August 7.

Participants at this poster session represent only a fraction of the short-term research programs that occur at Johns Hopkins every summer. Each program has its own admission criteria, separate funding sources, and specialized focus, but the overall purpose is the same. “To attract the best and brightest students from colleges across the country so that they will apply to Johns Hopkins for graduate school,“ says Ashanti Edwards, the education program coordinator who manages the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

For example, David Nartey, a senior in biology from Morgan State University who conducted research on engineered DNA nanoparticles through INBT’s REU, says he intends to apply to Johns Hopkins for graduate school. Nartey worked with INBT affiliated faculty member Hai-Quan Mao, associate professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the Whiting School of Engineering, and will continue to work in the Mao lab even after completing the REU program.

“I learned to use many different types of equipment in Dr. Mao’s lab,“ Nartey says. “Also the students that I worked with were very helpful in explaining everything. Every student has their own area of expertise and I learned a lot during lab meetings.“

Another goal is to allow underrepresented minorities to experience Johns Hopkins first-hand, adds Cathy Will, manager of student recruitment and programs at the School of Medicine and organizer of the poster session. “When these students have positive experiences at Hopkins, they will return to their home institutions with good stories to share with their classmates. The next year we always see more admission applications from those schools.“

In addition to INBT, which placed 11 students in faculty research labs, departments who hosted students and participated in this poster session included the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine’s Basic Science Institute, Center for Excellence in Genome Sciences Scholar Program, and Pulmonary Care and Critical Medicine; the Bloomberg School of Public Health; and the Krieger School of Arts and Science Department of Biology.

To learn more about INBT’s REU or to see highlights from the 2008 INBT REU program, click here.

Story by Mary Spiro

NanoBio Training at Johns Hopkins: Big Selection for Tiny Science

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

Specific questions may be directed to INBT’s education program coordinator Ashanti Edwards at

Story by Mary Spiro

Stephen Diegelmann: IGERT student profile

Picture of Stephen Diegelmann
Stephen Diegelmann. Graduate student in the Nanobio Igert program. Credit: Mary Spiro / JHU

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.

HHMI Student Profile: Patrick Stahl

Picture of Patrick StahlPatrick Stahl. Graduate student in the NBMed program. Credit: Mary Spiro / JHU

The interface between materials science and nanotechnology for biomedical applications is not only exciting but tremendously useful because it can change people’s lives,“ says Patrick Stahl, a first-year Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) pre-doctoral student. Stahl studies collagen mimetic peptides (CMP)—short biopolymers made of the same amino acids found in natural collagen—with Michael Yu, associate professor of materials science and engineering and Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) member.

Stahl is a Nanotechnology for Biology and Medicine fellow funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) through INBT. The HHMI program trains students in nanotechnology, biology, and medicine to create diagnostics and therapeutics to detect, treat, and prevent human disease.

CMP forms a triple helix, Stahl says, that can be used to form nanoscale scaffolds to produce hydrogels upon which cells are coaxed to grow. “CMP creates both chemical and physical crosslinks. You can modify the mechanical properties and add biomolecules that will help cells proliferate,“ Stahl says. Ultimately, hydrogels could be implanted into living tissue to aid in wound healing or even organ regeneration.

Stahl enjoys the close knit atmosphere of MSE. “Many faculty members here are young, which brings a certain amount of energy to the program as well as a closer connection between students and professors. Furthermore, the collaboration between materials science and other departments enables unique, interdisciplinary research.“

A 2007 graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) with a BS in materials science, Stahl explored medical applications of engineering while conducting research on ceramic dental replacements. Through UMCP’s Gemstone Program—a four-year multidisciplinary research experience at its engineering school—Stahl helped analyze the chemical composition of over-the-counter ginseng products and created a patient education program to increase awareness about potentially dangerous interactions between herbal supplements and prescription pharmaceuticals.

When not working in the lab, Stahl enjoys playing sports such as tennis, golf and soccer. Although he has spent most of his life in Bethesda, Md., he says that many people are surprised to discover his international roots. “I was born in Geneva, Switzerland and spoke French and German long before I learned English,“ he says.

A life of science, however, was practically unavoidable for Stahl, whose parents both worked for the National Institutes of Health. “I guess you could say I grew up in a scientific household,“ he adds.