2013 Annual Meeting of American Institute of Chemical Engineers highlights NanoBio research

The 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) was held November 3-8 in San Francisco, CA. AIChE, the professional society for chemical engineers, hosted over 5,000 participants at the meeting, the largest AIChE conference yet. The conference offered great opportunities for learning about all aspects of chemical engineering and networking with movers and shakers from both academia and industry. I attended the conference and was one of several INBT-affiliated researchers to present my work, along with Kimberly Stroka (Konstantopoulos lab), Wei-Chiang Chen (Wirtz lab), and Pei-Hsun Wu (Wirtz lab). It was a great time to catch up with colleagues, and I met up with my undergraduate research advisor, friends from college, and past colleagues from Hopkins who have moved on to other institutions.

SanFrancisco-Annual2013-574-ssk_14602486The fascinating thing about the AIChE Annual Meeting is the wide variety of topics covered. The diversity of fields studied in chemical engineering has long been a source of pride for ChemE’s. I attended sessions covering topics as disparate as protein engineering, membrane separations, biosensors, industrial pharmaceuticals production, and cell migration, all while missing out on sessions about teaching, chemical engineering and the law, catalysis, and oil production. I was especially interested in research presented by industry professionals. These presentations gave me a new appreciation for the scope of industrial research projects, where changing one variable in a test tank can cost thousands and thousands of dollars.

Overall, the large number of sessions held at the conference provides great opportunities for students to give oral presentations, and undergraduate and graduate poster sessions enable even more students to publicize their projects. I would highly recommend the Annual Meeting for graduate and undergraduate chemical engineering students.

Colin Paul is a fourth-year PhD student in the laboratory of Konstantinos Konstantopoulos in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

 

Cui featured speaker for Society of Biomaterials talk on nano

Join the Society for Biomaterials for their last meeting of the semester today, December 4 at 5 p.m. in Maryland Hall room 109 on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University. Honggang Cui, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, will present “How Nano Impacts Medicine.” Refreshments will be served. Cui is an affiliated faculty member of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

Here is an abstract for Dr. Cui’s talk:

honggangcui2-7-13-web

Honggang Cui

From the dawn of civilization, humans have recognized the therapeutic effect of some natural herbs, and the use of plants as therapeutic agents is a long-standing practice throughout the human history. However, the major advance in medicine did not start until the mid-19th century when the active compounds could be actually isolated, purified and identified. The identification of the active compound and its pharmacophore allows not only for the administration of drugs with a known dose, but more importantly for the synthesis of modified drugs with improved efficacy.

Nowadays, modern pharmacology has become part of our daily living, greatly improving the quality of life and transforming the way we live. However, there are still many incurable diseases, such as cancer, that medicine has yet to provide a solution. The emergence of nanotechnology as a field in 1980s has impacted many scientific disciplines including medicine. In particular, nanotechnology-based medicine has entered clinical use over the past two decades.

Can nano help provide a revolutionary solution to cancer? And how could the uses of nano improve the current clinical practice in cancer treatments? This lecture will provide a brief overview of the impact that nanotechnology could have on medicine.

 

 

 

Biotech and pharma are possible jobs paths for chemical engineers

Upon graduation, one main avenue to pursue for a job is one within industry. As a chemical engineer whose research is focused on cancer cell biology and cell mechanics, I’ve found that there at least two major branches of industry that would suit me and others doing similar work. These are biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

Biotechnology companies include Novo Nordisk, Amgen and Genentech and many others. These companies aim to meet healthcare needs by providing medication for disease treatment or novel technology for diagnostics.

industryChemical engineers have the skills to work anywhere from research and development to product quality and production by utilizing skills we have attained from both the classroom and research environment to address the needs of the company. Biotech scientist jobs not only provide exciting research opportunities, but are ranked one the best jobs in America by CNN because of their high job security, future growth, flexibility and pay.

Another sector of industrial opportunities is within the pharmaceutical industry. Major pharma companies include Johnson and Johnson, Eli Lilly, Novartis and Sanofi Aventis. These companies meet healthcare needs through the design and development of medications and drugs for a wide variety of illness and diseases. Although imbued with exciting opportunities, recent jobs cuts have threatened the job security within the pharmaceutical industry, with thousands of jobs cuts in Merck, Novartis and others. This has mostly been due to consolidation and loss of patents.

Still, the pharmaceutical and biotech industry remain among the most desirable aspects of industrial work and are great places for job opportunities for those with engineering and science training.

Ivie Aifuwa is a third year Ph.D. candidate in chemical and biomolecular engineering  in the Denis Wirtz Lab, studying the interplay between cancer and aging.

Epigenetics conference held in beautiful Grand Cayman

Here in the Wirtz lab, we are beginning to connect physical properties of cells with genetic expression. All cells in a Petri dish of the same cell type supposedly have identical DNA sequences. But what makes the cells appear to have different shapes and sizes, and why do some cells respond to stimuli differently from others?

Lectures by poolside are the way to go. Photo by Allison Chambliss.

Lectures by poolside are the way to go. Photo by Allison Chambliss.

These questions have led us to epigenetics, the study of inheritable changes in gene activity that do not involve any changes in the genetic code. These changes most often include the modification of DNA and histones, proteins found in nuclei that the DNA is wound around, by addition or subtraction of functional groups (acetylation, methylation, etc.).

The modifications affect how “open” or “closed” the DNA is and therefore define when and where transcription of DNA to make proteins can occur. I recently attended a fascinating conference on the subject which just so happened to be held on the gorgeous Grand Cayman Island. Here I summarized a few of the conference talks for Epigenie, a science news site focused on epigenetics research.

Story by Allison Chambliss, who is entering her fifth year as a PhD student in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Beach breakfast. Photo by Allison Chambliss

Beach breakfast. Photo by Allison Chambliss

One REU’s experience at the Council on Undergraduate Research Conference

Over this past summer, I participated in the Research Experience for Undergraduates Program at Johns Hopkins University Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT). I was placed in Douglas Robinson’s laboratory under the mentorship of Vasudha Srivastava in the School of Medicine. I worked on the preliminary studies necessary to determine the molecular mechanisms of regulation within the cell’s mechanosensory system.

It was one of the best experiences of my life; I thoroughly enjoyed every day of it. Dr. Robinson and his lab members were extremely welcoming, supportive, and resourceful throughout the entire ten weeks and even after the program ended. I was able to gain substantial research experience and develop relationships with the people in the lab. At the end of the program, I was fortunate enough to be chosen to present the work I had done at the 2013 Council on Undergraduate Research Conference of Research Experiences for Undergraduates Student Scholarship (CUR CREUSS) in Arlington, VA.

Shantel Angstadt, a 2013 REU, during the INBT poster session. Photo by Mary Spiro.

The CUR CREUSS was another great experience. I was able to meet students who participated in REU programs at institutions from all across the country as well as the faculty members involved in the REU programs. Each student participated in three, 30-minute poster sessions, and we were asked questions about our work and overall experience during the summer.

We were also able to attend a faculty poster session during which each faculty member presented the work he or she is currently involved in. I loved having the opportunity to talk about my experience and to learn of others’ experiences doing research. There was a very diverse group of studies among the students and faculty in a variety of fields, such as: chemistry, engineering, life sciences, mathematical sciences, geosciences, psychology, social sciences, and materials research. The conference also provided “Breakout Sessions” in which National Science Foundation (NSF) members presented on the importance of research, good conduct, graduate school, careers, research funding, and a variety of other topics. These sessions were very informative and useful. I attended the “Applying for Graduate School Support from NSF” and “Incorporating Your Research Experiences into Applications for Post-Baccalaureate Fellowships and Nationally Competitive Awards” sessions. Overall, this experience allowed me to further develop my presentation skills, gain exposure to other fields of study, network, and learn of all the resources provided by the NSF.

One last piece of information from the CUR CREUSS that I feel the need to share with other undergraduate students is of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program. It provides three years of financial support to graduate students and, if awarded, makes the student more competitive when applying to graduate programs. It is a great opportunity that I was not aware of until attending the conference.

My experiences from the INBT REU program and CREUSS have lead me to believe that it should be mandatory for students interested in research careers to participate in extracurricular research programs. I gained information and experience that are essential in choosing a career and developing as a scientist and as a person. I believe the most important aspects of each were the exposure to different fields of study and the information on the different resources and opportunities available to undergraduates. I will always be grateful for these opportunities provided by the INBT faculty and staff and Dr. Robinson’s lab.

Shantel Angstadt is in her senior year at Elizabethtown College studying biochemistry and was an REU intern at Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology for the summer of 2013.

 

Science and gender inequality still pressing issue

The issue about gender inequality in science has been an ongoing topic of discussion both in industry and academia. It seems ironic that this field, where objectivity is more often sought over subjectivity, apparently suffers from a gender-biased culture. In line with this, I recently read this blog that featured a number of female scientists and their stories behind how “being a woman” influenced their careers. It’s quite long, but I think the details are quite substantial so I’d say it is worth reading.

At the beginning of Pollack’s article, she mentioned a study conducted just this summer showing how there is still some preference for men (over women) in academic job offerings. I wish she could have included a reference to the paper so that people could see how this study was conducted or how reliable the results are. Overall, her article articulates how these collection of anecdotes from the female scientists she interviewed shows that there are still some stereotypes and social constructs that can potentially be hindrances to females pursuing this field. It’s quite bothering how, from Marie Curie’s time until now, we still haven’t achieved a gender balance—men still outnumbers women in this field.

curie

Marie Curie is in the bottom row, third from left. The only female who attended the Solvay Conference on Physics, 1927. Taken from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?_r=0.

I’d say that in this article, the most striking statement for me is: “And yet, as I listened to these four young women laugh at the stereotypes and fears that had discouraged so many others, I was heartened that even these few had made this far, that theirs will be the faces the next generation grows up imagining when they think of a female scientist.” I’m sure there’s more modern female scientists with interesting stories of success than the list that Pollack gave in her article; there should be.

Another interesting article, released earlier this year in Nature magazine, touched on some of the reasons behind this gender imbalance. To note, the article is entitled ‘Science for all’, which I think is more politically correct rather than specifically saying ‘women for science.’ Childcare, political influences and institutional support are some of the issues that the author touched upon.

In the end, the article boils down to showing how women themselves should find ways and implement things on how their ‘status and profile’ can be uplifted in this very competitive field. By looking at more articles/blogs regarding these topics, everything says the gender issue is definitely still present and that the biases still negatively affect females. Different point of views are given, I’d say my fellow female scientists should take some time to look at these and ponder on them.

At this point, I don’t think I am credible enough to throw in my insights about this topic. I haven’t arrived at that point yet in my career that I needed to apply and compete with a pool of male and female applicants for a real job. I guess I feel like I do not have enough experience yet to give a stand about this issue. However, I keep on seeing articles like this for almost a year and a half of my stay here in this institution and from a student’s point of view, I’d say it is somehow discouraging. I suspect other female graduate students feel the same way, at some point.

Having said that, I am writing this not to discourage further but rather to put up a challenge. Statistics are very clear in showing how females are a minority in the field of science. But, I think the initiative to promote balance should come from the female members of this field themselves. This should be the challenge—starting to uplift the status of women in science in an active way and not just passively waiting for opportunities or help to come. These are just some of my thoughts that I hope would be able to stimulate the thoughts of the readers to not just ponder on it, but to provide an action on this issue.

Herdeline Ann Ardoña is a second year graduate student in the Department of Chemistry under Professor J.D. Tovar, co-advised by Professor Hai-Quan Mao.

 

Vrendenburg Scholarship offers international research experience to engineering undergrads

SykesTeamDue to a rigid Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering curriculum, I never had the opportunity to study abroad during the normal academic year. I always felt left out, because many of my friends and peers had left school to spend their semesters in fabulous places like Amsterdam and London. Even worse, I studied French for many years in middle and high school and always longed to spend a semester in France.

 

 

One day, however, I happened to stumble across the Vredenburg Scholarship, the solution to all my woes.

Paris

Paris.

Each summer, the Vredenburg Scholarship funds 13 undergraduates to apply their engineering skills and training in international research, internships and service projects. I was fortunate enough to use my Vredenburg Scholarship to fulfill my dreams and spend this past summer researching in Paris.

I conducted researched at the historic Institut Curie, which is located in the beautiful fifth arrondissement of Paris. I was paired with a postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Kévin Carvalho, in the Sykes Lab. My project focused on the physics of myosin 1c, a molecular motor that plays important roles in endocytosis, membrane trafficking and transcription of DNA in the nucleus. Rather than working with complex systems like cells, I reconstituted actin gels in a controlled system on the exterior of liposomes. Then, in order to characterize myosin 1c, I would add the molecular motor and quantify the effects on the gel.

RollerBlading

Rollerblading.

Having been a part-time undergraduate researcher in the Denis Wirtz Lab at Hopkins over the past few years, it was so nice to have a full-time research position. With no classes taking up my time, I was finally able to immerse myself in research. I participated in a weekly journal club, attend seminars and listened to PhD Defenses (sometimes in French!).

When not researching in the lab, I spent my free time falling in love with Paris. The city is so alive during the summer, and there were always fun things to do. Whether walking through the Versailles Gardens or spending hours in Louvre, I was able to immerse myself in the French culture. One of my favorite days was when I rollerbladed with my friend Jane and thousands of other Parisians on a 12 mile course through Paris.

My summer was a truly incredibly experience. I was able to follow my passion of research to a wonderful, foreign city. How else would anyone want to spend their summer?

Learn more about the Vredenburg Scholarship.

Shaun McGovern, a senior in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, researches the viscoelastic properties of pancreatic cancer in the Wirtz Lab.

Work-life balance and the new baby

My wife is a second year oncology fellow and I am an MD who, in my goal of being a life-long student, has decided to get my PhD as well. My first two years as a graduate student in the Denis Wirtz lab were relatively uncomplicated in terms of devoting ample time to research. My wife worked long hours at the hospital, allowing me to work long hours at the lab. But I guess you could say that the work-life balance changes dramatically when you add a child to the scales.

Young lab assistant at work.

Young lab assistant at work.

Suddenly, the demands of life become significantly greater and more pressing and gone was the ability to work long hours in the lab. I remember the days of not lamenting my wife having to work the weekend because it meant I also got to go into lab and get some work done. Now, my wife working on the weekend means I am responsible for our little one and it is difficult to get work done when you are looking after a rambunctious 1 year old. The same holds true when my daughter is sick. While I envisioned a quiet day at home as she slept off her virus, instead I am chasing a rambunctious, fussy 1 year old.

I have often found that as I add more demands to my schedule, I respond by becoming more efficient with my time. That certainly has been the case in getting work accomplished now. Often having to pick my daughter up from daycare means I can no longer stay late in lab. And weekends are often devoted to family time. This has required me to take extra care in planning experiments and allocating time for data analysis. I am still able to get the work done but I can no longer blindly set up multi-day experiments. Instead, each week is planned out more thoroughly in advance, coordinating schedules with my wife.>

But in the end, all of the extra effort, coordinating, and busy times are well worth it. Having a daughter reminds me of the goals in life to accomplish. Even though my priorities have shifted and work is no longer at the top, it is still an important facet of life. It just now has some company.

Zev Binder is an MD and a third-year graduate student in the laboratory of Denis Wirtz, working on a new model system for the study of brain tumor cell motility.

Science Britannica ‘Clear Blue Skies’ screening Nov. 22

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology will present a screening of an episode of the Science Britannica show “Clear Blue Skies,” whichaired on the BBC earlier this year. This episode discusses the importance of funding for basic and translational research.

Brian Cox is the host of Clear Blue Skies on the BBC.

Brian Cox is the host of Clear Blue Skies on the BBC.

The video (about 50 mins long) is hosted by Brian Cox, a physicist from the University of Manchester, who describes the history of funding for scientific research and highlights some key discoveries from Britain. Since it is incumbent on the scientific community to ensure that the general public and politicians understand the importance of science funding, this video provides an important perspective on this topic.

The screening will be Friday, November 22 at 5 p.m. in Shaffer 3 on the Homewood Campus. This screening is free and open to the entire Johns Hopkins Community, but seating is limited. Afterward, there will be an informal discussion about the importance of science funding with INBT director Peter Searson, professor of materials science and engineering at JHU.

‘Best’ places to work matter of perspective

I spend a lot of time talking to INBT students about careers and companies. A question that comes up often concerns “is that a good place to work?”.

top employers logoAll employers, (companies, universities, non-profits, even government) contrary to articles in the popular press as a rule want to be “good places to work”. During the recruiting and hiring process they will all emphasize their commitment to their employees. Much of this is self-serving blather and should be taken with a grain of salt, but clearly no organization sets out be a workplace where people are dissatisfied.

In particular, employers do try to be cognizant of the needs of specialized talent such as highly trained scientists and engineers who may be critical to corporate success. None of this, of course, means that factors such as profitability, market conditions, competitive realities and goal achievement don’t matter or occasionally overwhelm other factors. It also doesn’t mean that there are no bosses or co-workers who are jerks, places where expectations are unrealistic or situations where work pressures appear too high. Science–focused companies do, for very logical reasons, recognize the importance of scientists.

There are innumerable “best places to work” surveys: in local papers, chamber of commerce type magazines, the business press and on websites. Knowledge–based industries tend to do well on these. Also, for logical reasons, there is a correlation between profitable, growing enterprises and high rankings in workplace conditions.

Science magazine conducts an annual survey of “best employers”. A link to the 2013 results for the biotech-pharma research industry is below. The top 20 read like a Who’s Who of these companies. The key ingredients appear to be innovation, treating employees with respect, social responsibility, vision and high quality of work. The survey doesn’t mention issues like salary, job security and benefits (probably because it assumes the industry is very competitive on those areas).

Here is my personal view: take it all with a grain of salt, but consider the factors mentioned. Additionally, before making a career decision, if possible get a good sense of what employees say about the company and the specific organization.

Annual Top Employers Survey