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.

 

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.

‘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

 

Seizing serendipity during a European internship

Studying abroad is a popular experience for undergraduates and many students try to take advantage of this opportunity. Being an international student at heart, I was also interested in exploring the world; however, my coursework made it practically impossible to go abroad with the study programs that my college offered. I did not just want to go traveling though, I wanted to invest my time while creating new experiences for myself, and so it occurred to me to independently seek an international research internship abroad. I started searching for the opportunities and with some luck involved I discovered the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). The institute actually consists of a large number of member states in Europe including Germany, France, UK, and even, somehow, Australia.

We were completely soaked, but we had to get back. Much to our surprise we got a ride back up to the castle.

We were completely soaked, but we had to get back. Much to our surprise we got a ride back up to the castle.

After a series of e-mails and a phone interview I ended up joining the group of Dr. Christian Haering whose lab is studying the condensin protein complex in yeast. Condensin protein complex does pretty much what you would expect; it condenses and organizes chromosomes together but also has other roles, like regulating gene expression. The project seemed exciting to me, and it also meant that I would be able to spend my summer in Heidelberg, Germany, while learning something new. One of my best college friends also applied to the institute and ended up being accepted to a different lab.

The campus was located in a serene location on top of the hill, which required a healthy hike through the forest in the morning. A lot of things about this place were special: there was a building with two floors spiraling upwards in a double helix, a cafeteria chef with a mustache in a style of a Prussian soldier singing and greeting with “Bonjour!” beer Fridays organized by different labs, journal clubs and coffee breaks with a beautiful spectrum of accents discussing science.

In my research, I worked with fission yeast and tried to isolate condensin and other proteins that might interact with it on some level. I learned new techniques of growing yeast, isolating protein with magnetic nanobeads, and performing Western blots to mention a few. Although I did end up working very long hours during the week, Friday nights meant one thing: my friend and I were literally running to catch a train. We would come to work with packed backpacks and a vague idea of where we wanted to go. Very often we were in the hands of serendipity, which provided opportunities that would be difficult to plan out.

IMG_3695_stitch cc sat60 us. Hohenzollern in thunderstormTo give an overview of one weekend, we were able to visit Frankfurt, Cologne, Bonn, and a tiny city St. Goar on the Rhine River. Almost nearly missing a series of trains but always making it with half-a-minute to spare, we finally missed the connecting train in Frankfurt by 20 seconds and got stuck there. As a result, we arrived in Cologne at 6 a.m., with a stunning view of Cologne’s gothic cathedral filling most of the huge window of the train station. By midday we moved on to Bonn because it was a birthplace of Beethoven. If you ask me how we ended up in the tiny city of St. Goar, I do not know. In St. Goar, by chance we learned that they had closed the road along the Rhine to give bicycles free reign, and so we rented bikes to participate in the procession with other bicyclists. On the way, we climbed up to three castles overlooking the Rhine, and arrived back to our town late at night to get some sleep before work. In a similar manner, we traveled to Switzerland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and various cities in Germany.

The experience in Europe was rich with emotions and stories: from the Foreigner performance in Mannheim to the Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in St. Chapelle in Paris, from sleeping at the train station to being soaked under rain in the attempt to climb a mountain with a castle on top.

I advise undergraduates to actively seek such research and travel opportunities because very few things make you feel so alive like learning and traveling.

Alex Komin, a first-year PhD student in Kalina Hristova’s lab in Materials Science and Engineering Department, is working on new methods to deliver drugs to the brain.

Q & A: Nanopaprika, the social network for nanoscience

About the same time that Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) came into existence, which was May 2006, a network was established online for people interested in all things nano. The International NanoScience Community, or TINC for short, wasn’t some government agency initiative or research center based website, but a social network, much like Facebook, that specialized in helping connect people across the globe interested in reading about, working in, studying or otherwise investing their time in all things nanoscience-related.

nanopaprika-logoI joined TINC in the fall of 2007, shortly after coming to work at INBT. Since I was new to nanotechnology, I thought it might be a good way for me to find out about things going on in the field in a less structured way than reading the journal articles published by the faculty I was writing about. I wasn’t actively conducting research in nanotechnology, but it was interesting to read about what other people were doing across the globe. It helped gain perspective on where Johns Hopkins was in the global nanotech environment. I also thought it would be a good way to get the word out about some of the work INBT researchers were doing.

Over time, I have occasionally posted items and connected with people on TINC. Both TINC and I celebrated six years in nano in 2013, so I thought it would be fun to catch up with András Paszternák, creator and editor of The International NanoScience Community. Here is a short Q&A. Since the URL of TINC is Nanopaprika.eu, Paszternák sometimes just refers to it as Nanopaprika. The site’s tag line says it all “the spicy world of NanoScience,”  and paprika is an important Hungarian spice. Read on!

András Paszternák creator and editor of The International NanoScience Community.

András Paszternák
creator and editor of The International NanoScience Community.

When exactly did TINC start?

On 27th of November 2007, it will be six years old in this month.

What is your goal with TINC?

The main idea was to create something more personal than the other nano networks already on the Internet, something open for students as well as for senior researchers. I was asked by my supervisor Prof. Erika Kalman at the Chemical Research Center of Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Budapest, Hungary) to edit an existing Hungarian nanotech site, but I came up with the idea to create a scientific social network, which could be so much bigger, spreading like a tree and connecting nano scientists across the globe. I have been editing the webpage in my free time along with my professional work as a chemist since the beginning.

Over the last six years, how has TINC attained these goals?

We have today 6,641 members coming from more than 80 countries. Thanks to Nanopaprika, several students have found PhD and postdoctoral positions and found information about new nanotech developments. Senior researchers have met talented students; shared news about their results and found new collaboration partners. Nanopaprika is like an open source to connect nano addicted people and share the latest news in our scientific field.

Why do you think this sort of network is important?

As we can see from Facebook, social networking can really bring people, families and friends closer to each other. I think, next to LinkedIN or ResearchGate (big specific networks with millions of users) small professional networks (like Nanopaprika ) can bring the opportunity to create bonds on a personal level between scientist and students. There is a competition between scientific networks – most researchers don’t like to be registered into several social networks– only the most interesting and most scientific will survive this war. Hopefully, Nanopaprika will be among these.

What do you value most about contributors?

Any news, information is welcome. Some members start just forum topics, others share the abstracts of fresh papers, write blog posts about nanosafety, nanotech education and so forth. A scientific social network is like a LEGO game, everybody can bring their bricks. Just some numbers:  we have 5,090 blog posts, 668 discussions topics, 382 shared nanoevents, 2,208 photos and 387 videos – so Nanopaprika is really a spicy world of nanoscience.

Why should someone join this network?

The door is open for everybody, there is no registration fee, just check www.nanopaprika.eu and if you like it, click on sign In.

By Mary Spiro, INBT science writer.