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.

Johns Hopkins NanoBioTechnology highlighted in BioSynergy magazine

Johns Hopkins NanoBioTechnology highlighted in BioSynergy magazine

The June 2008 issue of BioSynergy, a University of Toronto based biotechnology magazine, contains two articles highlighting the comments of academic and research leaders at Johns Hopkins University. The story, “An Academic Venture Capitalist“ features an interview with university president William R. Brody.

“Probing the Academic-Industry Partnership at Johns Hopkins: Forging Innovative Biotechnology Tools for Healthcare“ is a question and answer with Johns Hopkins School of Medicine faculty members Martin Pomper, professor of Radiology and Oncology and Institute for NanoBioTechnolgy executive committee member, and Elizabeth M. Jaffee, professor of Oncology and Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, and Peter C. Searson, the John R. and Lynn C. Reynolds Professor or Materials Science and Engineering and INBT director. The articles begin on pages 128 and 134 respectively of the magazine, and the entire issue of BioSynergy may be downloaded as a pdf at

INBT on Facebook

The Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University recently launched a profile on the social networking Web site The page is called “Friends of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University“ and already has 33 members since it was created on July 11, 2008. Anyone may view the INBT Facebook page by going to

To participate in discussions, post topics, and upload images or video, one must create a Facebook profile.

INBT Launches Summer Seminars with CytImmune CEO

Picture of Lawrence TamarkinLawrence Tamarkin. Credit: Mary Spiro / JHU

“One of the biggest challenges in technology transfer is to prove to the FDA that what was made in the lab can be made on a large scale to the same quality standards,“ said Lawrence Tamarkin, president and CEO of CytImmune Sciences. Tamarkin presented the first talk of the summer professional development series hosted by the Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University. CytImmune Sciences will soon begin Phase 2 clinical trials on a colloidal gold based product that provides targeted and concentrated delivery of a tumor destroying substance.

INBT’s summer professional development series offers students an opportunity to learn from industry representatives on a number of topics related to research and relevant to success in the sciences. Topic range for protecting ones intellectual property to seeking venture capital support,

“These talks allow the students to expand their ideas beyond the focus on their research,“ says Denis Wirtz professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering and associate director of INBT. “It also gives them a better perspective on the ways their research can help society.“

Wirtz added that Tamarkin’s talk highlighted the importance of persistence in research. “Tamarkin emphasized how one must multitask—you must care about the science and manage the public perception of nanoscience as well.“

Talks begin at 11 a.m. and are held in room 303 of Shafer Hall. To attend any of the seminar series talks listed below, please RSVP to Ashanti Edwards via e-mail at or by phone at 410-516-6572.

Upcoming professional development talks are:

* July 9
* July 23
* August 6

Health and the Environment Form Focus of Latest NanoBio Seed Grants

Cross-sectional autoradiograms of rodent brains showing (A) control physiological state; and (B) and (C) showing
distribution of brain injury from an injected neurotoxicant. Red areas indicate the highest concentrations of a
biomarker that identifies brain areas that are damaged by the neurotoxicant. Credit: Guilarte Lab

Little is known about how engineered nanomaterials and nanoparticles impact human health and the environment. Particles at the scale of one-billionth of a meter—so small they can slip across the blood-brain barrier—pose many questions about the safety of nanotechnology used in products consumed and used by humans. The Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University recently awarded $100,000 to fund research projects that seek to answer these questions. Four $25,000 seed grants were given to multidisciplinary research teams to fund pilot projects across Johns Hopkins. [Read more...]

INBT to Fund Postdocs in NanoTech for Cancer Medicine

The Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University has been awarded a $1.6 million T-32 National Cancer Institute training grant to recruit two outstanding trainees every year with MD and/or PhD degrees and diverse backgrounds in either biochemistry, physics, molecular/cellular/cancer biology, or an engineering/physics discipline. Postdoctoral fellows will conduct research in nanotechnology for cancer medicine. Please check the Website of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology in the coming weeks for more details on this exciting opportunity and information about how to apply.

Hopkins NanoBioTech Director Named First Reynolds Professor

Picture of Peter Searson
Peter Searson. Credit: INBT / JHU

Peter Searson, professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Institute for Nanobiotechnology, has been named the inaugural Joseph R. and Lynn C. Reynolds Professor.

Searson’s research interests include the synthesis and characterization of nanostructured materials, electrodeposition and patterning, and applications for nanotechnology in biology and medicine. He led the launch of the Institute for Nanobiotechnology, which was established May 15, 2006 as a cross-divisional center with research interests in the basic sciences, engineering, medicine and public health. Searson joined the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 1990, having received his PhD in 1982 from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

Joseph Reynolds earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins in 1969. He is the founder and CEO of RTI Consulting LLP, founded FTI Consulting Inc., is a university trustee, and is the current chair of the National Advisory Council. In making the gift of this professorship, Reynolds’ vision was to give the dean and the school the flexibility to select a recipient from any department in the Whiting School of Engineering.

For more information about the Searson Group go to

IGERT Student Profile: Lindsey Smith

To optimize the strength of materials and structures used in biomedical applications, one must apply the principles of mechanics. This can become a challenging task in these multiphysics settings, says Lindsey Smith, a second year doctoral student in civil engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Smith is a member of the NanoBio IGERT with the Institute for NanoBioTechnology. Funded by the National Science Foundation, IGERT stands for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship.

Smith’s interest in structures and engineering blossomed after taking a high school introductory course on the topic. “I was always strong in math and science,“ she says. “I also was fascinated with architecture and large buildings.“ Smith graduated in 2003 from Columbia University with a major in Engineering Mechanics, which she describes as the study of the application of mechanics to civil engineering. [Read more...]