Changing advisors, even disciplines, in graduate school

You’ve heard the old saying, “Don’t change horses in midstream.” But in graduate school, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Changing horses mid-game? Not so bad.

Changing horses mid-game? Not so bad.

Changing advisors part way through your graduate career can happen for several different reasons, but regardless of the cause, treat the change as an opportunity. Although you may initially think it is, it is not even remotely the end of the world. It is tempting to be influenced by external messages and think that there is a single right way to go about the journey of doctoral education, that there is no room for mistakes, and that you have to know exactly what you want to do from the beginning of your education. All three of these tropes are wrong.

I have changed research directions twice in my time as a graduate student, first changing from a Physics lab to a Biology lab to pursue more biological interests combined with physics, and then changing to a Biophysics lab when my advisor in biology left for a tenured position at a different institution. When I changed from a Biology to a Biophysics lab, skills in protein purification and NMR spectroscopy were transferable, but even in the extreme case that you change fields so drastically that nothing overlaps, just having previously gone through the process of learning techniques can make you better at it the next time. I think that these moves across disciplines and labs have improved my capacity to synthesize knowledge and skills, and to be adaptable.

Different unplanned circumstances, such as not getting into a certain lab, an advisor leaving the institution, or your interests and skills changing, may open an unexpected path that you can take with much happiness and productivity. I think it is unlikely that there is exactly and only one field or activity is right for a given person, and changing circumstances can be embraced as a way to pursue new or different interests. I applied to Hopkins excited to study astrophysics; I’m thrilled to now be making a career in protein science.

Dan Richman is a PhD candidate in Physics working in Bertrand Garcia-Moreno’s lab in the Department of Biophysics.

Getting my hands dirty in NanoBio lab

As a second year graduate student, classes take up a non-insignificant part of my day. One of the classes that I had the opportunity to take last spring was NanoBio Laboratory. NanoBio lab is clearly a laboratory class, which is always very exciting for an engineer. I enjoy any opportunity to get my hands dirty and really learn some techniques. And that was exactly what we had the opportunity to do.

NanoBio Lab was our chance to go into many of the labs in The Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) and get an idea of some of the techniques that they use and the general area of research of the lab. Some of the techniques that were demonstrated in this course included gold nanoparticles synthesis, transfecting cells with luciferase (the chemical that makes fireflies glow), and a novel method of analyzing images. While not all of the labs necessarily apply to the work that I am doing, many of them have some relevance and could come in handy in the future.

Through this lab, I have learned techniques that could be useful in my research in the future. Not only have I learned useful techniques, it was also an excellent chance to network within other labs. In this course, we had one or two representatives from many of the labs associated with the INBT instruct us and assist us in learning the techniques. This allowed us to form a relationship with at least one member in the represented labs, which will make it easier to reach out to other labs for help learning new procedures and protocols.

I just found out that I’m going to have to attempt to transfect a cell line, which I have never done outside of the NanoBio lab. Just as all laboratory work I know that it will be difficult, and that I’m likely to fail a number of times before I have any success. Through this class, however, I know someone who I can talk to for advice and assistance as I go through this process.

Moriah Knight is a second year PhD student in Peter Searson’s lab studying Materials Science and Engineering.

Six years on my fantastic nano-bio voyage, and counting

Back in 2003, several jobs before I came to work at Johns Hopkins University, a coworker asked me if I had ever heard of nanotechnology. I had heard the term, certainly, but I wasn’t sure what it was or what it could do. We came to the conclusion that nanotech was probably something like the technology presented in that 1960s science fiction movie “Fantastic Voyage”, in which a team of medical doctors where shrunken, placed in a capsule and injected into a man’s bloodstream in an attempt to treat him, except you know, not LITERALLY like that. Then I forgot all about nano. I never imagined it would have a major impact on my life, let alone anyone else’s.

Then, in 2007 I was hired to be the science writer for the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT), and I had to get up to speed on all this nano-bio stuff in a hurry. I learned that nano is at the scale of just a few atoms and that a nanometer is as small as 1/100,000th the width of the human hair. Through discussions with the 200 plus researchers affiliated with INBT, I can honestly say that I never imagined that nanotech could be or would be used in some of the ways that it has been. Most references on nanotechnology mention its use in electronics such as cell phones or in materials for sports gear. You can even find nano in cosmetics and stain repellant clothing.

Here at Hopkins, researchers are going far beyond materials and electronics uses. Nanotechnology is being developed for drug delivery, to trigger the immune system to fight disease, as scaffolds for tissue engineering, and to study cancer at the single cell level, among many other things. Each month, faculty members affiliated with INBT publish leading-edge research on nano-related science in peer-reviewed journals. All the possible avenues for its use can be overwhelming. There are also some INBT researchers investigating the potential risks from nanobiotechnology alongside the numerous benefits.

To tell you about these findings, we have established a blog, newsletters and the Nano-Bio Magazine. We have engaging and educational animations from the INBT animation studio, directed by Martin Rietveld. And each summer I teach a course for our science and engineering graduate students that trains them to create videos about their work, which we later show at the INBT Film Fest. Every week, we are developing new ways to get the word out on what INBT is doing and how its work can improve our lives.

Ten years ago, I never imagined nanotechnology would have a major impact on my life, let alone anyone else’s. But nanotechnology and nanoBIOtechnology are going to be around for a while, although most people won’t think about it unless and until they have some reason to confront it. The potential of nanobiotechnology for solving problems in medicine and healthcare has yet to be fully realized. I would like to think that in my lifetime we would see the direct and tangible benefits of nanotechnology in medicine at the patient care level. I think that is already starting to happen. I am glad to be part of this “fantastic voyage” of discovery at Johns Hopkins. I hope that what we do here to communicate these discoveries to you helps make you feel like you are part of that journey, too.

Mary Spiro is the science writer and blog maven for Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

Check out our videos and animations on INBT’s YouTube Channel.

Read Nano-Bio Magazine.

Go on a Fantastic Voyage!



Students talk cancer nanotech at Homewood March 21

Students affiliated with the Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNE) and the Physical Sciences-Oncology Center (PS-OC) at Johns Hopkins University have organized a spring mini-symposium for March 21, 10 a.m. in the Hackerman Hall Auditorium at the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus.

The student-run mini-symposiums aim to bring together researchers from across the campus affiliated with the PS-OC and CCNE. Graduate students training in these centers, both administered by Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology, work in various disciplines from physics to engineering to the basic biological sciences but with an emphasis on understanding cancer metastasis and developing methods for cancer diagnosis or therapy.

The invited speaker for the symposium is postdoctoral researcher Megan Ho of Duke University. Ho earned her PhD in mechanical engineering in the Wang lab in 2008. She is currently focused on developing microfluidic devices to investigate and control the fundamental reactions that form nanocomplexes for gene delivery. (10 a.m.)

Student apeakers, who will talk for 15 minutes, include:

  • Jane Chisholm (Justin Hanes lab/Ophthalmology): Cisplatin nanocomplexes for the local treatment of small cell lung cancer (10:20 a.m.)
  • Yunke Song (Jeff Wang Lab/Mechanical Engineering): Single Quantum Dot-Based Multiplexed Point Mutation Detection by Gap Ligase Chain Reaction (10:35 a.m.)
  • Andrew Wong (Peter Searson Lab/Materials Science and Engineering): Intravisation into an artificial blood vessel (10:50 a.m.)
  • Brian Keeley: (Jeff Wang Lab/Mechanical Engineering): Overcoming detection limitations of DNA methylation in plasma and serum of cancer patients through utilization of nanotechnology. (11:05 a.m.)
  • Sebastian Barretto (Sharon Gerecht Lab/Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering): Development of Hydrogel Microfibers to Study Angiogenesis (11:20 a.m.)

View the symposium flyer here. The mini-symposium is free and open to the entire Johns Hopkins University community. No RSVP is required, although seating is limited.

Johns Hopkins Physical Sciences-Oncology Center

Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence

Panel discussion tackles the question: Is undergraduate research for you?

Undergraduates presenting at summer research symposium.

Are you an undergraduate  engineering student who wants to do research but just doesn’t know where to start?

The Johns Hopkins chapter of the Society of Women Engineers  will host a panel discussion Thursday, October 27 at 7 PM in room 132 of Gilman Hall  on the Homewood campus.  The panel discussion is designed to answer your questions about getting started in research at Johns Hopkins University.   Listen to a panel of undergraduate research students in engineering discuss what it’s like to work in an engineering lab.

Undergraduate research experience is extremely important if you want to apply for internships, jobs, scholarships and postgraduate work. Conducting research while you’re an undergraduate also helps put this ideas that you’ve learned in class into action for larger goal. Some undergraduate researchers  even have their work published in peer-reviewed journals.

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBiotechnology offers a summer research experience for undergraduates in nano bio.   A criteria for applying to an REU  program is that you have had prior research experience.  Don’t miss your opportunity to learn about this exciting component of your undergraduate academic career.

For more information about the Society of Women Engineers go to

For details about  about Johns Hopkins Institute for Nano Biotechnology summer Research Experience for Undergraduates program, go to

Applications for the 2012 summer program will be accepted soon.

Summer scholars celebrate first high school graduates

Charles Booth and his mentor Yulia Artemenko at the 2011 Boys Hope poster session. Photo: Mary Spiro

To encourage promising high school students to pursue careers in academia and research, Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology and the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine welcome scholars from Baltimore’s Boys Hope Girls Hope (BHGH) to work in university laboratories. From June through August each summer for the past three years, high school students have worked alongside scientists in Johns Hopkins University laboratories producing raw data that supports the research goals of their mentors.

This summer, the university welcomed four BHGH scholars and, at the conclusion of the session, the scholars presented their findings to faculty, students, staff, and members of their families during a poster session held, August 12. The program also celebrated its first two high school graduates.

Matthew Green-Hill has been in the BHGH/INBT program for three summers. He graduated this spring from Archbishop Curley High School and was accepted to The College of William and Mary where he plans to study political science. He worked in the lab of assistant professor Sean Taverna in the department of pharmacology and molecular sciences. Along with his mentor PhD student Tonya Gilbert, Green-Hill presented “Cloning Yng1 to Identify Novel Histone Modification Binding Motifs that may affect Gene Expression” at the poster session.

Dwayne Thomas II worked in the cell biology laboratory of associate professor Douglas Robinson. He and his mentor, PhD student Hoku West-Foyle, conducted research that was presented in the poster “Dictyostelium discoideum myosin-ll, a modular motor.” Thomas has participated in the summer research program for two summers. He graduated from Loyola Blakefield in May and will attend Loyola University Maryland in the fall as a biology/pre-med major.

Working in the biological chemistry laboratory of professor Craig Montell, Durrell Igwe was mentored by postdoctoral fellow Marquis Walker and presented the poster “Reduced Immune Response in Drosophila Lysosomal Storage Disease Model.” This is also Igwe’s second year in the program, and he will graduate from Archbishop Curley High School in the spring of 2012.

One of the newest BHGH scholars is Charles Booth, who worked with postdoctoral fellow Yulia Artemenko in the cell biology lab of professor Peter Devreotes. He presented the poster “Analysis of the Functional Redundancy Between Dictyostelium KrsB and Its Mammalian Homolog Mstl.” Booth attends Calvert Hall and will be a junior this fall.

The BHGH program is geared toward students with academic potential but who lack the resources or stability to achieve their full potential. Some of those who have participated in the program may have at one time missed weeks of school in the past. Others have even been homeless. Students voluntarily apply to the nonprofit program to access services such as a stable home, tutoring, and counseling. Scholars have the opportunity to live together in an adult-supervised house in Baltimore and attend local private schools. Both boys and girls participate in the program and next year, Robinson said he hopes Hopkins will attract some of the young women interested in science and medicine to work in sponsored laboratories.

Additional photos on our Facebook Page.

Boys Hope Girls Hope Baltimore

Story by Mary Spiro






Come to the NanoBio Film Festival 11 a.m., 6/29 in Krieger 205

Charli Dvoracek storyboarding a video. Photo by Mary Spiro

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) hosts the NanoBio Film Festival on June 29, 11 a.m. in Krieger 205. See the world premiere of three short videos made by members of INBT’s course on science communications. Free for Hopkins community.

Videos featured in this film festival describe the current research of students working in INBT affiliated laboratories. Students in the course learn how to communicate their work in nontechnical terms for general audiences. They work in teams to write, direct, film and produce the videos within a two-week time frame. The producers will be on hand to describe their experience making the videos and to answer questions.

The INBT film festival is part of the institute’s free professional development seminar series. Topics are geared toward undergraduate and graduate students.

Future seminars include:

  • July 13: Adam Steel, PhD, Director of Systems Engineering at Becton Dickinson, will discuss medical device development. Dr. Steel joined BD in 2005. Previously he was vice president of research and development at MetriGenix. He earned his PhD in analytical chemistry at the University of Maryland College Park and undergraduate degrees in chemistry and mathematics from Gettysburg College. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship in medical device development at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.
  • July 27: Grant submission process and how to obtain funding; a roundtable discussion with INBT affiliated postdoctoral students.

For additional information on INBT’s professional development seminar series, contact Ashanti Edwards, INBT’s Academic Program Administrator at



INBT Presents Professional Development Seminars

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) will host four professional development seminars for scientists and engineers this summer. These seminars aim to expand student’s knowledge of issues and ideas relevant to but outside of the laboratory and classroom experience. Topics this summer will include intellectual property, science journalism, and more. Talks will be held June 10, June 24, July 8, and July 22 at 11 a.m. in Maryland Hall 110. Please RSVP to Ashanti Edwards, to attend.


Charles Day, second speaker at the 2009 INBT Professional Development Seminars

Charles Day, second speaker at the 2009 INBT Professional Development Seminars.

June 24:

“From tip to tale: How science news is made“

Charles Day, senior editor Physics Today

Day earned a PhD in astronomy from the University of Cambridge. After a postdoctoral position at Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, he worked for six years at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. He now writes for and edits the Search and Discovery Department for Physics Today, the flagship publication of The American Institute of Physics and most influential and closely followed physics magazine in the world.

July speakers to be announced. Check back here for more info.

Past speakers:

June 10:

“The Role of Intellectual Property in Technology Commercialization and Academic Research.”

John N. Fini, director of intellectual property, Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Whiting School of Engineering

Fini brings a wealth of experience in technology transfer and technology commercialization and in the entrepreneurial environment. He works closely with Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer with the aim of promoting the Homewood campus as a technology powerhouse.

Twelve students join Hopkins for summer nanobiotech research

Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) welcomed 12 undergraduate students to the Johns Hopkins University for its summer Research Experience (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation. The group includes students from across the country who attend other universities, as well as one Hopkins student. Each participant will work with an INBT affiliated faculty adviser. Their projects consist of 10-week research experiments and culminate in a university-wide poster session held with other internship and summer program students.

Along with their research, INBT’s REU students attend socials, professional development seminars, laboratory tours and other scheduled outings. Student are supported with a stipend and given housing for the summer. The selection process for INBT’s REU is highly competitive and more than 300 applicants vied for the 12 slots. [Read more...]

NanoBioTech Institute Sends Hopkins Senior To Belgium For Summer Research

Michael Keung

Michael Keung

This summer, Michael Keung, a rising senior in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, will participate in the Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) International Research Experience for Students (IRES) program. INBT’s IRES program, funded by the National Science Foundation, allows students to collaborate with researchers from Hopkins and The Inter-University MircroElectronics Centre (IMEC) in Leuven, Belgium. Students work at IMEC’s world-class microfabrication facility and learn to design, fabricate and test chip-based platforms and integrated microelectronic systems for biomedical applications. The goal of the program is to help students gain a broader, global perspective of science and technology.

Michael is working on a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering (ChemBE) with a concentration in interfaces and nanotechnology with a minor in entrepreneurship and management. Before he left for Belgium on May 30, he answered a few questions about how he became involved in INBT’s IRES program. While abroad, Michael will keep a blog so that everyone back home can read about his experiences at IMEC and in Europe. To read Michael’s blog, “Summer 2009 at IMEC,“ go to

1. Why did you want to participate in INBT’s IRES program?

I think it is safe to say that a large majority of students consider Hopkins to be extremely, if not overly, rigorous. Any opportunity to take a break from school work or getting off campus is welcomed with wide, open arms. After my sophomore year at JHU, I was strongly considering some type of travel abroad, whether it was taking classes or doing an internship, to get a break from Hopkins and Baltimore.

I first heard about INBT’s IRES program from an email distributed from my principal investigator, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering David Gracias (an affiliated faculty member of INBT). I wanted to be a part of this program because it provides an amazing opportunity to further one’s education, both academically and personally. IMEC has world class facilities and has been a leader in nanoelectronics and nanobiotechnology. I can’t imagine any better way to spend a summer than traveling around Europe and working in such a renowned facility as IMEC.

2. What do you hope to learn about nanobiotechnology, business, research etc.?

I hope to learn new fabrication techniques and ways of perfecting the current ones I am already familiar with. By bringing these back to the Gracias lab, perhaps we will be able to improve our own fabrication methods. Additionally, I hope to become exposed to the biological side of nanotechnology. As a ChemBE concentrating in interfaces and nanotechnology, my exposure to the biological aspect is very limited. With this research opportunity, I hope to broaden my academic scope.

3. How did you prepare yourself academically and personally for your trip?

Coming from the Gracias lab, I already have a lot of experience with microfabrication. The processes that we use to fabricate our structures are similar to the techniques used over at IMEC. IMEC, however, has very large facilities and equipment with greater resolution than what we have at our disposal at Hopkins. My research background with the Gracias lab has prepared me academically for this trip.

Personally, one thing I am definitely taking with me are Dutch and French dictionaries. I have a feeling that I will need it, considering I have zero background in either language. The whole language barrier problem should be fun trying to get around, albeit frustrating.

4. What skills do you hope to gain from this research trip?

I hope to gain skills in perfecting the fabrication techniques employed in the Gracias lab. By integrating the experience I obtain at IMEC with our lab here at Hopkins, perhaps we may be able to fabricate new types of micro and nanostructures.

5. What research project will you be working on?

The project will be a collaborative effort between the Gracias lab and IMEC. The Gracias lab has experience in fabricating 3D self-assembled structures ranging from 100 nanometers to several millimeters. The group I’ll be working with over at IMEC has experience in fabricating plasmonic nanostructures that are sensitive towards the attachment of biomolecules. Together, we will be working on fabricating nanocubes with plasmonic nanostructure cavities on each face of a cube. This will allow us to demonstrate directional sensitivity in three dimensions on the nanoscale and have importance in surface enhanced raman spectroscopy (SERS) experiments in fluids or even in vivo.

6. What qualities do you think you bring to this research trip?

Personally, I will be bringing the cube fabrication experience from our lab and combining it with the resources over at IMEC to fabricate new types of plasmonic nanostructures.

7. What do you think will be the most challenging part about your trip?

One aspect of this research experience that will be challenging to acclimate to is the different equipment on the IMEC campus. When working with the instruments in the Gracias lab, you get familiar with the workings and intricacies of the equipment. I do not know about IMEC specifically, but at some companies, technicians operate each specific piece of equipment, such that one individual never fabricates a wafer from beginning to end. Although getting acquainted with new procedures will be challenging, they will have to be overcome.

Additionally, I think being submerged in a new country and culture will be very intimidating. I have no experience with the Dutch or French languages, so a language barrier will definitely be present between me and some individuals. Also, I have never traveled to Europe, so I am aware that I will probably experience a culture shock in terms of traditions and lifestyle.

8. What do expect will be the most fun about your trip?

I think I will have a lot of fun being exposed to the different fabrication techniques and equipment over at IMEC. Plenty of researchers over there are leaders in their field. It will be a very pleasurable experience to be working and learning side-by-side with them.

Not to forget the fact that it is Europe, I will definitely be traveling around to different countries on the weekends. I have already planned the cities I am going to visit along with the train routes I will need to take to get there. Although I will be working at IMEC on the weekends, I will be pseudo-backpacking around Europe during my free time.

9. What do your family and friends think about you going on this trip?

I am very excited and grateful to INBT for being given this great opportunity to travel to Europe and perform research at IMEC. My friends and family are very excited for me, most wishing that they could join me. Everyone has been very supportive of this opportunity and I am incredibly excited to begin my journey.

10. Anything else?

This is the first year of the IMEC program, and I know that it took a lot of work to get it off the ground. I would like to thank Thomas Fekete, Ashanti Edwards, and everyone associated with the program, I now cannot wait for it to begin.


Michael Keung is keeping a blog on his adventures at IMEC in Belgium.  Click here to read it.