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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 5, 2005 | Vol. 35 No. 13
New Program Aims at Hybrid Researchers

Ph.D. students will be drawn from nine departments in three schools

By Phil Sneiderman

A $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will help create a new graduate training program in Nanotechnology for Biology and Medicine at Johns Hopkins. The NBMed program will provide interdisciplinary training in nanotechnology and biology to a new generation of graduate students from three schools within Johns Hopkins. The goal is to provide a broader range of knowledge and skills to people embarking on careers in biology and medicine.

Drawing from doctoral students in nine departments in the schools of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, and Medicine, the program is designed to help researchers acquire expertise in more than one academic area, giving them the tools needed to develop new biomaterials, drug delivery systems, biosensors and diagnostic devices.

"We want to train scientists and engineers so they can use nanotechnology to produce advances in biology and medicine," said Denis Wirtz, who will serve as director of the program. "To solve many of the toughest problems in diagnosing and treating patients, we need researchers who have outstanding skills in more than one discipline. For example, making tiny particles to carry drugs directly to diseased cells may require training in materials science as well as biology. But traditionally, researchers in these fields have not shared the same language or lab skills. We want to change that."

Toward this goal, the program will be led by faculty members with a range of expertise. Wirtz is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Co-directors are Peter Devreotes, director of cell biology in the School of Medicine; Kathleen Stebe, a professor in the Whiting School's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Peter Searson, a professor in the Whiting School's Department of Materials Science and Engineering; and Michael Edidin, a professor in the Krieger School's Department of Biology.

The Howard Hughes grant will be disbursed over three years, enabling the university to set up the program, open a new state-of-the-art lab for characterizing nanoparticles, recruit two faculty members with interdisciplinary skills and prepare Web-based education modules that can be used by college students elsewhere, as well as by researchers in private industry.

By the third year, the program will begin enrolling its first doctoral students. Each will be based in one of the participating science, engineering or medical departments and will be required to take extra classroom and lab courses outside the traditional area of study. Each student will have two faculty advisers from different academic departments, guiding him or her toward completion of a thesis that reflects an interdisciplinary topic.

The program comes in response to a growing recognition that many new advances in medical diagnostics and treatment will require new discoveries and tools developed by scientists and engineers working in the physical sciences, often at microscopic scales. The new graduate program will complement an upcoming research initiative at Johns Hopkins, the establishment of an Institute for NanoBiotechnology.

"Johns Hopkins is extremely well-positioned for these projects because of our faculty's strength in medicine and nanotechnology," Wirtz said. "We can draw on a lot of world-class expertise in these areas."

The graduate program proposal prepared by Wirtz and his colleagues was among 132 submitted to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Only 10 of these proposals received funding, representatives of the institute said. The $1 million grant is aimed at establishing the interdisciplinary program at Johns Hopkins and positioning it to obtain additional financial support from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is a nonprofit medical research organization established in 1953 by the aviator-industrialist. The institute, headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md., is one of the largest philanthropies in the world with an endowment of $14.8 billion at the close of its 2005 fiscal year. The institute spent $483 million in support of biomedical research and $80 million for support of a variety of science education and other grants programs in fiscal 2005.


Related Web sites

Denis Wirtz's lab page
The Institute for Nano-Biotechnology at Johns Hopkins
Howard Hughes Medical Institute


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