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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 11, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 2
Nurturing Future Scientists

Britni Lonesome was a Baltimore City high school senior when Justin Hanes, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, permitted her to join his lab team. She will continue working in Hanes' lab this fall as a freshman at Johns Hopkins.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

City high school students delve into research in Hopkins laboratories

By Phil Sneiderman

While still a senior in high school, Britni Lonesome toiled 10 hours a week in a Whiting School of Engineering lab, helping to develop a new drug delivery system that could someday reduce tuberculosis deaths in impoverished nations. This month, the 18-year-old enters Johns Hopkins as a Baltimore Scholar, having already received local and national recognition for her work on the project.

Lonesome contributed to the research in the lab of Justin Hanes, an associate professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, who praises Lonesome as the latest in a series of talented high school students who have made valuable contributions to his work while honing their own science skills before entering college.

In 1999, when Sally Kutzer, who teaches the Senior Research Practicum class at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a city high school, first asked Hanes to add one of her students to his lab team, the Johns Hopkins researcher had a few concerns. "I'm always wary of anyone who would enter my lab," he said. "It's an environment that requires maturity and responsibility. But the first of Sally's high school students who came through convinced me that this was not a waste of time."

That student, Craig Turner, won the grand prize in physical science at the Baltimore Science Fair and was a finalist at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Since then, Kutzer has placed dozens of Poly students in local university science and engineering labs. Among the most recent was Joi Hayes, who worked in a Johns Hopkins tissue engineering lab and won this year's biology gold medal in the NAACP's national ACT-SO (Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) competition. She is now attending the University of Virginia.

This fall, of the 20 students registered for Kutzer's high school class, 16 will work in Johns Hopkins engineering, biology, chemistry, medical and public health labs. "The majority of them do their research projects at Johns Hopkins," Kutzer said. "The reason is that the Hopkins professors are eager to take these students on. And it's a big help to the students in our program. Many of them have never been in a university lab. When they meet these professors, it helps them build up a valuable network of contacts."

Added Hanes: "For some of them, it's kind of an introduction to a new world. In some cases, high school students who are from underprivileged families or who are part of ethnic groups that are underrepresented in science and engineering will feel more comfortable applying to Johns Hopkins after spending a year in one of our labs."

That was the case with Lonesome. During her junior year in high school, she heard about the lab partnership program. "I was interested in chemical engineering," she said. "I wanted to go to John Hopkins, and this was a chance to do research there. When I met Dr. Hanes, he told me what he was doing in his lab, and I didn't understand any of it. But it wasn't discouraging. I knew it would be challenging, but I wasn't intimidated."

Lonesome was introduced to Hanes' lab team and directed to read at least 20 journal articles related to the drug delivery project. During a subsequent lab team meeting, Hanes recalls, "Britni gave a very impressive first presentation. She came up to speed very quickly, and she analyzed the literature very well."

Under the supervision of graduate student Matthew Durst, Lonesome learned to produce polymer disks impregnated with isoniazid, a drug used to treat tuberculosis. She then conducted lab tests to measure the amount of the drug that would likely be released to the patient over a 30-day period. She discovered that, contrary to what one might have expected, a lower concentration of the drug in the disk led to a more consistent release of the medication. Higher concentrations led to inconsistent release rates. Hanes said Lonesome's results will be incorporated in an upcoming journal article focusing on the team's work, and she will be credited as a co-author.

Earlier this year, Lonesome received a first-place award from the Maryland Society of Clinical and Lab Scientists at the Baltimore Science Fair and a gold medal in chemistry at the NAACP's ACT-SO state competition. During the ACT-SO national finals in July, she collected the bronze medal in chemistry.

These awards recognized Lonesome's work in fabricating and conducting lab tests on polymer implants designed to dispense medication continuously for a three-month period. If these implants prove to be effective in humans, they could replace the four pills that tuberculosis patients now must swallow every day for up to nine months. "That kind of pill-taking regimen can be a real challenge for people in Third World countries," Lonesome said. "A dime-size implant that slowly releases its medication over several months would be much easier for them to handle. And it could save lives."

The project is important because tuberculosis is the second-most common major infectious disease, just behind AIDS. The disease infects about 9 million people annually, killing nearly 2 million every year.

Lonesome is one of 18 students entering Johns Hopkins this year through the university's Baltimore Scholars Program, which provides full-tuition scholarships to graduates of Baltimore City public schools who are accepted into the university's undergraduate programs. She plans to continue working in Hanes' lab to advance the tuberculosis implant research. The disks used in her previous experiments are nonbiodegradable and would have to be removed after the treatment is finished. Lonesome may try to replicate her work with a polymer that could dissolve harmlessly in the body after its work is done. She also may participate in animal testing, which must be completed before the disks could be used in humans.


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