December 13, 2018

Weaving a new social fabric

By most measures, Sarah Hemminger had it all: she was married to her high school sweetheart and was pursuing her doctorate in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins. Yet something was missing.

“Not having family in the area and having trouble making friends at first brought back memories of feeling isolated during my youth. It triggered something very deep inside me,” remembers Hemminger BS ’02 PhD ’10.

In 2004, to overcome her sense of isolation, Hemminger sought to connect with the community around her by creating the Thread Community Model, or “Thread,” a volunteer-based support network that is now garnering national attention.

Based in Baltimore, Thread identifies some of the city’s most underperforming high school students and weaves a fabric of volunteer support around them for a period of 10 years. Currently, more than 400 struggling high school students have benefitted from the work of nearly 1,000 Thread volunteers, who serve as extended family members. These Thread Families support students by doing what they would do for members of their own families—driving students to and from school, packing lunches, helping with homework, and more.

The Thread Community Model works. According to Hemminger, 87 percent of students enrolled in the program graduate from high school and 83 percent finish college, a two-year degree, or some type of certificate program. And a whopping 100 percent are still involved in the program 10 years out.

Sarah Hemminger
Sarah Hemminger – Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Thread

“We believe, and our data shows, that every young person can thrive if we end the poverty of isolation by weaving a new social fabric with relationships that cross the lines of race, class, and zip code,” says Hemminger. “This social fabric has the power to transform not only individual lives, but the city as a whole.”

Of course, Hemminger’s community was much smaller when it first started in 2004, with a cohort of 15 students and volunteers who came primarily from her biomedical engineering program at Johns Hopkins.

“At the time, I was taking anatomy, and I just asked the three people sharing my cadaver if they would come and meet a few students,” says Hemminger.

With that small team in place, Hemminger worked hard to balance her studies with her new initiative to support Baltimore teens. She found the support she needed through the late Murray Sachs, then director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, who ultimately provided the funds needed to sustain the organization’s first three years.

“Instead of telling me that I didn’t have time for this on top of my graduate studies, he understood something innate with who I am and he encouraged me,” says Hemminger. “I think everyone needs a Murray Sachs in their life, and I think Thread provides that for many people.”

Hemminger hopes Thread will continue to grow so that the community can help even more students. Launched one year ago, her organization’s four-year strategic plan aims to reach five-to-seven percent of the freshmen attending traditional Baltimore City public schools, which equates to nearly 60 percent of the city’s highest-needs students, by 2021. At this rate, Hemminger estimates that Thread will serve a total of 3,040 Baltimore students, knitted together in relationships with more than 7,600 volunteers, by 2030.

“There’s an incredible process that happens in Thread where you get to understand others better, but you also start to understand yourself better,” says Hemminger. “Over the last 15 years, the relationships in Thread have created a gradual awakening for me to realize who I am and where I fit in the world. That’s what keeps me going.”

If you would like to become a Thread volunteer and join the 1,000+ people currently connected to Baltimore’s young people, please visit

– Sarah Tarney

December 11, 2018

The richer the reward, the faster you’ll likely move to reach it, study shows

If you are wondering how long you personally are willing to stand in line to buy that hot new holiday gift, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine say the answer may be found in the biological rules governing how animals typically forage for food and other rewards.

They report that results of a new study in people affirm the theory known as “optimal foraging,” which holds that animals are innately wired to maximize the rewards they acquire based on such factors as the value of the reward itself and the time and effort spent to reach that reward. They also add to evidence that the richer the reward, the faster people will move to get it. In other words, if buying that awesome gift really matters, you’ll not only spend more, you may rush to be first in line to nab it.

A description of the study was published online Oct. 15 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Because animals that maximize optimal foraging live longer, in general, and are more ‘fit,’ traits that support such behavior are highly conserved in evolution and therefore are likely to inform human as well as other animal behavior,” says Reza Shadmehr, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “We believe that the speed at which an animal moves to the next reward, which we call ‘vigor,’ is related to this principle in people too.”

To study vigor in people, Shadmehr and his colleagues tracked the speed and direction of eye movements among 92 people (average age 27; 51 men and 41 women) as they looked at images on a computer screen. Studying rapid eye movements between objects (motions known as “saccades”) is a frequent model for analyzing reward systems, says Shadmehr, because the sheer number of saccades — 2.5 of them per second, on average — provides an enormous amount of information about our innate preferences.

On the computer screens, the scientists displayed images of human faces (which most people prefer to focus on) as the high-value “reward” and inanimate objects, such as a door, as the less valued reward in different locations on the screen. They tracked how quickly the research participants switched their focus from one object to another and how long the object or face held their gazes.

In a subgroup of 16 of the 92 research participants, the scientists also controlled the amount of time that subjects could view an image of a person’s face. As the researchers decreased the amount of time for gazing, the participants moved their eyes, on average, more quickly between the facial images.

“For us, that experiment confirms in people our animal models of optimal foraging, which holds that when the environment is rich, animals tend to move more quickly between rewards,” says Shadmehr.

“Think of children during Halloween,” he says, “when they have a relatively short time to canvass a neighborhood known for generous candy givers. Most of them will be running, not casually strolling, from house to house.”

In another experiment with 17 of the 92 subjects, the scientists displayed two images on the screen, sometimes a face and other times an inanimate object. When the scientists displayed more faces, the participants spent less time gazing at one individual face and more time moving their eyes between the faces.

“This tells us that when the environment is rich (i.e., more faces), the participants not only moved quickly between the rewards, but spent less time focusing on each individual reward,” says Shadmehr. He says researchers have observed this phenomenon among crows on the Pacific coast that forage beaches for clams. They, like the human subjects in the computer experiments, spent energy digging for a clam, determining its size and opening it only if it was large enough to be worth the effort.

To the researchers’ surprise, Shadmehr reports, one experiment failed to match current theories of reward and effort. A group of 22 research participants was shown a series of images placed at greater distances apart on the screen, requiring more extensive eye movements to focus on each image. In other words, participants had to spend more effort to get their reward. A dot on the screen indicated where the next image would appear.

Conventional wisdom would say that, in a difficult environment, animals should conserve their efforts and move more slowly toward rewards. But the opposite happened. Research participants spent more effort to get their reward by moving their eyes twice as fast between images of any type when they were farther apart than among images that were closer together.

Shadmehr speculates that the unexpected results could be explained by understanding the variations in how some people value certain rewards. “A history of high effort to reach a reward may make that reward seem much more valuable, and we’ll spend more energy to get that reward,” says Shadmehr.

The researchers note there also are vigor differences among individuals. Some people have twice the vigor of eye movements than others. And results may vary with age and gender, as well. Shadmehr says most humans have the fastest eye movements at age 14, on average, and this speed declines with each additional decade of life.

Shadmehr notes that understanding the principles of vigor may do far more than tell us about foraging for food or trendy gifts. It may also inform scientists about conditions that link human movement and cognition, such as Parkinson’s disease, a disease of the nervous system that affects movement and memory, and depression, which is characterized by slower movement as well as sadness and other mood problems.

Shadmehr also suggests that understanding vigor could advance understanding of economic theory, essentially how we make value choices. “The way we identify preference and choice could be measured in part by measuring innate vigor,” says Shadmehr.

Shadmehr worked with Tehrim Yoona and Robert B. Gearya from Johns Hopkins and Alaa Ahmedb from the University of Colorado to complete this research.

December 6, 2018

Rising Stars workshop puts the achievements of women researchers in the spotlight

Many scientists could advance their careers if they could just get the hang of storytelling. Impact statements that describe how their research improves people’s lives could help researchers secure funding, find collaborators, and share their findings with wider audiences.

“It’s not a matter of if your research will have an impact, because it will,” said Harvard’s Deborah Burstein Mattingly, associate professor of radiology, health sciences, and technology. “We want you to focus on how and why your research will have an impact, and design it accordingly.”

Mattingly’s audience, a group of female scientists quickly rising in their fields, came together last month as part of the Rising Stars in Biomedical Engineering workshop held on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus. Funded by several Hopkins institutes and departments and held at the Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute, the workshop aimed to give women the skills they need to pursue faculty positions in biomedical engineering.

While the number of women in labs and classrooms is growing, men still outnumber women when it comes to holding faculty positions in engineering disciplines. Johns Hopkins University and MIT are trying to change those statistics through programs such as the workshop, which was first held in 2016. It brings together a cohort of talented women graduate students and postdocs who represent the next generation of leadership in biomedical engineering research.

Johns Hopkins hosts event to help women scientists build their academic careers
The workshop was an opportunity for leading female researchers to meet, collaborate, and learn

Participants at this year’s workshop, nominated by faculty members at their respective institutes, came from organizations such as the NIH, MIT, Stanford University, Columbia University, the University of Washington, and UC Berkeley. Six came from Johns Hopkins: Chloe Audigier, Sarah Dougherty, Kate Fischl, Sarvenaz Sarabipour, Ayushi Sinha, and Sooyeon Yoo. Their research interests include computational cancer genomics, regenerative medicine, neuroimaging, minimally invasive surgery, 3-D printed brain models, and epidemiology and public health.

“Rising Stars began in 2012 at MIT with the mission of providing critical career development training for women in electrical engineering,” said Sri Sarma, associate professor of biomedical engineering and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Computational Medicine. Sarma co-organized the workshop along with MIT professors Polina Golland and Martha Gray.

“We want these young rising stars to leave Hopkins empowered and excited to move onto the next phase of their careers,” she said.

One of the goals of the Rising Stars workshop is to provide a forum for participants to connect and learn from women working in different fields.

Sarah Dougherty, a postdoctoral fellow studying neuroregeneration at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said the workshop helped her establish valuable professional connections and discover the exciting work being done by other women researchers. And meeting other scientists helped her put her communication skills to the test.

“As a scientist, you sometimes forget what you didn’t know before you knew it—so it’s easy to slip into jargon and assume everyone knows what you mean, but that’s not usually the case,” she said. “It’s important to learn how to communicate with nonscientists and with scientists in similar fields who aren’t working on your exact topic.”

Workshop participants also got tips on interviewing and landing faculty positions, and they heard from panels of junior and senior faculty who reflected on their own early-career experiences and the challenges that come with a career in academia.

“It was really exciting to spend two days interacting closely with both established and upcoming experts in our field, and learning how to communicate about our work effectively to a broad audience,” said Ayushi Sinha, a Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the Laboratory for Computational Sensing and Robotics at Johns Hopkins. “I feel like I have insider information on how to make my job application stand out, which makes me feel a lot more confident going into my job search than I did before.”

– Catherine Graham

November 28, 2018

Five with ties to Hopkins BME named to ‘Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list

Five trailblazers with ties to the Johns Hopkins University Department of Biomedical Engineering who have become leaders in their fields have been named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for 2019.

The list, now in its eighth year, celebrates leaders in 20 different industries who represent, according to the magazine’s editors, “a collection of bold risk-takers putting a new twist on the old tools of the trade.” This year, the magazine received more than 15,000 applications and consulted with journalists and industry experts to compile the list of 600 honorees.

The five members of the list from Johns Hopkins BME are:

Joshua Cohen

Category: Healthcare | Read Forbes profile

Cohen is pursuing his PhD at Johns Hopkins in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, where he is mentored by Bert Vogelstein and Ken Kinzler, co-directors of the Ludwig Center. Cohen works to develop diagnostics for the early detection of cancer.

Luke Osborn

Category: Science | Read Forbes profile

Luke Osborn, who is pursuing his PhD at Johns Hopkins in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, developed an electronic “skin” that can be applied to prosthetic limbs to recreate the sense of pressure and pain.

Raja Srinivas

Category: Healthcare | Read Forbes profile

Srinivas received his bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2011. In 2017, Srinivas cofounded the synthetic biology startup Asimov, which aims to reprogram living cells using networks of DNA-encoded genes that can sense and respond to the environment.

David West and Nathan Buchbinder

Category: Healthcare | Read Forbes profile

West and Buchbinder both graduated from Johns Hopkins with their bachelor’s degrees in biomedical engineering. West, who graduated in 2016, recruited his childhood friend Coleman Stavish to join Buchbinder, who graduated in 2015, in an artificial intelligence venture that speeds up pathology tests for cancer patients.

Three others with ties to Johns Hopkins University include Janice Chen, Jonathan Grima, Hasini Jayatilaka, Kaitlyn Sadtler, and Adegoke Olubusi.

For the full story, please visit the Hub.

November 20, 2018

Johns Hopkins senior Alaleh Azhir named Rhodes Scholar

When Alaleh Azhir came to the United States at age 14 from Iran, she discovered that she was already fluent in a language that transcends both borders and cultures: mathematics.

A seasoned participant in math competitions in her hometown of Mashhad, Iran, she began competing in the U.S. as a way to meet people.

“Being able to speak the language of math better than English helped me find friends and allowed me to adjust to my life here better—which drove my interest in mathematics further,” she says.

On Saturday, the Johns Hopkins senior—who has a triple major in biomedical engineering, computer science, and applied mathematics and statistics—was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which is among the oldest and best-known awards for international study.

Established in 1902, the Rhodes Scholarship recognizes students on the basis of outstanding academics and leadership, and winners receive full funding to pursue a degree at Oxford. Azhir was one of 32 American students to be selected for the award from an applicant pool of 880.

“This year’s American Rhodes Scholars—independently elected by 16 committees around the country meeting simultaneously—once again reflect the extraordinary diversity that characterizes the United States,” says Elliot F. Gerson, the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust. “Almost half of the winners are immigrants themselves or first-generation Americans. … They are certain to enrich our future.”

At Oxford, Azhir will work toward her master’s degree in women’s and reproductive health—a field that combines her love of math, data, and statistics with her interests in health, biology, and the human genome. Given advances in data collection, storage, and computational analysis, along with decreases in costs, Azhir sees genomics as a health care field of the future.

“In a decade or two, genomics will be part of routine health care,” she predicts.

While at Oxford, she will use data collected by the United Kingdom’s National Health Service to understand how difficult pregnancies contribute to heart problems for women in later life. She hopes to use NHS data to create models that help predict—and prevent—these health outcomes.

Studying data from the NHS is a unique opportunity for Azhir because a national, uniform health coding system does not exist in the U.S.

“Conditions common to men and women may present differently in women—for example, women often get misdiagnosed for heart attacks,” she says. “I want to dedicate my career to understanding those health disparities.”

Azhir has conducted research in labs at Harvard, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, the National Institutes of Health, and here at Johns Hopkins.

“Alaleh was a standout student in my Biological Models and Simulations class, a challenging theoretical course offered in the Department of Biomedical Engineering,” says Michael Beer, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins. “She received rave reviews for her work as a teacher’s assistant for my classes and has been extremely productive in her laboratory research. Alaleh is truly a force of nature and embodies the best of the human spirit. I’m exceedingly proud of her win.”

Azhir says she’s also looking forward to the opportunity to travel—to experience that change in culture and environment that she experienced as an immigrant.

“It’s a nice experience to be an outsider,” she says. “You learn a lot about the culture, and even more about yourself.”

Students interested in applying for the Rhodes or other competitive awards should contact the the university’s National Fellowships Program.

– Saralyn Cruickshank

Johns Hopkins BME undergraduates place second in Collegiate Inventors Competition

A team of Johns Hopkins University biomedical engineering students earned the silver prize Friday at the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition with a device intended to reduce the likelihood of injury during brain surgery.

Team CortiTech—sophomores Jody Mou, Kevin Tu, and Sun Jay Yu, junior Jack Ye, and senior Linh Tran—developed a new brain retractor, which they call Radiex. It features a rounded, compact design that shrinks the point of entry for surgeons.

Brain retractors pull back cortical tissue during surgical procedures, using metal blades to hold the tissue apart and create a working channel for surgeons. Due to their inflexible design, retractors currently cause injury in about 9 percent of operations by putting excess pressure on the brain.

Unlike current retractors, the flexible, student-designed device can gradually expand mid-procedure, increasing the area of visibility with minimal added pressure to the tissue.

Mou, Tran, and Tu represented the team during the competition, held at the United States Patent and Trademark Office Madison Building in Alexandria, Virginia. There they competed against four undergraduate teams from schools across the country, presenting their idea before a panel of judges from the National Inventors Hall of Fame and USPTO officials. The silver prize comes with a $5,000 award that is split among the team.

The project was overseen by Amir Manbachi, faculty mentor and co-instructor of the Biomedical Engineering Design Team course. Callie Deng, Rohith Bhethanabotla, and Muna Igboko also contributed to the project but have since graduated or left the team.

In development, the team consulted with Johns Hopkins professor of neurosurgery Alan Cohen and worked with neurosurgery resident Rajiv Iyer to produce and test more than 20 prototypes before settling on the final design. It took more than a year for the team to go from initial brainstorm to final product.

The silver prize follows first-place awards for the team at the Biomedical Engineering Society’s Undergraduate Design Competition and at the Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams Challenge, sponsored by the National Institute of Health. Next, team CortiTech is hoping to apply for FDA approval to eventually get Radiex manufactured.

– Jacob deNobel

November 19, 2018

Widely used reference for the human genome is missing 300 million bits of DNA

For the past 17 years, most scientists around the globe have been using the nucleic acid sequence, or genome, an assembly of DNA information, from primarily a single individual as a kind of “baseline” reference and human species representation for comparing genetic variety among groups of people.

Known as the GRCh38 reference genome, it is periodically updated with DNA sequences from other individuals, but in a new analysis, Johns Hopkins scientists now say that the collective genomes of 910 people of African descent have a large chunk — about 300 million bits — of genetic material that is missing from the basic reference genome.

“There’s so much more human DNA than we originally thought,” says Steven Salzberg, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and Biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins University.

Knowing the variations in genomes across populations is essential to research design to reveal why certain people or groups of people may be more or less susceptible to common health conditions, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and Salzberg says that scientists need to build more reference genomes that more closely reflect different populations.

“The whole world is relying on what is essentially a single reference genome, and when a particular DNA analysis doesn’t match the reference and you throw away those non-matching sequences, those discarded bits may in fact hold the answers and clues you are seeking,” says Salzberg.

Rachel Sherman, the first author on the report and a Ph.D. student in computer science at Johns Hopkins, says, “If you are a scientist looking for genome variations linked to a condition that is more prevalent in a certain population, you’d want to compare the genomes to a reference genome more representative of that population.”

Specifically, the world’s reference genome was assembled from the nucleic acid sequences of a handful of anonymous volunteers. Other researchers later determined that 70 percent of the reference genome derives from a single individual who was half European and half African, and the rest derives from multiple individuals of European and Chinese descent, according to Salzberg.

“These results underscore the importance of research on populations from diverse backgrounds and ancestries to create a comprehensive and inclusive picture of the human genome,” said James P. Kiley, Ph.D., director of the Division of Lung Diseases at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), which supported the study. “A more complete picture of the human genome may lead to a better understanding of variations in disease risk across different populations.”

For the new analysis, described online Nov. 19 in Nature Genetics, Salzberg and Sherman began their project with DNA collected from 910 individuals of African descent who live in 20 regions around the globe, including the United States, Central Africa and the Caribbean. Their DNA had been collected for an NHLBI-supported study at Johns Hopkins led by Kathleen Barnes, Ph.D., who is now at the University of Colorado and continues to lead this program on genetic factors that may contribute to asthma and allergy, conditions known to be overrepresented in this population.

Many researchers look for small differences between the reference genome and the genomes of the individuals they are studying — sometimes only a single change in chemical base pairs within the DNA. These small changes are called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs.

However, Salzberg’s team focuses on larger variations in the genome. “SNPs correlate really well to figure out an individual’s ancestry, but they haven’t worked as well to determine genetic variations that may contribute to common conditions and diseases,” says Salzberg. “Some conditions may be due to variations across larger sections of the genome.”

Over a two-year period, Salzberg and Sherman analyzed the DNA sequences of the 910 people, looking for sections of DNA at least 1,000 base pairs long that did not align with or match the reference genome. “Within these DNA sequences are what makes one individual unique,” says Sherman.

They assembled those sequences and looked for overlaps and redundancies, filtering out sequences shorter than 1,000 base pairs, and DNA likely linked to bacteria, which is found in all humans.

Then they compared the assembled sequences of all 910 individuals to the standard reference genome to find what Salzberg calls “chunks of DNA that you may have and I don’t.”

In all, they found 300 million base pairs of DNA — which is about 10 percent of the estimated size of the entire human genome — that the reference genome did not account for. The largest section of unique DNA they found was 152,000 base pairs long, but most chunks were about 1,000 to 5,000 base pairs long.

A small portion of these DNA sequences may overlap with genes that encode proteins or other cellular functions, but, Salzberg says, they have not mapped the function of each sequence.

They also failed to find sequences that aligned with having asthma or not. But Salzberg isn’t deterred: “Until you survey the landscape, you can’t figure out what’s useful.”

November 15, 2018

Cardiologists and Engineers Collaborate to Create New Treatments for Heart Disease

In a new $5.5 million center that spans engineering and cardiology specialties at Johns Hopkins, experts aim to improve the diagnosis and treatment of heart rhythm disorders that affect millions of people by leveraging innovations in cardiac imaging, computer simulations and data science.

The new center, called the Alliance for Cardiovascular Diagnostic and Treatment Innovation (ADVANCE), is co-led by biomedical engineer Natalia Trayanova, Ph.D., and cardiologist Hugh Calkins, M.D.

Trayanova pioneered the use of 3-D virtual replicas of the heart and its electrical function that are personalized to individual patients with certain heart conditions. The simulations help physicians, for example, use radiofrequency waves more precisely to destroy regions in heart tissue believed to sustain and propagate erratic electrical waves.

Trayanova’s laboratory also is studying ways to more precisely predict who is at risk for sudden death or stroke from ventricular or atrial fibrillation, types of irregular heartbeats.

“Establishing this alliance will lead to an exciting blend of engineering and medicine,” says Trayanova, the Murray B. Sachs Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University Schools of Engineering and Medicine. “It’s the culmination of more than five years of collaborations between engineers and clinicians to determine how to solve modern medical problems with computational and data-driven approaches.”

Some 5 million people in the U.S. experience atrial fibrillation and tens of thousands more have had ventricular arrhythmias, says, Calkins, professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and director of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Service at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

“Our goal is to find new strategies that will have a profound impact on the management of a wide range of cardiac arrhythmias,” says Calkins.

Over the next five years, Calkins and other cardiologists at The Johns Hopkins Hospital will lead clinical trials of the engineering strategies developed by Trayanova and her colleagues.

“This group has some of the world’s best talent and is poised to advance discoveries that improve the lives of patients using cutting edge, personalized approaches,” says Mark Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., William Osler Professor of Medicine and director of the Department of Medicine at Johns Hopkins.

“ADVANCE is a wonderful example of what can happen when you bring together precisely the right engineers and clinicians with the best and boldest ideas in a collaborative environment,” says T.E. Schlesinger, Ph.D., Benjamin T. Rome Dean and professor of electrical and computer engineering at The Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering.

Undergraduate team developed Radiex device to hold back cortical tissue during brain surgery

For the ninth year in a row, a team of Johns Hopkins University students will participate in the Collegiate Inventors Competition. The challenge, hosted this week by the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., awards students for innovation, potential, and solutions to real-world problems.

This year, a group of Hopkins biomedical engineering students will submit Radiex, a brain retractor that aims to reduce the likelihood of injury during surgery. Brain retractors—the devices used to pull back cortical tissue—cause injury in about nine percent of neurosurgical operations, often due to a design that is inflexible or exerts too much pressure.

Radiex, by contrast, boasts a rounded design, meaning radial pressure is distributed. Its small point of entry allows for a minimally invasive operation, and the point of insertion can be adjusted and expanded mid-procedure, a feature current devices lack.

The innovative design, developed by Team CortiTech, is the product of more than a year of brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and retesting.

“We call it the spiral model. [We] make the prototype, [we] test it ourselves, we give it to the surgeons, we get their feedback,” said sophomore team member Jody Mou, who estimated the team has made about 20 to 30 prototypes so far.

Mou will represent Team CortiTech in Washington, D.C., at the event on Friday, Nov. 16, along with senior Linh Tran and sophomore Kevin Tu. Other team members include junior Jack Ye and sophomore Sun Jay Yoo. Callie Deng, Rohith Bhethanabotla, and Muna Igboko also contributed to the project but have since graduated or left the team.

Amir Manbachi, the team’s faculty mentor and a co-instructor of the Biomedical Engineering Design Team course, said some describe Design Team as “a capstone design project on steroids.” While such courses are usually limited to one academic year at other institutions, students at Hopkins start brainstorming a semester prior and often continue working well past spring.

Tran, for example, started working with the team as a sophomore. Last year, she helped choose incoming members, an involved process that includes multiple interviews with interested students.

“We ended up selecting three very bright, very smart, incredible freshmen who are now sophomores with very distinct talents,” Tran said.

“In our team culture,” she added, “there’s no hierarchy and people voice whatever they feel. Everyone’s the leader in their own [specialty].”

Collaboration is emphasized not only between team members, but also with faculty and specialists. Students seek guidance from clinicians to ensure their product is easy to use and meets a true need.

“It’s kind of unparalleled,” Manbachi said. “All these people with different backgrounds, everyone feeling they have something at stake—it’s just phenomenal.”

To develop Radiex, the team consulted with Alan Cohen, a Johns Hopkins professor of neurosurgery, who pushed for the minimally invasive design because of his own experiences in the operating room. They also observed neurosurgeries and were given the opportunity to test their prototype on a cadaver.

“The biggest thing we got out of that was that usability was key,” Mou said.

Lately, the team has been working closely with neurosurgery resident Rajiv Iyer to ensure its design is user-friendly as well as functional.

The team placed first at the Biomedical Engineering Society’s Undergraduate Design Competition and at the Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams Challenge, sponsored by the National Institute of Health.

“From day number one, I knew that these guys were not joking around,” said Manbachi, who has mentored several Hopkins design teams. “They were really go-getters.”

Team members say they would like to eventually get Radiex manufactured and hope to apply for FDA approval by the end of this year.

“We’ve gotten a much stronger conviction that this is the direction to be moving, that this is actually a device that’s going to be viable, so that’s an exciting moment for us,” Tu said. “Now it’s just a matter of chugging forward.”

– Nora Belblidia

November 14, 2018

Johns Hopkins collaborates with Morgan, Coppin to promote STEM diversity

With $2.46 million in support from the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University is teaming up with two historically black Baltimore institutions, Morgan State and Coppin State universities, to cultivate a diverse group of highly trained biomedical researchers.

The three universities are establishing Academic Success via Postdoctoral Independence in Research and Education, or ASPIRE, an intensive training program that bridges engineering, medicine, and biology for translational research that addresses challenges related to human health. The goal is to provide new professional development opportunities for postdoctoral scholars.

Johns Hopkins is one of 23 schools nationwide to receive funding from NIH’s Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards program, which promotes collaborations between research-intensive institutions like Johns Hopkins and partner universities that demonstrate a commitment to training underrepresented groups.

“The ASPIRE program represents an exciting partnership between Johns Hopkins, Morgan State, and Coppin State,” said Leslie Tung, professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins and director of ASPIRE. “Our goal is to train the next generation of biomedical scientists and engineers, providing them with the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully pursue academic careers in research and teaching. By the end of their experience, ASPIRE scholars will be prepared to address the world’s most pressing health concerns through biomedical discovery, innovation, and education.”

Jobs in STEM fields such as biomedical engineering are projected to increase by 23 percent over the next 10 years, but minority representation remains low. As of 2011, members of underrepresented minority groups earned just 12 percent of all degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math, and made up less than 5 percent of tenure-track faculty pursuing research in these areas. NIH created the IRACDA program in 1999 to try to close this gap in the biomedical research workforce. A 2016 study found that 73 percent of IRACDA program participants go on to establish careers in academic research or teaching.

Through ASPIRE, participants will conduct research under the guidance of Johns Hopkins faculty mentors and develop academic skills through pedagogy workshops, course development opportunities, and teaching experiences under faculty members at Morgan State and Coppin State. The program will support two new postdoctoral scholars annually over the next five years, providing each trainee with a stipend and funds for research supplies, conference travel, and other educational expenses.

During their three years in the ASPIRE program, scholars will spend 75 percent of their time conducting biomedical research and the remaining 25 percent learning about teaching and working in the classroom. Research projects will focus on diverse topics in biomedical engineering, applying quantitative methods and technical innovations to the diagnosis and treatment of disease for the advancement of human health. To promote interdisciplinary training, each scholar will have a primary research mentor from Johns Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering, as well as a clinical collaborator from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Tung said he is confident that ASPIRE will foster future collaboration among the three partner schools and increase the number of underrepresented minority undergraduates in STEM fields who go on to become professional scientists. ASPIRE scholars will be encouraged to mentor students from Morgan State and Coppin State on research projects within laboratories at Johns Hopkins, motivating new and diverse populations to pursue careers in science and engineering, he says.

“Currently, we’re seeing a significant lack of diversity in biology, medicine, and engineering, especially as you progress along the academic career trajectory, from college to graduate school to faculty,” Tung said. “That’s what we’re trying to change. Through these mentorship and training opportunities, ASPIRE will provide encouragement to underrepresented student groups and inspire them to pursue careers in biomedical research and engineering.”

The first fellowships will be available in January. The program is currently accepting applicants. Candidates must have received a PhD or other qualifying degree within the past two years, be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, and have an interest in educating underrepresented minorities.

Lisa Brown, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Biology at Morgan State University, and Hany Sobhi, associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at Coppin State University, serve as program co-directors. Members of the ASPIRE management committee include Sridevi Sarma from Johns Hopkins, J. Kemi Ladeji-Osias and Christine Hohmann from Morgan State, and Mintesinot Jiru from Coppin.

– Kristen Swaney