Two faculty members from the Department of Biomedical Engineering were among nine researchers, educators, entrepreneurs, artists, and community activists featured at the fifth annual TEDxJHU speaker series, held last weekend on the Homewood campus. This year’s theme was “Forging the Future,” and Rene Vidal, professor, and Jordan Green, associate professor, inspired listeners with stories about the promise their research holds.
A leader in computer vision, machine learning, and medical robotics, Vidal is revolutionizing the field of medicine by developing mathematical models that enable computers to make predictions from biomedical data.
Vidal told attendees that after applying to several positions in the field of electrical engineering and computer science, he was surprised when the late Murray Sachs contacted him for a faculty position within the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering. Sachs reassured him that medicine was evolving into a discipline that transcends the life sciences. He predicted that medicine was becoming a computational science, and that this would be the great revolution of the 21st century—a revolution that Vidal was eager to join.
“Sadly, Murray passed away exactly one week ago, but his dream of making medicine a computational science is more alive than ever,” said Vidal.
Fifteen years later, the signs of a revolution in data science are beginning to take shape, Vidal said. He referenced Uber’s driverless cars, Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson, and Amazon Go as revolutionary technologies that are changing how we interact with the world.
Vidal explained that data is growing at an explosive rate, but this data is too big and too complex to be analyzed by humans. He is addressing this challenge through his advances in the field of machine learning—teaching machines to recognize objects and make predictions from data.
“The next revolution in artificial intelligence will be to develop machines that can figure out what’s informative in data versus what’s not informative,” said Vidal. “This is like creating a digital Sherlock Holmes.”
He went on to explain how these applications could take many forms. If we could train machines to detect, count, and classify blood cells—a current project in Vidal’s lab—we can create a diagnostic blood test that gives immediate results. If we could record the activity of all neurons, perhaps we could understand the connectivity of the brain. If we could figure out the connections and activations between genes, maybe we will find a cure for cancer. Or maybe 50 years from now, hospitals will have data from every patient around the world, and a simple application could scan the database for similar cases to identify effective treatments for a particular set of symptoms.
“I cannot help but reminisce on the many revolutions that have changed my life,” said Vidal. “Don’t be afraid of the revolution that is about to forge your own future. It will change your life in the same way that data science has changed mine.”
Green’s talk was equally engaging. He told the audience about a pivotal moment in his life that ultimately led him to a career in the fields of molecular and cell engineering and drug delivery. As an engineering student at Carnegie Mellon Univeristy, Green took an interview for an internship opportunity where he asked his interviewer what he found to be most exciting in the field of engineering. The answer? Toothpaste.
The interviewer explained that consumers judge the quality of toothpaste by assessing whether the tongue glides easily over the teeth after brushing, an indicator that the mouth is clean. To create an even better clean feeling, the interviewer explained how engineers add a slippery chemical to the formula, making the tongue skate over the teeth more smoothly. According to the interviewer, consumers think they are getting a better product even though the added chemical does not clean teeth more effectively.
“I decided right then and there that this was not what I wanted to do with my life,” Green told the audience. “I wanted to help people and work in an industry that was focused on something that people really needed.”
After deciding to pursue research in biomedical engineering, Green became interested in developing nanomedicines to deliver codes that can program cells in the body, similar to how people use codes to program computers. He explained that each cell in the body follows a program, driven by its environmental inputs and DNA “code,” that directs its behavioral output. This program goes haywire in cancer cells, he said, causing them to grow uncontrollably.
Green hopes to reprogram cancer cells by introducing into them new DNA or RNA instructions, allowing the cells to heal themselves. One challenge, he explained, is getting these DNA codes past the cellular defense mechanisms. To do this, Green is harnessing the power of viruses, which have naturally evolved ways to enter cells and deliver copies of the viral DNA. Since real viruses spread throughout the body, hijacking and killing cells as they go, Green is using biodegradable plastics to engineer synthetic viruses, called nanoparticles, that can deliver DNA instructions safely and effectively.
“These nanoparticles can deliver the code and then get out of the way, biodegrade, and not cause any problems or mayhem within the cell,” said Green.
He and his team are also creating artificial cells by coating biodegradable plastic shells with different proteins that can communicate with the body’s own immune cells. Based on the function of the proteins, these artificial cells can be designed to treat a variety of diseases. In the case of cancer, these proteins program the body’s immune cells to “search and destroy.” Green’s artificial cells instruct the immune cells to divide, raising an army that searches for and attacks cancer cells without harming the surrounding healthy tissue, he said.
Similar to how the immune system prevents people from catching the same cold twice, Green said that treatment with his artificial cells would essentially eliminate the possibility of relapse in cancer patients.
“If the same type of cancer were to ever recur and come back, the immune system is already revved up and trained to kill that new cancer before you even know it’s there,” explained Green. “This could revolutionize treatment for cancer patients.”
Green closed his talk with an inspirational message to the audience: “To all of you out there looking to make your mark on the world, I urge you, don’t settle for slippery coatings or changing perceptions of reality. Go out there, follow your passion, and change reality itself.”
Jamie Spangler is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, with a joint appointment in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, at Johns Hopkins University. Through her pioneering research in the fields of immunoengineering and biomolecular engineering, Spangler aims to expand the repertoire of protein therapeutics for treating disease. Her current work focuses on redesigning naturally occurring proteins and engineering new molecules to overcome the deficiencies of existing drugs.
In this interview, Spangler discusses her goals as a researcher and mentor, what sparked her interest in science and engineering, and how incoming students can maximize their educational experience at Johns Hopkins.
You graduated from Hopkins with your bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2006. What has changed in the department since you were a student?
The biggest change I have noticed since returning to Hopkins is that the department has expanded, both in terms of space and in terms of research breadth. Hopkins has always been a leading force in biomedical engineering, but the new buildings, centers, and facilities have galvanized the next generation of BME research and education. In addition, the scope of the department has extended to pioneer new and emerging areas such as genomic/epigenomic engineering, data-intensive biomedical science, and immunoengineering.
Now that you’re on the other side, can you share any advice for current students?
I would advise current students to take advantage of the unparalleled research and educational facilities available to them at JHU. It can be overwhelming to face so many new and unique opportunities while juggling the rigorous academic courseload, but I would encourage undergraduates to drink in as much as they can while they are here.
You’re approaching the end of your first year as an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins. What do you see as your biggest accomplishment so far?
I am most proud of the immensely talented team of trainees I have assembled and how quickly they have gotten things up and running in the lab. I am fortunate to have a dedicated and passionate group of scientists from a range of academic and research backgrounds who work independently, yet synergistically, to tackle challenging questions in molecular immunoengineering. I am also thrilled to have published our first article this March in Current Opinion in Chemical Engineering.
What first sparked your interest in science and engineering?
My father, a career mathematics educator, helped ignite and cultivate my interest in math and science from a young age. He worked for a textbook publishing company and would bring home puzzles and problems — I couldn’t get enough! As my interest in life sciences grew, I became excited about the possibility of applying mathematics to biology and medicine, fueling my pursuit of biomedical engineering.
Can you share your thoughts on getting more young women and girls interested in STEM?
I think the key is to expose people to scientific research at an early age and to emphasize that this can be a fulfilling and rewarding career to pursue. Many young people do not realize that a scientist is more than just some quirky caricature in a white coat, but rather a pioneer, conducting groundbreaking research that is changing the world!
What are your goals, either for your research or as a mentor?
My goals as a researcher and a mentor are unified, as they all center around maximizing my impact on society. The ultimate objective of my research is to translate basic advances in biomolecular engineering to address relevant disease challenges. I hope that my lab will advance new technologies and design novel therapeutics to treat immune pathologies such as cancer, chronic infection, and autoimmune disorders. I feel it is essential to push concepts in the lab from discovery through both the implementation and application phases to bridge the gap between cutting-edge research and transformational changes in medical science. As a mentor, I hope to inspire others to identify and pursue their passions. I feel that I can have the broadest and most lasting impact through training other scientists who will pursue a variety of career paths and become leaders in a wide range of disciplines, many of which we cannot yet envision.
March 15, 2018
Meet Shiva Razavi, BME Ph.D. student
Shiva Razavi is a biomedical engineering Ph.D. student working in the lab of Takanari Inoue, associate professor of cell biology. She is creating a synthetic system to study the network of signaling proteins that control complex cellular functions such as migration and growth.
In an interview with Johns Hopkins Medicine, Razavi shared details of her journey to become a biomedical engineer, the mentors who helped her pursue this career path, and the importance of supporting women in STEM.
Below is an excerpt from this interview.
How did you decide to focus on biomedical engineering?
I have had an unconventional career trajectory. Early on I knew I wanted to pursue engineering. However, I was banned from going to a public university in my native country of Iran because my family was a Bahá’í religious minority. My only choice was an underground and “illegal” university called Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) where I studied for a year before I left Iran as a refugee in 2001. Coming to the U.S., I studied mechanical engineering at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, then worked for the automotive industry. There, researching car brake design brought me in contact with literature on modeling of myocardium heart tissue that shares viscoelastic material properties with brake pads! Fascinated by the interplay between engineering and biology, I decided to formally pursue bioengineering. I first worked as a research assistant at Harvard Medical School for over two years before starting my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins.
Who or what helped you pursue your career path?
I have been fortunate to cross paths with individuals who took a risk on me. My physics professor, Mr. Mahmoud Badavam, a 1978 MIT graduate, spent four years in an Iranian jail for teaching us physics at the banned BIHE. Dr. Anjana Rao and Dr. Patrick Hogan at Harvard trained me in experimental biology that would have otherwise been beyond my reach. My Ph.D. adviser, Dr. Inoue, has provided academic support and freedom, allowing me to locate my own niche. Lastly, I am forever grateful for the U.S., giving me the opportunity to get a world-class education and to dream.
Who are your historical or contemporary heroes?
There are many inspiring women who have broken the glass ceiling, but the successful female figures around me inspire me more tangibly. Through the opportunity to interact with these individuals, I learned how their high ethics, intellect, rigor, and kindness have come together to shape their success. Within Johns Hopkins, I can name Dr. Carol Greider, Dr. Erin Goley and Dr. Kathleen Cullen.
What message do you have for the Hopkins community about serving and supporting women?
Success is not finite, and when it is shared, it can cast light on more people and have a broader reach. We will all live in a more peaceful and productive community if we extend our hands and share our resources to enable others in our community to flourish.
What advice can you give other women pursuing academia or the biomedical sciences?
Trust that you are capable. With integrity, dedicate yourself to any route you want to pursue. There will be countless surprises, and many of them will be pleasant. Yet, the roadblocks are an integral part of any ambitious goal and a great learning opportunity that will make you that much more adept in your next undertakings.
Advances in personalized medicine highlighted at fourth annual Computational Medicine Night
Faculty and students of the Department of Biomedical Engineering gathered recently for the Institute for Computational Medicine’s fourth annual Computational Medicine Night in Hackerman Hall. The event attracted more than 100 undergraduate students interested in learning about ICM’s cutting-edge research program and the computational medicine minor offered through the Whiting School of Engineering.
Founded in 2005 as the first research center of its kind, ICM established computational medicine as an emerging discipline devoted to developing quantitative approaches for understanding and treating human disease. Today, ICM is home to 17 core faculty members and nearly 100 students and trainees dedicated to translational research. Through a combination of mathematics, engineering, and computational science, members of ICM build mechanistic models of disease, personalize these models using patient data, and apply them to diagnose and treat individual patients.
“Ten years from now, the role of a physician will be different than it is today,” said Raimond Winslow, Raj and Neera Singh Professor of Biomedical Engineering and director of ICM, who opened the night with introductory remarks. “Going forward, the process of diagnosing disease and determining the best patient therapies will be done computationally, and ICM is going to be a part of that.”
Winslow compared the need for computational models in health care to the process of designing an aircraft. “We don’t build a Boeing 747 based off of our intuition,” he explained. “We build a Boeing 747 by modeling and simulating every nut and bolt. We need similar models to understand the complex landscapes of health and disease.”
Winslow gave students an overview of recent advances in ICM research, including his own work, which harnesses physiological data from patients in critical care units to predict those at risk for developing sepsis.
Other ICM research spans diverse areas of biology, from genomics and molecular biology to tissue physiology and systems pharmacology. For example, Rachel Karchin, associate professor of biomedical engineering, uses statistics and machine learning to identify the genes that drive cancer formation and progression. Natalia Trayanova, the Murray B. Sachs Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and Patrick Boyle, assistant research professor in biomedical engineering, build computational models that guide new treatment strategies for patients with life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias.
A series of presentations by ICM undergraduates highlighted examples of the center’s many student research projects. Presenters included:
Thomas Athey, a fourth-year BME student who is analyzing MRI images to study the shape of the amygdala and hippocampus in both healthy individuals and those with bipolar disorder.
Tiffany Hu, a third-year molecular and cellular biology student who is using image-based cardiac models to reveal the influence of fiber architecture on electrical wave propagation in the human heart.
Anil Palepu, a second-year BME student, and Sharmini Premananthan, a fourth-year neuroscience student, who are developing algorithms to automatically detect bursts of neuronal activity in epilepsy patients, which may indicate the regions of the brain involved during seizures.
During a panel discussion led by Feilim Mac Gabhann, associate professor of biomedical engineering, graduate students shared their experiences in the ICM program and offered advice to undergraduates. Topics included tips for building computational skills, selecting a research lab, and maximizing the undergraduate experience.
“I like computational work because there are a lot of hard problems to solve, with a lot of applications that are immediately obvious,” said Florence Yellin, a graduate student working in the lab of Rene Vidal, professor of biomedical engineering. “If my projects are successful, they will have an impact on health for a lot of people, which is exciting.”
The night concluded with a networking session that gave students, faculty, and postdoctoral fellows the opportunity to mingle over food and beverages, explore the ICM labs, and view research posters.
In addition to ICM’s research program, Johns Hopkins offers the first educational program in the field of computational medicine, a multidisciplinary undergraduate minor focused on the development and application of computational methods to advance modern medicine.
“Medicine is becoming an engineering discipline, without question,” said Winslow. “The Institute for Computational Medicine represents the medicine of tomorrow. The computational medicine minor will position students to be future leaders in this new discipline, both in research and practice.”
March 9, 2018
Sridevi Sarma featured on IEEE Brain podcast
Sridevi Sarma, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, was recently a guest on the IEEE Brain Initiative podcast series, where she discussed her background in electrical engineering and control theory, her current research on mathematical models of neurological diseases, and the importance of encouraging young women to pursue careers in engineering.
The brain is such a huge subject. What is your area of focus?
I’m an engineer by training—an electrical engineer—but the focus of my research is on neurological disorders. So what we try to do is understand the electrical patterns in specific neural circuits that are affected by disease, like Parkinson’s Disease, epilepsy, dystonia, and so forth. We really try to understand how you go from normal to disease—what actually changes in the brain.
As an electrical engineer, how do you get pulled into neuroscience?
I did my bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD entirely in electrical engineering, and I’m a control theorist by training, so I did mathematics and theory. So how did I get interested in neuroscience? This would lead to, in general, where can electrical engineers play a huge role? As a control theorist, people who train like me go work for Boeing, or Ford, where they’re building controllers to control airplanes and cars and other kinds of electrical and mechanical systems.
For me, the neural circuit is a dynamic system, and what do I want to do? Well I want to control the electrical patterns coming out of this system to make it do something I want it to do. So now I need to model what this neural circuit is, just like an electrical engineer will model the central dynamics of an airplane and then figure out how to control it. I see this whole deep brain stimulation as just an exogenous input that we can design to control this dynamic system. So at the end of the day, my training is perfectly aligned for the idea of controlling brain circuits with electrical stimulation. That’s just one example of how electrical engineers can play a huge role.
You mentioned Parkinson’s earlier. What are you doing in that area?
If you are a healthy person, there are specific neural circuits in the brain that control your movements, and there are electrical patterns that help us move the way we move, freely and in a coordinated way. What we want to understand is how those change when you have, say, Parkinson’s disease, which is a movement disorder. These people can’t move properly; they have tremors and rigidity. So we really want to understand what has changed in those patterns, and once we understand that, what we try to do is say, “Okay, now if I were to electrically stimulate that region of the brain, how can I change those patterns to make a Parkinson’s patient move more like a healthy patient? This idea of putting electrical stimulation in the brain is known as neurostimulation, or deep brain stimulation, and it’s actually a therapy that’s currently used to treat Parkinson’s disease today.
There is a therapy out there already. So what are you adding to the equation?
So deep brain stimulation, or DBS, has been FDA approved and clinically used for the last several decades. But what’s astonishing is that after all this time, people really don’t know why it works. So they put this electrode in the brain, they turn it on, and it looks like a miracle has happened—the person’s symptoms have really suppressed—but they don’t understand what it did because it’s very hard to measure activity in the brain while you’re stimulating it. So what we do in our lab is try to answer this question by building mathematical models that characterize these circuits that are somewhat realistic, then we put in our artificial electrodes, stimulate our computational brain, if you will, and we try to understand what it’s doing. And now, since we know what a healthy person looks like, we try to see, is the stimulation trying to restore your patterns, or is it doing something different that happens to be therapeutic? So these are the kinds of questions we ask.
Promoting women in science is a big topic at the moment. Can you talk about your own experiences?
For myself, being an electrical engineer and going through my undergrad and graduate years, the number of women just declined the more senior I became. For example, during my undergraduate years I had one female professor in the fifty-plus courses that I took. One female. So I had no role models in terms of professors or even teaching assistants, and there were very few colleagues. Sometimes it can be very discouraging when you don’t see people like you doing the same things, and it might make you question yourself. But say you get past that, which I did. What becomes difficult as a woman in engineering or science going into academia or industry is, obviously, if you want to have a family. You’re worried about the timing of things — now you’re getting into your 30s, now you’re getting into your 40s. Here you are competing with men who don’t have children who can put in all the hours that maybe you can’t because you have children. So I think it’s important to do a couple things for women in science, because I absolutely believe that some of the best scientists and engineers that I’ve encountered are women, is to provide opportunities to deal with some of these issues that are very specific to women. I think it’s important to step back and think very carefully to understand individual circumstances, whether it’s gender-specific or race-specific. We need to be really careful of understanding how to help people in different groups and promote them.
What would you say to young women and girls considering the field?
For young girls who are considering the field, I would show them what I do because I think research is so exciting. It’s what makes me wake up and smile every single day — to see what my students are able to accomplish, what questions we can answer, and results, they just make you feel good. They’re kind of like an antidepressant. And it’s exciting. Being in a biomedical engineering field, you see things that might actually help people, but you’re using mathematics and engineering tools to reach that objective. I think that would appeal a lot to young women and girls today. Being an engineer is not about tinkering with trucks or toys, which is fine, but maybe that’s not what may come to their mind. When I was a young girl, when someone said ‘engineer’ I would think of somebody changing a lightbulb. I had no idea what an engineer is, but today, engineers can do so many different things and I think a lot of those things would appeal to young girls. So I would want to show them the kinds of things engineers do to encourage them to pursue it.
Sri, what’s your personal goal?
My personal goal is to see my research translated into the clinic and be used to help patients with any kind of neurological disorder.
March 5, 2018
Pioneering Hopkins scientist Murray Sachs dies at 77
Pioneering scientist Murray B. Sachs, who led the biomedical engineering department at Johns Hopkins University for 16 years, died Saturday after a long illness. He was 77.
Sachs’ research on how the brain receives and processes sound paved the way for the development of cochlear implants, electronic devices that deliver a sense of sound to people with hearing loss. He is also credited with doubling the size of the biomedical engineering department, creating a unique research and training environment housed within two Johns Hopkins schools.
Today, the department is one of the leading biomedical engineering programs in the world, with more than 100 affiliated faculty and nearly 800 undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students.
“Murray Sachs’ vision, his belief in the value of collaboration at the intersection of engineering and medicine, and his dedication to his department are the reasons why Johns Hopkins remains the world’s leader in biomedical engineering research and education,” says Ed Schlesinger, Benjamin T. Rome Dean of JHU’s Whiting School of Engineering.
Sachs was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sept. 3, 1940. He earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962. He completed his master’s and PhD, also at MIT, in electrical engineering and auditory physiology in 1964 and 1966, respectively.
It was as a graduate student that Sachs became interested in the neural processing of speech after reading one of the first research studies to show the connection between the auditory and vocal communication systems in animals.
Following his graduate work, he served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, where he worked on underwater submarine communications for two years. After completing postdoctoral research studies on visual neuroscience at the University of Cambridge in 1969, he returned to the U.S. Navy, working as a research scientist until the following year.
Sachs joined the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine as an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in 1970. He spent the rest of his career at Johns Hopkins, rising to the rank of professor in 1980.
During his tenure from 1991 to 2007 as director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, he established the Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute in 1999, a collaboration between the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering. This began the transition of the biomedical engineering department from one housed at the School of Medicine to a unique joint affiliation with Hopkins Engineering. Under Sachs’ leadership, this transition was solidified in 2001 with the construction of the first building—Clark Hall—dedicated solely to biomedical engineering at JHU’s Homewood campus.
He also established the Center for Hearing Sciences in 1986, which later became the Center for Hearing and Balance, an internationally recognized group of researchers spanning the disciplines of biology, engineering, and medicine.
When he first came to Johns Hopkins, he focused his research on how birds process birdsong. Using both experimental and computational methods, he became a leader of auditory neuroscience, studying how the brain receives and processes information about sound and speech. With his colleagues, he developed methods for estimating the responses of large populations of auditory neurons to sounds by recording and then modeling the flow of currents in the brain. He used this research to show how the brain processes human speech. This work provided a basis for designing and improving hearing aids and sound-restoring cochlear implants.
He was named University Distinguished Service Professor at Johns Hopkins in 2007 and, in addition to biomedical engineering, held the rank of professor in neuroscience and otolaryngology.
“Murray Sachs was a giant in the field of biomedical engineering,” says Michael I. Miller, director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins. “His pioneering work on the neural codes of auditory stimuli formed the basis for modern cochlear implants, arguably the most successful type of neuroprosthesis in the history of neuroengineering,”
Known as an inspiring teacher, Sachs trained many scientists who are now leaders in auditory research and other biomedical engineering disciplines.
Among the researchers he inspired is Natalia Trayanova, who currently holds the Murray B. Sachs Professorship of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins.
“The chair I hold in Murray’s name was the result of many donors who came together to honor him and his achievements,” she says. “It is the embodiment of his dedication to this department, and I am honored to represent him in this way.”
Adds Stephen Desiderio, director of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, of which the biomedical engineering department is a part: “To me, Murray was first a teacher, then a mentor, and finally a dear friend. Our frequent Saturday morning coffees, which often included his wife, Merle, were a real treat. Our favorite topics were the future of science, the ineffability of nature, and sometimes, just how things were going day-to-day. He was a legend in his field, but he carried himself with the utmost humility.”
Sachs was a member of many professional societies, including the Association for Research in Otolaryngology and the Society for Neuroscience. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Acoustical Society of America and the Biomedical Engineering Society, and a founding fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering.
Among his awards are the lifetime achievement award from the American Auditory Society, an award of merit from the Association for Research in Otolaryngology, and the von Bekesy Medal from the Acoustical Society of America. In 2002, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, considered one of the highest professional honors accorded to engineers.
Sachs’ wife, Merle, died on Feb. 11, 2018. They were residents of Boston. Sachs is survived by his son Benjamin and wife, Lisa, of Boston; son Jonathan and wife, Kate, of St. Paul, Minnesota; and six grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held today at the Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, Massachusetts.
February 27, 2018
Instructor creates tool that lets teachers know what’s working—and what isn’t
John Hickey was teaching his first university-level class at Johns Hopkins when he found he wanted more feedback from his students.
“What I was looking for was more regular input on how I was doing as a teacher, as well as to find out if students understood the material, and if they felt like they were benefitting from in-class activities,” Hickey said.
So the doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering thought like an engineer and invented an app that enables frequent and easy teacher-student interaction.
Available for free from the Apple and Google App stores, Tcrunch provides portals customized for both teachers and students. It not only facilitates real-time communication between both parties, but also analyzes the data collected. Instructors can either evaluate results in the app or have them emailed in the form of an Excel spreadsheet.
Hickey has preloaded the app with questions designed to solicit student feedback and a setting that allows students to provide comments anonymously.
“As an engineer, I know that frequent feedback is critical to improving something, whether it’s an engineering design or teaching,” Hickey said. “It’s not practical for teachers to hand out and collect and analyze dozens of evaluation forms throughout a course, which is why I created Tcrunch.”
Hickey worked on the app for about a year, testing it on students in classes he taught in the fall and during January’s Intersession. The app’s development was funded by the Shark Tank Program at the Center for Educational Resources.
Students not only were cooperative about using the app and sharing feedback, but they also seemed to enjoy the process.
“I told them outright that I was developing an app and needed user feedback to help me make it more successful for other teachers and students, so I urged them to be honest,” Hickey said, noting that in an end-of-semester survey students reported they felt that Tcrunch gave them more of a voice in the classroom.
Jieun Park was one of them.
“Meeting instructors one-on-one to make suggestions about a class requires extra time and courage,” said the senior chemical and biomolecular engineering and economics double-major. “Tcrunch made it easier and faster to make those suggestions to the teacher. It was a great method to communicate with the instructor about the class.”
Vivek Gopalakrishnan, a first-year biomedical engineering and electrical engineering major, also enjoyed using the new app and providing feedback.
“The app was very useful. It helped students reflect on the day’s lectures and made the main points more concrete,” Gopalakrishnan said. “I presume it was helpful for John as well, as it allowed him to gauge our level of understanding, and allowed him to better craft his future lectures.”
That’s exactly what Hickey reported had happened.
“It made me think critically about my role as a teacher and how I was facilitating learning,” he said. “Was I spending too much time lecturing? Not devoting enough time to group work? It helped me ascertain that.”
Hickey used Tcrunch in a number of ways, from taking attendance to asking students in real time if they understood something he just went over to asking how long the previous evening’s reading assignment had taken.
But the app’s most valuable feature, he said, is that he no longer needs to wait until the end-of-semester teacher evaluations to find out what students found effective or struggled with.
“The app allowed me to consider the students’ perspective as I designed and taught my classes,” he said. “Learning to be a good teacher is kind of like learning to sing. In order to improve, you need to listen to a recording of yourself singing. You end up saying, ‘That’s what I sound like?’ Oftentimes our own personal feedback of how we are doing looks different from that of other people. Outside feedback is critical. The same is true in teaching.”
Barclay students become biomedical engineers for a day
To wrap up National Engineers Week, Warren Grayson, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, encouraged students at Barclay Elementary/Middle School to think like an engineer for an afternoon.
On Friday, Grayson led an activity during which middle school students used yardsticks, duct tape, cardboard tubes, bubble wrap, towels, and twine to create a prosthetic leg. The idea for the project was inspired by Grayson’s own research, which focuses on developing new stem cell-based technologies to repair bone and muscle defects.
Students divided into teams and had 60 minutes to design a prototype. They were encouraged to use the materials however they wanted, but had to consider factors such as stability, durability, shock absorption, and comfort.
“Engineering is not like math where there is one right answer and many wrong answers,” said Grayson. “In engineering, there can be many right answers.”
Prior to construction, students were urged to consider a few questions. How will it connect to the knee? Will it be strong enough to hold someone’s body weight? How do we ensure it’s the correct length from the knee to the floor?
Students used the cardboard tubing to replicate bone and provide support. Some used sponges and towels for comfort, and one team used the tape to act as skin, giving the whole prosthetic a layer of protection.
“Before starting, the students considered what would be some of the key design features of the prosthetic limb, and when they were done, they reflected on the key differences between their designs and the real prostheses that cost thousands of dollars,” explained Grayson. “It’s important for children even at that age to be a part of the engineering process, to discuss differences of opinions while designing the leg, and to compare the final designs from each team all while having fun.”
February 22, 2018
Johns Hopkins Engineering students introduce middle school girls to engineering
Blackberrie Eddins was in 6th grade when she first became interested in engineering. A member of a gifted and talented program at her middle school, the Redlands, California, native was “hooked” after doing a project that had her designing, constructing, and programming Lego robots.
Eddins’ early positive experiences in engineering are why she spent part of last Saturday guiding and mentoring local middle school girls in ReadySetDesign’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering event, held as part of JHU’s 2018 National Engineers Week celebration. Members of JHU’s chapter Alpha Phi Omega co-ed service fraternity also served as volunteers and mentors.
“I think it’s important to do what we can to give young girls a chance to explore engineering in a hands-on way,” Eddins said.
Four times each academic year, ReadySetDesign’s program provides introductory engineering experiences for elementary and middle school girls in the Baltimore area, through half-day weekend programs on the Homewood campus. At each event, participants are given a real-world engineering design problem to solve. They work as teams to brainstorm, build, and present their prototypes to parents and mentors at the end of the three-hour event.
On Saturday, a dozen girls from Baltimore-area schools (and a few homeschool students) gathered in Levering’s Great Hall to design and construct a wind turbine that would maximize the production of energy.
First, volunteers from ReadySetDesign and APO led the students through a discussion about renewable energy in general and wind turbines in particular. Then, using materials including tongue depressors, cardboard, string, rubber bands, electrical tape, cardboard rolls, plastic cutlery, and more, the teams designed and fashioned turbine blades, connected those blades to a DC motor, and measured the voltage produced when the turbine was exposed to varying wind speeds (via an electric fan.)
“These events are important because they introduce girls to the engineering design process by mentoring them through a specific, hands-on design challenge in a positive, collaborative environment,” said Rachel Sangree, a lecturer in the Department of Civil Engineering and adviser to ReadySetDesign. “Through these design challenges, the girls not only get to practice solving challenging engineering problems as part of a team, they also get the opportunity to meet female engineering students, learn about different engineering disciplines and the types of challenges that engineers working in those disciplines currently face.”
February 21, 2018
Teams showcase engineering know-how at annual Tower of Power contest
Lisa Eklund spends her days behind a desk at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering. But on Tuesday evening in the Glass Pavilion, the senior grants and contracts analyst left her spreadsheets behind in favor of some very different tools: a bag of Jet-Puffed marshmallows and a pound of Barilla spaghetti.
Eklund joined forces with Abraham Gomez, a fourth-year chemical and biomolecular engineering major, and Adam Polevoy, a third-year biomedical engineering major, to win the Tower of Power competition with a pasta-and-candy tower measuring a whopping 59 inches. Team name? The Senior Citizens.
“We met and formed our team just before the competition started,” said an elated Eklund. “We quickly came up with a plan and worked as a team to execute it successfully.”
The Senior Citizens’ structure boasted a sturdy, three-level tetrahedron base and featured plenty of carbohydrate cross-bracing to ensure that it didn’t topple at the last minute—a fate suffered by more than a few of the 17 entries.
Held annually as part of National Engineers Week at JHU, the Tower of Power event challenges teams of undergraduates, graduate students, staff, alumni, and area middle school students to engineer the tallest possible towers from uncooked pasta and marshmallows in 30 minutes. Hosted by Theta Tau, a coed engineering fraternity, this year’s event was again sponsored by Bloomberg LP.
“We are so happy to be back for a second year to the Tower of Power,” said Melanie Hunter, a Bloomberg recruiter, who was handing out large goodie bags at the event. “We love partnering with schools on events like this and finding creative ways to meet Johns Hopkins students. We especially enjoy seeing the students’ competitive natures come out!”
Especially competitive were members of teams from four area middle schools—Immaculate Conception School, Our Lady of Hope, The Waldorf School of Baltimore, and St. Agnes School—who arrived ready to construct well-planned (and well-practiced) structures.
“Our plan is first to break some of the marshmallows in half, and then we will use triangles to build a 4-foot by 5-foot base. We’ve practiced it over and over, and one time, we got it to 192 centimeters,” said Peyton Strzegowski, a 13-year-old 7th grader who served as the coach for the team from Our Lady of Hope.
The majority of Hopkins students who entered the competition admitted to coming in less well prepared and figuring out their strategies in the moments before the clock began counting down.
“We decided to start with hexagons and build up from there as high as we can,” said Austin Dillow, who formed Welcome to Chili’s with fellow third-year mechanical engineering majors Dominic Yared and Andrew Shaughnessy. “That’s the plan, anyway.”
Also winging it were Emily Kim, a fourth-year civil engineering major, and Claudio Malicdem, a third-year civil engineering major, of team The Civil People.
“We decided to just build the strongest foundation possible and go from there,” Kim said.
It worked: The Civil People’s tower stretched 57 inches high, earning Kim and Malicdem second place.
Third place was won by the 54-inch tower built by ACE Builders, made up of Erin Burk, administrative coordinator for the Whiting School’s Center for Educational Outreach; Claire VerHulst, assistant director of the CEO’s Engineering Innovation program; and Amelia Lindsay-Kaufman, the CEO’s AmeriCorps worker.