June 2010

The Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology: Small in Science, but Not in Scope

Many universities have been creating multidisciplinary research institutes over the past several years in a reflection of the more collaborative nature of science. Typically, the stories are similar in origin; perhaps a new building, some specialized resources, a directed research vision and, of course, a select group of top-level faculty members who can push that vision forward— in part, by providing a level of prestige that can draw in the lifeblood of research: funding and students.

But, what if this traditional model was turned on its head? Thanks to some forward-thinking scientists at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, we have an answer: the Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

Launched in May 2006, the INBT employs the emerging field of nanotechnology, which manipulates matter at the molecular, or even atomic, levels to design new materials and devices, to both answer fundamental questions about cell behavior and to develop new advances in biomedicine.

At first glance, it may seem like ordinary fare, but a closer inspection reveals that INBT follows its own path.

“If you look past the surface of a typical university-based multidisciplinary research center, you often find that the institute is self-contained and doesn’t spill over to the surrounding academic community at large,” explains Peter C. Searson, the Joseph R. and Lynn C. Reynolds professor of materials science and engineering at Johns Hopkins and director of INBT.

Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology Director Peter C. Searson (on left) and Associate Director Denis Wirtz. Photo credit Will Kirk.

INBT’s Associate Director Denis Wirtz, the Theophilus Halley Smoot professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, completes the thought: “In essence, a traditional research institute is kind of like an exclusive club. The INBT at Hopkins, in comparison, is exactly the opposite; it was designed to be an inclusive club.”

The numbers back that up; just four years after INBT’s launch, the institute has grown to include 212 affiliated members from across the vast Johns Hopkins community. Members hail from the School of Medicine, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering and even the Applied Physics Laboratory.

And, INBT still will welcome more, for it’s as much a social network as a science institute; its purpose is to help Hopkins researchers interested in pursuing nanotechnology find partners or resources for their research, be it biologists who are looking for engineering tools to answer their questions or engineers seeking biological problems for their technology.

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