That’s why training initiatives have been a vital component of INBT’s mission. Beyond simply developing better nanobiotechnology tools, they want to create a new breed of scientists and engineers who speak a common language, and who would be equally adept at publishing in both biological and engineering journals.
“We’re not talking about an engineer who publishes an article with some biological applications in an engineering journal,” Searson says. “We’re talking about an engineer who can publish a paper in a top-level biology journal, who can really pass a rigorous peer review of experts.”
To accomplish this, INBT has initiated programs for trainees at all levels, including postdoctoral fellowships in nanotechnology for cancer medicine and summer research opportunities for undergraduates.
A core element, though, is the National Science Foundation-funded IGERT (integrative graduate education and research traineeship) fellowship program. The IGERT program brings together about 6-10 incoming graduate students of various backgrounds each year, and, starting with a 1-week boot camp where senior IGERT fellows provide a crash course on basic principles and techniques in both life sciences and engineering, they undertake classes and seminars to prepare them for multidisciplinary, nanotechnology research; the program includes an open-ended lab course where the students design and develop their own nanoprobes, with the students and advisors working together to tailor the project to the interests of the group.
Afterwards, IGERT fellows are strongly encouraged to find a secondary adviser in a different field to help them become more well-rounded. This co-advising is more than a token effort; the students have lab space and lab responsibilities, such as giving group meetings, for both of their mentors. However, by the time the fellows have completed their requirements, they have learned how to work with people of different backgrounds, developed important skills in critical thinking, gained solid knowledge in a complementary discipline and have developed a strong network of colleagues that, hopefully, lasts beyond Hopkins.
“It definitely has required a little extra work on my part, but it certainly has been worth it,” notes IGERT fellow Laura Dickinson, a student in Sharon Gerecht’s group in the chemical and biomolecular engineering department who studies how various stem cells reprogram and repattern to form functional blood vessels. “I think I’ve gained a better understanding of difficult concepts like surface patterning and quantum dots, and it’s been great meeting students from other disciplines who I can call on for help in case I need it.”
“I think in the near future, such cross-disciplinary training will become commonplace,” Searson says, “and we’ll look back and wonder how we ever taught students before.”