When it comes to the future of medicine, small is indeed beautiful. Working at the nanoscale, tens of thousands of researchers are in a race to develop tiny nanoparticles, nanodevices and nanopatterned surfaces for medical applications. Their goals are both comprehensive and ambitious. They are hoping to create drugs that stop disease processes at the molecular level where they start, engineer drug delivery systems that are small enough to reach deep within the body and build scaffolding and textured surfaces that the body can use to regenerate lost or damaged tissue.
To prepare students to take part in this swiftly emerging field, University of Virginia faculty members in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering have formed a program in nanomedicine.
“This is a great model of departments working together,” said professor William Johnson, who chairs Materials Science and Engineering. “Students were very interested in nanomedicine, and we wanted to make the opportunities in the field available to them.”
Students completing the program earn a degree in engineering science.
Both Pranav Aurora and Cassandra Mankus, part of the program’s third graduating class in May 2014, were drawn to the nanomedicine program, in part, because of the career options the program opens up.
“You can use the program as a starting point to go into medicine,” Mankus said, “but the interdisciplinary skill set you develop also makes you very marketable as an engineer.”
Both students found the science equally compelling. Simply put, the world operates differently at the nanoscale. “The chemistry and physics change when you enter the nanometer range,” Aurora said. “It’s a fascinating new world.”
He also liked the idea that exploring and understanding this new world requires a comprehensive, interdisciplinary perspective. “I like the breadth and flexibility the program fosters,” he said. “You learn to approach problems from different angles using tools from chemistry, materials science and biomedical engineering.”
The knowledge of these tools is not just theoretical. Thanks to investments by both departments, nanomedicine students now have an opportunity to use technology that undergraduates at other institutions only read about. Materials Science and Engineering recently equipped a new student laboratory for one of the required courses in the program, “Materials Science Investigations.” Students taking the course also can use the powerful optical and scanning microscopes housed in the department’s Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility.
At the same time, Biomedical Engineering has equipped a state-of-the-art nanomedicine engineering laboratory by purchasing a scanning electron microscope specially designed for instructional use and two atomic force microscopes. Students taking the new nanomedicine laboratory course will gain hands-on experience synthesizing, fabricating, characterizing and testing nanoparticles and nanotextured surfaces.
“Our goal when we created the program was not simply to prepare students to participate in this emerging field,” said associate professor Brian Helmke, who developed the lab and the accompanying course with associate professor Michael Lawrence. “We wanted to prepare them to become leaders.”
While it is too early to tell if Mankus and Aurora will emerge as leaders, both graduates have benefitted from the program, though in different ways. Mankus is currently a contractor in the Biological Interaction Nanomaterials group at the Air Force Research Laboratory. This is the kind of job she had always hoped she would land after graduation, she said, and she believes that the nanomedicine program was instrumental in securing her position.
“Having an interdisciplinary background and a working knowledge of the nanoscale set me apart from the other candidates,” Mankus said. “My supervisor was also intrigued by the idea of a nanomedicine program for undergraduates. He had never heard of such a thing.”
Mankus’ supervisor was also impressed by the amount of hands-on laboratory experience she brought to her position. “The Nanomed Lab I took during my last semester was extremely valuable because it gave me experience with cell culture, aseptic technique and transfections, procedures that I use daily,” she said.
For his part, Aurora was inspired more by the interdisciplinarity of the nanomedicine program than by a desire to pursue research on the nanoscale. “The program showed me the possibilities of a multifaceted approach to design,” he said. “It demonstrated that when you pull together techniques from different fields you can develop more productive and powerful solutions.”
Aurora is currently a research assistant in the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. His goal is to become a physician and work at the nexus of patient care and health policy.
“One of the great things about Brookings is that there are physicians on staff who are doing just that,” he said. “They are great mentors.”
He credits the breadth of experience he had in the engineering school for preparing him to take advantage of this opportunity.
“My exposure to independent research and the classes I took in such areas as public health, bioethics and biomedical engineering have been proven to be incredibly valuable in my position,” he said.
- by Charlie Feigenoff