Story Tips: Engineering Students Pursue Cutting-Edge Research

April 07, 1999

Building a computer-guided submarine. Testing a potential treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Creating digital models of the heart. Conducting gene-therapy experiments.

These were among the demanding research projects undertaken over the past year by undergraduates in the G.W.C. Whiting School of Engineering at The Johns Hopkins University. These students were among the 50 who received up to $2,500 each to design and pursue projects through The Provost's Undergraduate Awards For Research and Excellence.

The opportunity to be involved in important research is one of the distinguishing characteristics of an undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins. About 80 percent of the university's undergraduates engage in some form of independent study during their four years here, often in primary research projects alongside top scientists in their fields.

Following are some story tips based on a few of this year's Provost Award projects:

A Robotic Submarine

Two seniors majoring in mechanical engineering sunk their $2,500 research awards into a project that sinks literally.

Omar Alquaddoomi, 20, of Glendale, Calif., and Adam Morris, 21, of New Albany, Ohio, used their grants to help a team of Johns Hopkins students design and build a small robotic submarine to represent the university in an international competition for underwater vehicles, held last August in Panama City, Fla.

About six months earlier, biophysics major Joshua Apgar, 21, of Newton, Mass., had learned about the event and recruited Alquaddoomi, Morris and several other students to construct a Hopkins entry. "We spent about a month designing it," Apgar recalls. "We only had time to build it once. There was not enough time or money to re-do the project if it didn't come out right. It forced us to come up with some very creative solutions."

For example, the sub's motors were actually designed for fishing boats. The students also modified and used some circuitry made for remote-controlled cars, not underwater vehicles.

The result was a 210-pound device, about 50 inches long and 20 inches in diameter, dubbed JANUS, short for Johns Hopkins Autonomously Navigating Underwater System. Under the rules of the contest, JANUS had to steer itself around an underwater course and through six submerged gates without help from anyone watching on the sidelines. In other words, this could not be a remote-controlled vehicle.

JANUS's "belly" was a water-tight aluminum alloy cylinder that housed the sub's computer, batteries and other electronic gear. With the help of their faculty advisor, Louis Whitcomb, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, the team was able to borrow an expensive Doppler Vehicle Log navigation system from San Diego-based RD Instruments.

When JANUS was finished, Alquaddoomi, Apgar, Morris and five other members of the Johns Hopkins team drove it to the competition last summer. But as the students tested the vehicle in a hotel, an ungrounded electrical outlet "fried" some crucial circuits, causing JANUS to place last among four entries. Undaunted, an expanded student team is improving the vessel and preparing to enter it again in this summer's competition.

Testing An Alzheimer's Treatment

Sarvenaz Zand, a 20-year-old junior from Northridge, Calif, used her grant to assist Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers, who are seeking a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

This team is studying drugs that could cause the body to produce more of a substance called nerve growth factor. Spurring the body to produce more nerve growth factor could halt and possibly reverse the brain damage caused by Alzheimer's, the scientists believe.

The team has studied a Vitamin D compound that appeared to increase the production of nerve growth factor in the brain, but was toxic to the rest of the body. Zand tested a variation of this drug on cell cultures in the lab. The biomedical engineering major found that the alternative form of Vitamin D also increased the production of nerve growth factor but was non-toxic.

Next, she tested the drug on lab rats, but the results were inconclusive. She is now trying to determine whether this compound can slow the growth of cancer. Her faculty supervisors are Henry Brem, Department of Neurosurgery; and Gary Posner in the Department of Chemistry.

Modeling A Heart Disease On A Computer

Mahesh Shenai, a 21-year-old senior from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., used his research award to create an advanced two-dimensional computer model depicting a common heart disease called myocardial ischemia.

By using a computer to simulate the electrical activity that takes place in diseased heart tissue, the biomedical engineering major hopes to help pinpoint the cause of spontaneous and fatal cardiac conditions called arrythmias. He is working with Nitish Thakor, a professor in Johns Hopkins' Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Delivering DNA Via Polymer Nanospheres

Kevin Janes, a 21-year-old senior from Ridgewood, N.J., used his research award to conduct experiments in gene therapy. The biomedical engineering major works with polymer nanospheres, microscopic globs of plastic surrounding bits of DNA. After the spheres are injected into the bloodstream, the plastic disintegrates, leaving behind DNA that may produce a protein missing in the body. This could help restore normal function to diseased cells.

Using laboratory mice, Janes has been trying to trace where this corrective DNA settles in the body. If it is the liver, for example, that indicates this technique might be useful for treating liver diseases. Janes' faculty sponsor is Kam Leong, a biomedical engineering professor who pioneered the use of these nanospheres.

Johns Hopkins University

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