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Bright Ideas

20 Things Johns Hopkins Thought of Last Year That Should Make Life a Little Better

By Maria Blackburn
Illustration by Wally Neibart


Over the last 132 years or so, Johns Hopkins people have come up with some pretty bright ideas — saccharine, surgical gloves, CPR, the supersonic ramjet engine, not to mention the prototype for the American research university itself.

So what have they done lately? To answer that question, we surveyed the university's 10 divisions, scoured a year's worth of newspapers and announcements, and talked to friends (and some friends of friends).

Herewith, our list of 20 bright ideas that came out of Johns Hopkins in 2007.


A new front door

First impressions are important, and until recently the Homewood campus wasn't making much of one. But with the October opening of Mason Hall (named in honor of Raymond A. "Chip" Mason and his wife, Rand) visitors are now getting a truly fitting welcome. Located at the south end of the new Alonzo G. and Virginia G. Decker Quadrangle, the 28,000-square-foot Georgian-style brick building is where visitors can find information about the university's history, programming, and the undergraduate experience. The building houses an entry hall and living room, a 125-seat auditorium, a boardroom for the Alumni Association, meeting and interview rooms, and the Undergraduate Admissions Office. The light-filled library on the first floor, which feels a lot like the study of a well-traveled scholar, offers a particularly gracious reception — shelves lined with faculty and alumni books, university artifacts like Alfred Blalock's stethoscope, and, of course, some really comfy chairs.

Handle with care

Where you see a toothbrush, materials and process engineer Paul Biermann sees a shiv — or at least the potential for one. Prison inmates have been known to melt the handle of a toothbrush and insert a razor blade or other sharp object, turning an instrument of dental hygiene into a weapon. Biermann, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, has invented a toothbrush made of a urethane material that's strong and flexible but can't be melted, making it safer for a prison setting. He's also developed a razor with a urethane handle, the blade of which breaks into tiny pieces if removed. "If an inmate or corrections officer is injured, the state has a responsibility to see to their health," says Biermann. "When this sort of stuff happens, it's a cost to the system. If we can find a way to reduce it, then it helps save money."

Green machine

Johns Hopkins went "green" in a big way this year — and not just because the new Decker Quad, which sits atop a new parking garage, is the largest green roof in the mid-Atlantic. In March, Flexcar, a car-sharing service, opened its first Baltimore branch on the Homewood campus. In July, the university announced a new policy to cut the campus's greenhouse gas emissions and to become a leader in developing solutions to climate change. And in September, JHU Dining and Aramark started emphasizing locally grown and sustainable foods in campus eateries. But the really bright idea was to generate more ideas. In November, the first-ever Green Idea Generator event had Hopkins students pitching sustainability ideas to faculty and facilities experts. Three of those ideas were selected to be enacted during the academic year: converting waste vegetable oil from dining services into biofuel that can be used to heat the university; putting a green roof on a portion of the Mattin Center; and developing a campaign to use more recycled paper and to recycle more of the paper we use.

Welcome back

When Peter Agre, Med '74, left the School of Medicine for Duke University in 2005, there was some grumbling that Hopkins hadn't done enough to keep him in Baltimore. After all, Agre is credited with the co-discovery of aquaporins, the channels that enable movement of water in and out of human cells — and he shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in chemistry for that work. What's more, Agre has been using his Nobel spotlight to speak out about the importance of science education in schools. In October, the Bloomberg School of Public Health announced that it had lured Agre back to Hopkins, this time to lead the Johns Hopkins Malaria Institute (see Wholly Hopkins, page 29). Smart move. Agre's innovative research into the molecular biology of malaria parasites and his ability to lead collaborations made him the right person for the job, says Bloomberg Dean Michael Klag.

Sharing a good book

For a few years now, Dorothy Sheppard, associate dean of student life, wanted to start a campus-wide book-read to create a shared experience among undergraduates. In October 2006, when a fraternity's offensive invitation to an off-campus Halloween party exposed racial tensions on the Homewood campus, the outcry became a catalyst for bringing Sheppard's idea to fruition. "Maybe if we had been having open and honest conversations about race, this might never have happened," she says. Last summer, the incoming freshman class and the entire university community were invited to read Beverly Tatum's "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" Sheppard says she faced some skepticism at first. But in September, when more than 600 students, faculty, and staff members met in small groups to discuss the book, many agreed that it was time for some frank discussion. Says Sheppard, "This is what the university was missing."

Apply your veggies

It was a big year for broccoli — or, more specifically, for sulforaphane, a chemical present at high levels in broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and related vegetables. In August, a team led by Pierre Coulombe, a professor of biological chemistry at the School of Medicine, published a study showing that sulforaphane helps prevent the severe blistering and skin breakage caused by epidermolysis bullosa simplex (EBS), a rare and potentially fatal genetic disease. In October, Paul Talalay, a professor of pharmacology who worked with Coulombe on the EBS study, used a similar idea to treat something far more common: sun-damaged skin. Talalay's research used mouse models to test how applying the chemical topically could counter the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation. Sulforaphane is not a sunscreen; it works after the fact by boosting the production of protective enzymes that repair UV damage.

Armchair astronomy

When we wrote about www.GalaxyZoo.org in September, we thought it sounded like a good idea. The Web site, which went live in July, gives amateur astronomers access to images of the cosmos taken through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and enlists volunteers to identify and classify nearly 1 million galaxies from their home computers. Apparently, lots of armchair astronomers out there agreed with us — Galaxy Zoo, coordinated by an international team of scientists that includes Johns Hopkins astrophysicist and computer scientist Alexander Szalay, is a hit. As of December, more than 110,000 registered volunteers helped to categorize some 30 million images of galaxies on the site.

An end to binge learning

Eliminate the four-day weekend? Whose bright idea was that? Starting in the fall semester, the Homewood campus instituted a new policy that put an end to the compressed Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday or Thursday/Friday class scheduling for undergraduates — and an end to what William Conley, dean of enrollment and academic services, calls "binge learning." The new Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Tuesday/Thursday schedule means that students won't be able to stuff all of their classes into two or three days, then bolt campus or hole themselves up in the library for an extended weekend. Conley expects the new scheduling will help build a stronger sense of community on campus. The bonus: Since the new course schedule resembles that of other Johns Hopkins schools, students have more flexibility to take classes at Peabody or the Bloomberg School. "For us, this is revolutionary," Conley says.

Health care one-on-ones

In politics, health care is a hot topic this year, but getting to the heart of such a complicated issue isn't going to happen in quips and sound bites. So Johns Hopkins University President (and physician) William R. Brody offered presidential candidates and others the chance to talk in detail about how they propose to bring rationality and order to what he describes as the industrial world's most inefficient medical system. The conversations, produced in conjunction with the National Coalition on Health Care, began airing in January on Retirement Living TV. According to Brody, political candidates usually talk about insurance coverage and health care costs without addressing such critical components of the health care puzzle as the quality and consistency of care, the complexity of health care delivery today, and the management of chronic disease. As of press time, Brody had taped discussions with former Massachusetts Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney; Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Engr '64; AARP CEO Bill Novelli; and Erickson Retirement Communities CEO John Erickson.

Teaching the TAs

Teaching assistants are the pedagogical backbone of a large university like Johns Hopkins. It's their job to help professors teach. But who teaches the TAs? Until a few years ago, training was at the discretion of individual departments. Two years ago, the university's Center for Educational Resources (CER) made training more formal by offering Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and Whiting School of Engineering TAs a fall orientation and workshops throughout the year. Just this summer, the CER took that a step further when it developed a TA training manual. Available in print and online, the manual covers everything from ethics and university policies, to dealing with difficult students, to how to write a syllabus. The first-ever graduate-level one-credit class, Preparation for University Teaching, started in January. "If students are going to be taught by a TA, they should be taught by one who can actually teach them," explains Richard Shingles, director of the TA Training Institute, who is teaching the course.

Sending out an SOS

On April 2, 2001, the Arctic Rose sank into the Bering Sea, drowning 15 people. It was the worst domestic fishing accident in a half century, and it occurred despite there being another boat nearby. APL mechanical engineer George Borlase was a naval architect with the U.S. Coast Guard at the time, and he investigated the accident. Realizing that boaters needed a way — other than a possibly unreliable radio — to signal other boats when they were in distress, he invented the Automated Integrated Distress Device. AIDD is a waterproof cylindrical device, about 12 inches high, that is mounted upside down on the outside of a boat. If the boat sinks to depths of 20 to 30 feet, the AIDD breaks from its mount, turns rightside up, and floats to the surface, where it triggers a flashing strobe, sounds a warning, then fires off flares. "My altruistic dream is that every boat would have one," says Borlase. "It's simple, and it makes so much sense. Why wouldn't you have one?"

The new word in vaccines: "Aah"

Not painful like an injection, not messy like a liquid, and tough enough to stand up to the blazing African heat — the next big idea in vaccines is as simple as one of those breath strips that dissolve in your mouth. Biomedical engineering undergraduates from the Whiting School, working with faculty adviser Hai-Quan Mao and Aridis Pharmaceuticals co-founder Vu Truong, SPH '95, Med '99 (PhD), figured out a new way that someday could inoculate infants and children against rotavirus, a diarrheal illness that each year kills about 600,000 children worldwide. They created an oral quick-dissolve strip that melts when placed on the tongue. The drug's coating is designed to pass through the stomach but dissolve inside the lower intestine. And unlike the liquid vaccine, the strips don't need refrigeration.

An encyclopedic approach to best evidence

What reading programs have been proved to help middle and high school students? Which comprehensive school reforms have positive effects on elementary school achievement? And does computer-assisted instruction help kids learn math? The answers are all there in the Best Evidence Encyclopedia, a new Web site for educators. It was developed by the School of Education's Center for Research and Reform in Education. The site, one of the first of its kind, disseminates reviews of research on educational programs and practices. It is designed to give teachers and researchers unbiased information about the strength of the evidence supporting a variety of programs available for students in grades K12, says Robert Slavin, A&S '75 (PhD), director of the center and a professor of education. "We want to make it easy for educators to identify what works and what hasn't been shown to work so they can make wise choices for their kids," he says. "There's no tradition in education of asking for evidence. [Educators] make decisions based on marketing, ideology, or politics. A large part of what we're trying to do is help change that."

Two from one

Last year marked the beginning of two new academic divisions at Johns Hopkins — the School of Education and the Carey Business School. Their predecessor, the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education, had served working professionals well for many years. But by becoming two separate schools, both will now be able to focus on their talents, strengthen their programming, and increase their reputations in their respective fields. A $50 million gift in 2006 from William Polk Carey, trustee emeritus and chairman of the New York real estate investment firm W. P. Carey & Co. LLC, made possible the founding of the new business school.

Mouse model for schizophrenia

When studying schizophrenia in animal models, scientists until now have relied on drugs to mimic symptoms like delusions, mood changes, and paranoia. This year, two separate teams at Johns Hopkins developed some of the first genetically engineered mouse models of the disease. Akira Sawa, a School of Medicine associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, led a team that created a mouse that develops some of the physical and psychological characteristics of schizophrenia; a team led by Mikhail Pletnikov and Christopher Ross of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences developed a mouse model in which a mutated gene (DISC-1) can be turned on to trigger the disease. Because this is an alteration in the gene itself rather than a drug-induced state, researchers can more accurately study the subtle changes in behavior that occur as the disease progresses.

Cooking up a nanocurry

Curcumin, the pigment that gives the curry spice turmeric its brilliant yellow color, is known to have positive effects in killing certain types of cancer and clearing the plaques in the brain caused by Alzheimer's disease. But effective treatments based on curcumin have been limited due to its poor dissolving properties. Anirban Maitra, a Johns Hopkins associate professor of pathology and oncology, came up with a solution to the problem of curcumin's insolubility. Working with Hopkins colleagues and a team at the University of Delhi, Maitra encapsulated free curcumin with a polymeric nanoparticle and created nanocurcumin. Nicknamed a "nanocurry" for its blend of nanotechnology and ancient spice, nanocurcumin can pass easily from the gut to the bloodstream. Once in the blood, the polymers degrade and the curcumin leaks out. Lab experiments with pancreatic cancer cells have shown that nanocurcumin is effective in destroying tumors, and early animal studies have found that the particles are nontoxic.

Teaching old drugs new tricks

It can cost more than $1 billion and take more than 15 years to bring one new drug to market. Even then, the FDA only approves 2030 new compounds a year. "At this rate, it would take more than 300 years for the number of drugs in the world to double," says Curtis Chong, a pharmacology and molecular sciences MD/PhD candidate in the School of Medicine. But what if existing, approved drugs could be used in new ways? Chong worked with David Sullivan in the Bloomberg School, John Liu in the Department of Pharmacology, and others to establish the Johns Hopkins Clinical Compound Screening Initiative. With 2,400 medications, it is the largest publicly accessible collection of FDA-approved drugs available for screening. Currently, the drugs are being screened by collaborators at Hopkins and elsewhere on diseases including malaria, cancer, and HIV. Chong and Sullivan want to see the library expand to include the approximately 10,000 drugs known to medicine.

Easy access

For health care professionals in developing countries who need access to online information, it's all about the bandwidth — or the lack thereof. Patricia A. Abbott, assistant professor of nursing informatics in the School of Nursing and director of the Global Alliance for Nursing and Midwifery Community of Practice (GANM CoP), adapted a World Health Organization communication system for low-bandwidth settings to help midwives and nurses in the field. Say, for example, a midwife in Tanzania with a dial-up connection and an Internet kiosk needs detailed information about managing the third stage of labor. No problem. She sends an e-mail request to GANM CoP, which responds with an e-mail that contains a link to the requested information resource. The resource — an article, a slide set, a photograph — is stored at GANM and is much smaller than a Web site, so it requires much less bandwidth to download. Furthermore, it opens in the recipient computer's RAM memory, so it doesn't hog the kiosk's memory. The resource stays on the GANM site, so the midwife can access it when necessary. Some 1,536 nurses, midwives, community health practitioners, and others have joined the service. "We've gotten this overwhelming response from people all over the globe," says Abbott. "We're just putting people in touch, sharing best practices, and trying to reduce isolation. That's the simple beauty of this."

Up to the challenge

The problem: Though diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases in China, few people there seek treatment. The solution: networking. A team of students from Johns Hopkins' Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, led by second-year graduate student Christopher Meyer, won first place and $20,000 in last year's Thunderbird School of Global Management Sustainable Innovation Summit with its business model targeting retirees who exercise in China's public parks. The students' idea was to identify one of the retirees to become a trained "friend" and work with the other exercisers, helping them to monitor and treat the disease. Meyer, whose team was one of only two out of the 10 in the final round not from a business school (the other non-MBA team was also from SAIS), says that the secret to his team's success was to use the idea of social capital. "We looked more at the grassroots level and saw the people who were not getting services, while the MBA teams looked at people who already had access."

Outreach through opera

When Peabody Conservatory composer Christopher Theofanidis' new opera, The Refuge, made its debut in November, The New York Times called it not just a musical event but a "dramatic outreach to the more than 1 million foreign-born residents" of Houston. The 90-minute piece, performed by the Houston Grand Opera, featured seven tableaux in which the company's regular soloists were joined by non-Western musicians and immigrants who told their stories of how they came to the United States from Africa, Vietnam, Mexico, Pakistan, India, the former Soviet Union, and Central America. "My challenge was to provide a coherent musical voice through the whole work that would represent the kind of unity of the city, while at the same time create the wonderful flavors of many of the cultures' beautiful musical traditions," says Theofanidis, whose father was born in a village on the island of Samos, Greece. "It was one of the most challenging and rewarding things you can imagine."

Maria Blackburn is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Return to February 2008 Table of Contents

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