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Posted: October 9, 2007
Johns Hopkins develops undergraduate minor in nanotechnology risk assessment
(Nanowerk News) Johns Hopkins faculty members specializing in disciplines ranging from engineering to public health have received federal funding to develop an undergraduate minor in nanotechnology risk assessment and public policy. The program is expected to accept its first students by fall 2009.
Nanotechnology, which uses materials and devices smaller than a few molecules, is providing novel solutions to health and environmental problems. Nanosized components are found in hundreds of applications, from targeted cancer therapies to suntan lotion. But because these components are so new, scientists have not fully studied their potential impact on health and the environment.
"We want students to learn about the potential risks associated with the development of nanotechnology-based solutions, as well as come to understand the risks presented by not developing these nanoscale solutions," said Justin Hanes, associate professor in the Whiting School's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Hanes co-authored the grant proposal with Edward Bouwer, chair of the Whiting School's Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering and director of the Johns Hopkins-based Center for Contaminant Transport, Fate and Remediation; and Jonathan Links, professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. All are affiliated with the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology, which will administer the two-year $200,000 National Science Foundation grant.
Students in the nanorisk minor will explore the scientific properties of nanomaterials and the public policy ramifications of their use.
"Nanoparticles are small enough to cross cell membranes. They also possess a large surface area, which enhances their reactivity," Links said. "However, little research has been done to examine the toxicity potential of these ultrafine particles. Some concerns have been based only on the extrapolation of studies on other substances, such as quartz, asbestos or particulate air pollution."
Added Bouwer, "The proposal makes clear that the effects of nanoparticles on public health or the environment are not well-understood. The program's goal is to train scientists who are better prepared to lead research, development and eventual commercialization of safe nanotechnologies."
The new minor will involve courses on topics such as risk science and public policy, ethics and law, environmental engineering, public health and toxicology. Faculty members who will develop or teach the courses are affiliated with the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, Whiting School of Engineering, Bloomberg School of Public Health and Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, as well as the Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute, Berman Institute of Bioethics and Center for Law and the Public's Health.
"The program complements the curriculum of a large group of students in the public health studies major who also explore environmental health, health policy and other public health-related topics but from a broader perspective," said James Yager, senior associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Public Health.
A new course to be offered in spring 2008 — Nanobiotechnology 101 — will likely be a prerequisite of the nanorisk minor. The course was developed by institute co-directors Peter Searson, professor of materials science and engineering, and Denis Wirtz, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, both in the Whiting School.
"The combination of leading faculty from across disciplines in the university exemplifies the mission of the institute by blending and leveraging expertise," Searson said. "It is a marvelous opportunity to bring together pre-existing but largely separate activities in nanotechnology within the university to impact our students and beyond."