When Gregg Duncan starts his new role this fall as assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s Fischell Department of Bioengineering, he will bring with him a passion to teach his students with the kind of technical rigor he experienced as a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Hopkins.

Duncan, who earned his PhD in 2014, was originally aiming for an R&D career in the pharmaceutical industry. After earning his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at Florida State University, the St. Petersburg, FL native came to Hopkins seeking training in the fundamentals of drug delivery. During a research internship at IMEC in Belgium, he became interested in a new imaging technique to directly visualize cells and drug delivery nanoparticles. Using this technique, he designed a new method to measure the way drug delivery nanoparticles interact with the surface of cells to help determine which materials will most effectively bind to target cells. The experience drew him away from industry and toward academia; “it made me feel like it might be something I’m good at and enjoy as a long-term career,” he says.

As a post-doc at Hopkins’ Wilmer Eye Institute’s Center for Nanomedicine, Duncan, who grew up with asthma, has been designing new inhaled nanomedicines to fight lung diseases including asthma, cystic fibrosis (CF), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Now, he plans to shift his research toward a new potential for nanoparticles as a tool not only for drug delivery, but also for diagnostics. A nanoparticle-based assay he developed demonstrates that changes in mucus rheology on the micro- to nanoscale correlates with the extent of lung disease in CF, which should give physicians information about their patients’ conditions that cannot be gathered with the current methods used in the clinic.

“There’s value to having additional diagnostic tools to assess patients and determine the best treatment strategies,” Duncan says. “In my future research, I will investigate how changes on a microscopic scale contribute to pulmonary diseases affecting how mucus is cleared from the lung and how bacteria and viruses cause infections in the lung. By understanding the mechanisms that initiate lung disease, we will be in a better position to ultimately prevent or cure those affected with these diseases.”

Duncan, who is African American, also hopes to use his new position to encourage more underrepresented minority students in the field to pursue academic careers. He hopes to pass along the academic foundation he gained during his PhD, which he says prepared him for any direction he might have taken.

“The emphasis on understanding the fundamentals of chemical engineering in an in-depth way provides a platform to study medicine, energy or really any field of your choosing,” Duncan says.