Real-world challenges are a cornerstone of the student experience at Johns Hopkins, and student design projects have led to many life-saving breakthroughs.
In 2002, for example, students Michael Cordeiro ’02 and Chang Lee ’02 were given a challenge that held the difference between life and death. Racked with grief over the death of an adult son from a whitewater-rafting accident, Gil Turner turned to Johns Hopkins to help design a helmet that could better protect rafters from traumatic blows to the head.
The students’ solution involved a multilayer protective system and a retention strategy that prevents the helmet from shifting around the head. The result? A patent, and a safer helmet for the sponsor, the Whitewater Research & Safety Institute (WRSI). WRSI has since sponsored multiple projects at Johns Hopkins, including a 2012 project to design a helmet for use on all terrain vehicles.
In 2010, biomedical engineering student Sean Monagle was assigned the life saving task of finding a more cost-effective way to test pregnant women in developing countries for dangerous conditions such as preeclampsia.
Today, Monagle works as a fellow for JHU affiliate Jhpiego, and his team’s product, a pen that includes a chemical reagent to test for preeclampsia, is being field tested in Nepal. In 2011, he and team member Mary O’Grady ’10, MS ’11, appeared on national TV to explain the idea after the product won an ABC News “Be the Change: Save a Life” challenge grant of $10,000.
“It’s almost surreal,” Monagle says today. “At first it was just a few undergrads working on this crazy idea of using a pen to save lives. Then, things really started to take off.”
Gained in Translation
As recently as the 1980s, the notion of a “universal translator” that could effortlessly decipher any tongue was pure science fiction. Not anymore. In fact, computer scientists, engineers, cognitive scientists, linguists, and other researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Language and Speech Processing (CLSP) are hard at work training computer programs to translate and winnow data from languages as diverse as Czech, Chinese, and Turkish.
“I believe that in my lifetime, we will have computers that can roughly translate all the written languages in the world,” says David Yarowsky, a computer science professor and member of CLSP.
The potential value of such a translation tool can’t be overstated—not merely for the obvious national security purposes but also for scholars, researchers, and others interested in mining information from archived texts in obscure languages. And of course there’s the potential impact on international commerce.
Such a translation tool is just one of the myriad projects being undertaken by the CLSP, established in 1992 with the support of the Department of Defense and under the leadership of Frederick Jelinek. Jelinek is widely recognized as one of the few undisputed fathers of the statistical methods that enable modern computers to comprehend, transcribe, and translate written and spoken language. The MIT-educated Jelinek came to Hopkins in 1993 from IBM Research, where he pioneered the application of the mathematics of probability to the problem of speech and language processing.
At Hopkins, Jelinek, who served as director of the CLSP, continued and expanded the computer speech recognition work he had initiated at IBM. He also created and led groundbreaking summer workshops that brought experts from academia, government, and industry together with students and faculty to tackle a wide range of challenges.
Even after Jelinek’s passing in 2010, his influence continues. Today, CLSP is home to more than 60 researchers and is viewed as one of the most influential and largest such academic research centers in the world. Its members conduct research in areas including automatic speech recognition, acoustic processing, cognitive modeling, big data, computational linguistics, machine learning and translation, information extraction and text analysis.
Mapping the Heart
In the late 1990s, Rai Winslow, PhD ’85, now the Raj and Neera Singh Professor of Biomedical Engineering, built the first 3-D virtual model of the heart, as well as a model of the failing cardiac myocyte.
These models predicted that the reduced expression of a particular calcium pump could trigger cardiac arrhythmias. Soon afterward, investigators began testing the effectiveness of using gene therapy to deliver this calcium pump to failing hearts—a potential new treatment for heart conditions that is still being tested today.
Under Winslow’s leadership, the Institute for Computational Medicine was launched at the Whiting School in 2007 and has built productive partnerships across Johns Hopkins.
Cyber Security Sentinels
Think of the researchers in the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute (JHUISI) as the Paul Reveres of cyber security.
By 2000, Gerry Masson, the founding chair of the Department of Computer Science, had grown alarmed about the rapidly escalating security and privacy concerns he saw arising from society’s increasing reliance on information technology. Believing these issues needed to be addressed with an aggressive, broad, and interdisciplinary approach, Masson worked with the Whiting School and university leadership to launch JHUISI.
Since its inception in 2001, JHUSI has graduated more than 120 master’s students in Information Security and, through its research, has established Johns Hopkins as a national leader in cyber security in fields ranging from emergency health preparedness and bio-terrorism prevention to national defense.
In 2003, computer science professor Avi Rubin drew national attention to serious security flaws in the Diebold Election Systems’ AccuVote touchscreen electronic voting machines, then used by 38 states. “Diebold’s code was so bad that anyone taking a four-month course in computer security would have written it differently,” he noted.
“The Internet was designed and built with the assumption that everyone would play fair,” says Masson, “but clearly this is not the case.”
Taking Robots to the Extreme
According to an iconic television show, space is the final frontier. But for Louis Whitcomb, professor and chair of mechanical engineering, it’s the largely unexplored depths of the oceans here on Earth that most excite the imagination.
Whitcomb is an international leader in using robots to explore the dark depths of the sea. In 2002, Whitcomb’s navigation and control systems (originally developed for the JHU Remotely Operated Vehicle, a small, underwater robot) were adapted for use in Jason II, a deep-sea oceanographic robot operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. With WHOI collaborators, Whitcomb worked on the development of Nereus, the first underwater vehicle capable of performing routine scientific missions in the deepest depths of the oceans.
Back at the Homewood campus, in Hackerman Hall’s Swirnow Mock Operating Room, Johns Hopkins engineers explore other extreme environments—within the human body—working with clinicians and computer scientists to push the limits of surgical robotics, using Intuitive Surgical Inc.’s da Vinci Surgical System.
This sophisticated tool enables surgeons to perform highly dexterous tasks and reach, with extreme precision, the most remote areas of the inner ear, brain, and digestive tract, enabling safer and less invasive procedures—and ones previously thought impossible.
While Hopkins dabbled in robotics as far back as the 1960s, the School’s efforts to become a leader in robotics research began when Bill Sharpe, PhD ’66, set out to recruit top talent in the field, beginning with the hire of Gregory Chirikjian ’88, a pioneer in the theory of “hyper-redundant” (snakelike) robot motion planning and self-replicating robotic systems. Whitcomb’s arrival in 1993 was followed in 1995 with the hire of Russell Taylor ’70, now the John C. Malone Professor and director of the Laboratory for Computational and Sensing Robotics, who has spearheaded the Whiting School’s medical robotics efforts (see p. 12).
Today, the Whiting School is a leader in robotics research in areas ranging from remotely controlled robots that can repair satellites to self-replicating robots that hold potential for space exploration.
Looking Small to Think Big
Early in his career at Johns Hopkins, Peter Searson, now the Joseph R. and Lynn C. Reynolds Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, started working in nanobiotechnology—science at the length scale of just a few atoms.
With Denis Wirtz, the Theophilus Halley Smoot Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Searson developed a plan to bring together nanobiotechnology researchers from across Hopkins divisions. “We envisioned the Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT) as a hub—a virtual center where researchers would work together to solve problems at the interface of engineering science and medicine,” he says.
Since its launch in 2007, the INBT has grown to include more than 220 member researchers. Among the INBT’s collaborative research initiatives are the development of quantum dots made to carry drugs that could one day treat cancer and microfabrication methods to develop tiny “labs-on-a-chip” that can study cell movement to gain a better understanding of basic biology.