Author: Jack Darrell

Joseph Choy, a third-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, has received the George M.L. Sommerman Engineering Graduate Teaching Assistant Award recognizing “excellence in teaching, advising, and mentoring.” Choy was nominated for this honor by both faculty and students.

Choy first served as a teaching assistant in the biomaterials lab of Kalina Hristova, a professor of materials science and engineering.

Co-advised by Hai-Quan Mao, professor of materials science and director of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, and Jonathan Schneck, a professor of pathology and director of the Center for Translational Immunoengineering at Johns Hopkins, Choy’s research focuses on materials for enhancing cancer immunotherapy.

“When a patient has cancer, they typically will have a response from their own immune system that actively tries to target and kill the malignant cells. We’re developing technologies and platforms that allow you to take a patient’s immune cells and then manipulate them to be more effective.” Choy explains. This means looking at T cells, a type of immune cells that can recognize specific antigens expressed by the tumor cells, with the goal of making them better at fighting cancer. Choy thinks of it like a perfect drug: “Highly specific with the ability to maintain prolonged protection.”

Choy leveraged this research to help him design and teach his own undergraduate course, a HEART course called “Tuning Biomaterials for Cancer Immunotherapy”, focused on using biomaterials to make better cancer immunotherapies. The HEART program stands for Hopkins Engineering Applications & Research Tutorials and it “provides new undergraduate students with a window on cutting-edge engineering research and its applications to society.”

The course has become a great success, growing from a class of eight students to two sections of 15 each in the course’s second year. It also inspired an ongoing research project in which Choy looked at active learning techniques to facilitate, in his words, “the kind of learning where you’re going beyond understanding of the material, but applying it as an engineered therapy.” The results of that project and the conversation Choy’s course has facilitated earned him an honorable mention award from the upcoming Society for Biomaterials 2023 Annual Meeting where he will be presenting at.

Choy says he owes his teaching success in part to Mao and Schneck, his advisors, who have been very supportive, along with Hopkins’ Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation. “Being able to take the principles you learn from programs like CTEI’s Teaching Academy on campus and applying it in a real-world teaching setting has been extremely rewarding. It was amazing to see students engaging and interacting with each other as they built up their ideas.” he says.

Choy also demonstrates his leadership skills as the president of the Materials Graduate Society, the department’s graduate student organization.

“It’s been a really rewarding experience, not just being a leader, but also an advocate for the students in the department. We’ve managed to achieve a lot this year because the team I’m working with is incredibly supportive and cohesive. We are able to get things done and I think it demonstrates how our department comes together as a community,” Choy says.