When Jennifer West explains her research, it is impossible to tell where the biologist ends and the engineer begins. Her Rice University laboratory revolves around solving pressing medical needs with practical engineering solutions offered by bionanotechnology—the use of materials less than 1/80,000th the width of a human hair for biological applications. One of her projects involves targeting tiny gold-coated particles, known as nanoshells, to accumulate near tumor cells. Exposing these particles to infrared radiation, which passes easily through normal tissue, causes the metal shell to heat up enough to destroy nearby tumor cells.
West wants to prepare the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers to glide as easily as she does between engineering and medicine, noting that medical advances, such as MRI scanners, have become reality through the blending of physics and biology. Because of traditional disciplinary barriers, however, t his type of collaboration does not come naturally to most scientists, West said.
"One way to overcome these barriers is to introduce interdisciplinary team research very early on," West said. Her program to accomplish that will include high school students, college freshmen, and upper-level physical science students. It will culminate in with a summer research experience in bionanotechnology.
The summer Science Academy of South Texas exposes 35 high school juniors and seniors a year from the predominantly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley to research through seminars and field trips. West will add an interdisciplinary component and graduate student mentors to the academy program to make the summer study program a successful brush with research opportunities as well.
At the undergraduate level, freshman seminars on bionanotechnology will help students make the connections between disciplines that can lead to result in new technologies. West saidys the intimate seminars should inspire science majors "to see why they are doing this" and may help fight the first-year attrition typical of all science departments.
Likewise, the biology course for physics and engineering students focuses on technology case studies and understanding their underlying biological concepts. Rice's engineering students, located in the heart of Houston's biomedical corridor, have a "pent-up need" for this course, West says.
Leaping from learning to doing, undergraduates who have participated in West's programs can go on to do summer research in bionanotechnology. A three-week boot camp would introduce physics and engineering students to biology lab skills before they participate in eight weeks of research. Through these projects, conducted in 14 labs at Rice, students will use nanomaterials to explore basic biology or to address questions with a direct connection to medical treatment, like West's nanoshells research.
"Of the problems we are still facing in biology, most are too big to be solved just by biologists," West observed. She said even her fellow faculty members in chemistry and physics do not realize how much they could contribute to medicine. "I'm hoping students come away seeing this area of great need for their input and their work."