Two Johns Hopkins engineers win NSF CAREER awards

Two Johns Hopkins engineers, Mark Foster and Honggang Cui, have been awarded the National Science Foundation's prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award, which recognizes junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research in their organizations.

Foster, an assistant professor in the Whiting School's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is developing a high-speed imaging system designed to enable researchers to continuously record images at a rate of more than 100 million frames per second—100 times more rapidly than current technology allows. Foster says that his system could eventually be used for cell screening for disease prediction, or to observe scientific phenomena that occur at a very fast rate. He will receive a five-year $400,000 grant.

Cui, an assistant professor in the Whiting School's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is designing cancer-fighting nanosize structures that could assemble themselves and carry treatment to diseased tissue within the body. His award is accompanied by nearly $500,000, which will be disbursed over five years.

Foster, who came to Johns Hopkins in 2010, works in the area of nonlinear optics and ultrafast lasers—measuring phenomena that occur in femtoseconds. A femtosecond is one-millionth of one-billionth of a second. 

"With this project, we hope to create the fastest video device ever created," he says. "Certain phenomena, such as some chemical reactions and physical interactions, occur at a very fast time scale, and if you want to understand them, you need to be able to observe what is happening within that short window of time."

Jin Kang, chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering, says that Foster's work also holds promise for making sense of big data. Today, researchers have the capability to produce and store vast amounts of data, but what's missing, he says, is the ability to process this data instantaneously. "The question is: How do we effectively and efficiently process these signals," Kang says. "Mark is developing the science that will process data in femtosecond time. It will allow people to process data in real time, ultrafast, instantaneously."

The applications, Kang says, are endless. For example, the military could use the high-speed processing system to analyze radar in real time, or hospitals could use it to analyze real-time data about patients.

In 2012, Foster was recognized by the Office of Naval Research's Young Investigator Program, which funds early-career academic researchers whose scientific pursuits show exceptional promise for supporting the Navy and Marine Corps while also promoting the scholars' professional development, and in 2011, he received the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Young Faculty Award. He holds bachelor's and doctoral degrees in applied and engineering physics from Cornell University, where he worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Quantum and Nonlinear Photonics Group before coming to Johns Hopkins.

Cui's research is aimed at producing a more-effective and targeted way to provide cancer treatment.

A current method of delivering anti-cancer drugs is to enclose them in a nanoscale carrier made of natural or synthetic materials. This method, Cui says, presents several challenges. "The amount of drug that can be loaded into each carrier is very limited," he says, "and even within the same batch, the amount of drug being delivered can vary from one carrier to another. Another problem is that the carrier material itself may have toxic side effects."

To make this process safer and more effective, Cui is trying to eliminate the need for a separate nontherapeutic carrier. To accomplish this, he is trying to coax the drug molecules to form their own delivery vessels through a process of self-assembly. His team is developing new molecular engineering strategies to put together anti-cancer drugs as supramolecular nanostructures, meaning they consist of more than one molecule. "Such supramolecules could carry a fixed, full dose of the anti-cancer drug within each nanostructure, and this would minimize the potential of toxicity in the carrier itself," Cui says.

Konstantinos Konstantopoulos, chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, says that "this novel approach, which requires cutting-edge expertise in the areas of chemical and biomedical engineering, nanotechnology, and chemistry, will have a major impact on the field of drug delivery and cancer diagnosis."

Cui completed his bachelor's and master's degree studies at Beijing University of Chemical Technology and Tsinghua University, both in China. He earned his doctoral degree in materials science and engineering from the University of Delaware, and then obtained postdoctoral training at Northwestern University. In 2010, he joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins, where he is affiliated with the Institute for NanoBioTechnology.