Five PhD candidates named to 2014 class of Siebel Scholars

Johns Hopkins Siebel Scholars

Image caption: The 2014 Siebel Scholars at Johns Hopkins are, from left, Tushar Rane, Stephany Tzeng, Sravanti Kusuma, Sahar Soleimanifard and Jiefeng Xi.

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Five Johns Hopkins graduate students, recently named to the 2014 class of Siebel Scholars, are pushing the boundaries of medical technology to develop new and improved ways to diagnose and treat cancer, heart disease, and other serious health problems. The students are trying to turn stem cells into healthy blood vessels, are testing biological reactions within microscopic droplets, and are using advanced imaging techniques to detect disease at an early, treatable stage.

In recognition of their research skills, academic achievements, and leadership qualities, the five PhD candidates are being honored as Johns Hopkins' 2014 Siebel Scholars. The merit-based Siebel program provides $35,000 to each student for use in his or her final year of graduate studies. The Johns Hopkins recipients were among 85 students selected this year from prominent graduate schools in the United States and China, including Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and Stanford.

The Siebel Scholars program was founded in 2000 by the Siebel Foundation to recognize the most-talented students at the world's leading graduate schools of business, computer science, and bioengineering. Today, 870 Siebel Scholars are active in the program, which seeks to nurture leadership, academic achievement, and the collaborative search for solutions to the world's most-pressing problems.

At Johns Hopkins, the Siebel Scholars program supports doctoral students in bioengineering studies. Four of this year's recipients are pursuing their degrees within the Department of Biomedical Engineering, which is shared by the schools of Medicine and Engineering; the fifth is in the Whiting School's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The honorees are as follows:

  • Sravanti Kusuma of Tucker, Ga.: Kusuma has been a key member of a Johns Hopkins team trying to grow healthy human blood vessels in a lab. Supervised by Sharon Gerecht, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Kusuma is trying to coax pluripotent stem cells, capable of becoming any type of human tissue, to turn into the kinds of cells that make up blood vessels. In addition, the team is providing biochemical cues in an effort to nudge these cells into forming networks of blood vessels. If the project succeeds, these lab-grown networks could someday be implanted in patients whose own blood vessels have been damaged by diabetes, burns, and other conditions.

  • Tushar Rane of Jalgaon, Maharashtra, India: In his research, supervised by Jeff Tza-Huei Wang, a professor of mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, and oncology, Rane focuses on droplet microfluidics. On a microfluidic device, Rane can generate a large number of droplets as small as one-millionth the size of a raindrop. Each droplet acts as a single reaction chamber, allowing researchers to run a large number of reactions simultaneously on one device. In Wang's lab, Rane has helped develop various forms of droplet microfluidic platforms that can be used to analyze biomolecules such as DNA, RNA, and enzymes. The platforms possess a wide range of potential medical applications, including the detection of infections and cancer-related mutations. The devices also may help to produce better quality and more abundant crops through a process called marker-assisted selection.

  • Sahar Soleimanifard of Isfahan, Iran: Soleimanifard's research focuses on the design, development, and programming of noninvasive three-dimensional MRI techniques that can do more than merely depict the basic anatomy of blood vessels. Her techniques are also aimed at detecting the impact of stress and other factors on changes in coronary anatomy and on blood flow within the vessels. One goal is to detect early signs that coronary artery disease is present and will worsen. With this noninvasive technique, doctors can begin treatment before the condition becomes life-threatening. At the Whiting School, Soleimanifard's doctoral adviser is Jerry L. Prince, a professor of electrical and computer engineering; from the School of Medicine, she has been advised by Robert G. Weiss, a professor of cardiology, and Matthias Stuber, a professor of radiology.

  • Stephany Tzeng of Skillman, N.J.: Tzeng has been developing ways to deliver genes without the use of viruses that can have unhealthy side effects. Her goal is to use this genetic correction method to treat cancer and to promote tissue regeneration. Under the supervision of her doctoral adviser, Jordan J. Green, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, Tzeng is working with biodegradable nanoparticles as vehicles that can deliver DNA and other genetic material to the cells. In the cells, it should help repair or replace cancer-promoting and other types of genes that are defective or missing. Tzeng also is trying to use this technique to guide stem cells to become healthy new tissue, such as new neurons that could help regenerate damaged nerve tissue.

  • Jiefeng Xi of Shanghai, China: Xi has been developing "optical biopsy" techniques with the goal of assessing the pathology of tissue located within the body at a resolution almost as sharp as that of a lab microscope. The long-term purpose is to enable doctors to detect disease at an earlier stage and to more effectively treat the condition. The result should be an improvement in patient care and a reduction in health care costs. In connection with his research, Xi is listed as a co-inventor on three patent applications. His doctoral adviser is Xingde Li, a professor of biomedical engineering.

Siebel Scholars are chosen by the deans of their respective schools on the basis of outstanding academic achievement and demonstrated leadership. On average, Siebel Scholars rank in the top 5 percent of their class, many within the top 1 percent.

"It's an honor that the Siebel Foundation has, once again, decided to name five of our most promising graduate students as scholars in their vibrant community of talented future leaders," says Andrew Douglas, interim dean of the Whiting School. "This award will expand our students' opportunities for entrepreneurship and collaboration, which we consider integral to innovative engineering research."

Thomas M. Siebel, chairman of the Siebel Scholars Foundation, says, "It is my great pleasure to congratulate the Siebel Scholars Class of 2014 and to welcome them to the Siebel Scholars community. They join a formidable group of entrepreneurs, researchers, and philanthropists who are directly influencing the technologies, policies, and economic and social decisions that shape the future."