Navigating interdisciplinary research as a MolE PhD student

Filed Under: CleantechMolE PhDNews

At the intersection of genetic engineering and nanoscience, second-year MolE Ph.D candidate Tyler (Ty) Jorgenson is developing a set of design rules for devices that join biology with solid-state materials. His specific research focus is the self-assembly of solid-binding peptides and their interfaces with single-layer atomic (2D) materials, which he says is particularly promising for bioelectronic devices. Thus far, Jorgenson has focused his research on graphene, due to its unique electronic properties:

"Graphene’s electronic properties are highly affected by adsorbed [surface-deposited] molecules. By tailoring the adsorbed layer with our self-assembling peptides, we can further tune those electronic properties, as well as create a modular platform for the detection of diseases by displaying various biological probes from the adsorbed peptide."

The resulting biosensors are selective, highly sensitive, and possess more robust material properties than current devices that rely on organic conductive polymers. His work has already aided the development of a biosensor for early-stage cancer detection, a project spearheaded by a fellow graduate student.

In a unique position for a MolE Ph.D. student, Jorgenson acts as a bridge between the labs of his two advisors, materials science and engineering professor Mehmet Sarikaya and chemical engineering professor René Overney.

"In the Sarikaya lab, we try to understand how the molecular structure and amino acid sequence of a peptide determine its ability to bind to and organize on inorganic substances. The work that I do with Professor Overney involves determining the material properties of these systems, using scanning probe microscopy (SPM) to develop a molecular-level understanding," Jorgenson says.

As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, Jorgenson studied chemical and biomolecular engineering and led a research project on self-assembly techniques for DNA nanotechnology. He was also the first author of the resulting paper, published in an early 2017 edition of ACS Nano. "I wanted to keep working with biomolecules and self-assembly, while shifting towards more electronics- and device-oriented research, as well as learning more experimental characterization techniques. Finding this [project] was rather serendipitous," he says.

While still in the early stages of his research, Jorgenson was nominated for best poster at a Materials Research Society conference this fall, where he presented on the characterization of self-assembled peptides on graphite surfaces using an atomic force microscopy (AFM) technique developed by Prof. Overney, called intrinsic friction analysis (IFA). At left is an AFM  image from Jorgenson’s research, depicting the graphene-binding peptide GrBP5-WT self-assembled on highly-ordered pyrolytic graphite (HOPG) for 1 hour at room temperature.


Jorgenson credits the interdisciplinary MolE curriculum with his early success working for two advisors. "Being able to tailor my courses so that I can become well versed in both [inorganic and biological materials] is very beneficial. I don't believe I would have as much freedom to do so if I stuck with just one department or engineering discipline." He highlights Principles of Molecular Engineering as the most relevant course to his research, as it "covers all of the weak intermolecular forces that are the basis for self-assembly."

With regard to his future, Jorgenson is keeping an open mind. "As of now, I'm leaning towards continuing my career in academia, but it'll depend on post-doc opportunities and the state of the industry when I graduate."

Learn more about Ty Jorgenson and the research being done in the Sarikaya and Overney labs at and

For more information on the Molecular Engineering Ph.D. program and its students, visit