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June 23, 2022

Johns Hopkins APL Projects Among Fast Company’s ‘World Changing Ideas’

Peter Thielen, a molecular biologist in the Research and Exploratory Development Department, works to sequence SARS-CoV-2 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in early March 2020.

Peter Thielen, a molecular biologist in the Research and Exploratory Development Department, works to sequence SARS-CoV-2 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in early March 2020.

Credit: Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman


The REDD team that figured out how to eliminate “forever chemicals” from water. From left: Zhiyong Xia, James K. Johnson, Jesse Ko, Leslie Hamilton, Dajie Zhang, Danielle Schlesinger and Nam Q. Le.

The REDD team that figured out how to eliminate “forever chemicals” from water. From left: Zhiyong Xia, James K. Johnson, Jesse Ko, Leslie Hamilton, Dajie Zhang, Danielle Schlesinger and Nam Q. Le.

Credit: Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman


Hannah Cowley (right) and Michael Robinette, two data scientists at APL, worked with clinicians, big data and artificial intelligence to predict the likely disease course for a COVID-19 patient.

Hannah Cowley (right) and Michael Robinette, two data scientists at APL, worked with clinicians, big data and artificial intelligence to predict the likely disease course for a COVID-19 patient.

Credit: Johns Hopkins APL

Three Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) initiatives were honored in Fast Company magazine’s 2022 World Changing Ideas awards.

The Laboratory’s Basestack software, PFAS elimination methodology and subset seekers partnership with Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM) earned honorable mentions in the pandemic response, water and health categories, respectively.

A panel of Fast Company editors and reporters selected winners and finalists from a pool of nearly 3,000 entries across categories such as transportation, education, food, politics, technology, health and social justice. The World Changing Ideas awards seek to elevate finished products and brave concepts that make the world better.

“These projects illustrate APL’s ability to channel our culture of innovation and expertise into impactful solutions, and to leverage our relationships — across the Laboratory and with our partners — to solve problems that make the world a better place,” said APL Director Ralph Semmel. “We are honored to be recognized for this important work.”

The ability to sequence the genome of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, has been integral in tracking COVID’s variants around the globe. But advanced genomics work has historically been the province of highly specialized laboratories with access to top-of-the-line hardware, infrastructure support and technical expertise.

With APL’s Basestack — a modular, open-source software suite — previously difficult and unwieldy applications that required powerful hardware and high-speed internet can be run locally, on off-the-shelf laptops, by way of a clean and intuitive interface. The tool has had an immediate impact on the global genomic surveillance efforts during the pandemic and, in 2021, was used in more than 20 countries for genomic infectious disease surveillance.

PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of some 5,000 artificial chemicals commonly found in water, household items, food packaging, firefighting foams and a plethora of other industrial applications. They’re also, consequently, found in wildlife and human beings. Their tendency to linger indefinitely in the environment without degrading has earned PFAS the label “forever chemicals.”

APL scientists devised a unique, inexpensive and scalable method for destroying these dangerous chemicals. APL’s PFAS elimination technique uses a novel, cost-effective catalyst to induce an electrochemical reaction that breaks the powerful carbon-fluorine (C-F) bonds that hold these toxic chemicals together. The method does not generate undesirable byproducts and fits a variety of governmental, civilian and commercial applications.

The subset seekers, a joint effort between APL and JHM, sought to tackle one of the toughest challenges health care workers faced during the COVID-19 pandemic — predicting which patients would develop a severe or mild case of the disease. Led by APL electrical engineer Will Gray Roncal and Dr. Brian Garibaldi, director of the Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit, the team triaged data collected from 1,182 COVID-19 patients and created an algorithm to predict the most likely course a patient would take two weeks from the time they were admitted to the hospital. The team’s model could also be applied to other acute diseases that lead to hospitalizations.

This is the latest Fast Company honor for APL, which most recently took home No. 3 honors on the magazine’s Most Innovative Space Companies list and has earned three consecutive elections to the Best Workplaces for Innovators list. In 2020, four Laboratory projects earned nods as World Changing Ideas finalists.

Media contact(s):
Katie O'Hara, 240-761-9046, Katie.OHara@jhuapl.edu
Amanda Zrebiec, 240-592-2794, Amanda.Zrebiec@jhuapl.edu

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.

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