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2021 REU Research Projects

Click on the links below to jump to each project description and to view the faculty member's website.


Professor Eric Appel
Sustained delivery of biopharmaceuticals

Project Description: Protein therapeutics are a fast-growing class of pharmaceuticals exhibiting many advantages over traditional small-molecule drugs. Yet biopharmaceutical formulation is particularly challenging on account of the inherent instability of many proteins, their propensity to aggregate, and difficult administration of ideal formulations for extended periods of time. We seek to exploit rational design principles to engineer a novel class of injectable hydrogel materials for biopharmaceutical formulation that can address all of these issues. Students will have the opportunity to learn polymer synthesis and characterization as well as protein structure and function characterization.


Professor Will Chueh
Optimization of solid state battery positive electrodes

Project Description: Solid state batteries (SSBs), a next-generation energy storage technology, are poised to solve some of the prevailing weaknesses presented in traditional liquid-based lithium ion batteries (LIBs). Currently, SSB performance will degrade more rapidly than LIBs, largely due to chemical and mechanical evolution in the positive electrode. Working with our solid state battery subgroup, you will work to optimize the composition of the positive electrode in order to improve SSB performance. Techniques you will learn or be exposed to: SSB fabrication (cold compaction), electrochemical impedance spectroscopy, x-ray diffraction, electrochemical cycling, data analysis (Python or Matlab).


Professor Will Chueh
Understanding battery formation processes on the negative electrode via electrochemical measurements

Project Description: Formation cycling is a time-intensive process used to build the solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) layer on the surface of the graphite (negative) electrode. The SEI is a self-passivating layer of inorganic and organic molecules which is critical to lithium-ion battery performance because it prevents continuous electrolyte reduction and lithium loss. In a recent study, one of our former group members explored which chemical reactions lend desirable properties to the SEI in a simple, three-component electrolyte. In this project, that study will be expanded to explore additives that are known to improve battery performance. In this project, you will be investigating formation protocols by tuning scan rate, electrolyte additives, and temperature. Working with our anode subgroup, you will work to understand how formation cycling can be varied to tune battery performance. Techniques you will learn or be exposed to: coin cell manufacturing, porous electrode preparation, literature search, electrochemical cycling, data analysis.


Professor Will Chueh
Second-life battery lifetime evaluation

Project Description: Electric vehicles (EVs) have become increasingly popular over the years partly in response to a need for an alternative to the negative effects of combustion engine vehicles on the environment. As EVs are on the road longer, eventually their battery packs will degrade and need to be replaced. While these battery packs are no longer suitable for EVs, they can potentially be used for different purposes such as back up grid storage. To achieve this goal, an accurate assessment of the remaining useful life of these “second life” batteries under certain use conditions must be accurately predicted to forecast their value for these second life purposes. Techniques you will learn or be exposed to: Battery diagnostic tools: Electrochemical impedance spectroscopy, Incremental capacity analysis, etc. Battery testing: Setting up and preparing batteries, and battery cyclers for streamlined cycling. Data Analysis: Python coding and data handling.


Professor Yi Cui
Nanomaterials design for energy applications

Project Description: This project explores materials design for enhanced energy conversion and storage. Some examples include materials for thermal textiles, batteries, and electrocatalysis. Students will have an opportunity to learn several skills including nanomaterials synthesis, structure characterization, energy device fabrication, and performance evaluation.


Professor Reinhold Dauskardt
Nano-mechanical behavior and reliability in energy devices

Project Description: The intent of this project is to study the nano-mechanical properties and adhesion of advanced thin-film structures that have applications in a wide range of emerging technologies. The goal of the work is to develop a fundamental understanding of how the films’ mechanical properties are related to their nanostructure and processing conditions. The student will gain familiarity and experience with a number of experimental techniques, including thin-film sample preparation and the use of atomic force microscopy (AFM), X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) for analyzing fracture surface composition and morphology.


Professor Reinhold Dauskardt
Biomechanical function of human skin

Project Description: This project takes a quantitative, in-vitro experimental approach to examine the biomechanical properties of human skin, which are vital for its function but poorly understood. Students will use a range of thin film characterization techniques to explore the outermost stratum corneum layer of skin and determine the effects of preconditioning treatments and cellular structure. We would also like to expand the research project to include multiple layers of skin. The project involves applying novel and new micromechanical and characterization techniques to study the structure and biomechanical function of human skin. Students will learn to separate, enzymatically treat and condition human skin, fabricate specimens, and conduct testing and analysis using methodologies developed in our research group. Analysis techniques such as scanning electron and optical microscopy will be employed, together with newly developed techniques involving wafer curvature and bulge testing of soft tissues.


Professor Jennifer Dionne
Mapping intracellular forces in the immune synapse with upconverting nanoparticles

Project Description: Immune cells undergo a range of mechanical feats to identify and target pathogen cells for death. While the mechanical forces are critical for immune cell performance, there is currently no suitable sensor for mapping the intracellular forces. We are working on developing biocompatible mechanical force sensors based on upconverting nanoparticles (UCNPs) with nanometer spatial resolution capable of imaging intracellular mechanical forces. A summer intern will be working on characterizing UCNPs force sensitivity by mimicking biological forces with an atomic force microscope (AFM) while recording the upconversion spectra. A summer student will also learn how to characterize UCNPs materials properties using transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and x-ray diffraction (XRD). Through careful materials studies and characterization, we will provide a new way to track immune cell interactions.


Professor Jennifer Dionne
Solar plastics upcycling with plasmonic photocatalysts

Project Description: Plasmons, a unique optical response to light by metallic nanostructures, can increase the speed and selectivity of chemical transformations. In this project, we will explore the application of plasmons for breaking down commercial plastics and for boosting catalyst performance in critical chemical steps involved in the synthesis of plastics. Starting from computational optical simulations, we will carefully design the shape, size, and composition of plasmonic nanoparticles and then synthesize these particles in the lab. A summer intern will learn how to characterize nanomaterials using Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) and how to use and develop computational programming to quantify their results. We will then perform bench-scale reactions using a custom photoreactor set-up and explore correlations between these results and single particle experiments performed in an environmental TEM. A long-term goal is to enable a sustainable, circular materials economy with non-toxic nanoparticles that enable plastic upcycling.


Professor Sarah Heilshorn
Design of biomaterials with nanoscale precision through protein engineering

Project Description: A unique approach to designing biomaterials involves mimicking the tools evolved by nature to create functional materials at the molecular level. The REU student will be involved in the synthesis, purification, and characterization of protein-based biomaterials using engineered bacterial hosts. These biomaterials will be evaluated for use as regenerative medicine scaffolds to induce the formation of new tissue.


Professor Sarah Heilshorn
New materials as inks for 3D bio-printing

Project Description: 3D bio-printing is similar to traditional 3D printing, but the inks include embedded cells. This promising technology can be used to fabricate living devices for regenerative medicine and disease modeling. In this project, we are working to develop and validate new cell-compatible materials that function well as bio-inks.


Professor Guosong Hong
Deep-brain stimulation with NIR light-absorbing semiconducting polymers

Project Description: Neuron-type specific modulation of brain activity with light by optogenetics has opened up enormous opportunities for neuroscience studies. Expansion of the neural modulation toolbox from visible to near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths offers deep brain stimulation capability in freely behaving animals without optical fiber. In this project, you will develop a deep brain stimulation technology based on various semiconducting polymers, which have tunable bandgaps which can transduce the incident light into the language of the neuron: electrical current. Using cleanroom microfabrication techniques, devices will be engineered and their quality characterized. Then, the optoelectronic properties of those devices will tested using a laser optics setup. Once the device properties have been elucidated, their neuron-stimulating performance will be characterized both in vitro and in vivo with simultaneous neuron firing measurements and behavioral experiments, respectively. Finally, utilizing Monte Carlo simulations and neural circuit models, the fundamental constraints of this type of stimulation system will be elucidated.


Professor Guosong Hong
Ultrasound-mediated light sculpting in biological tissue

Project Description: Light has been extensively utilized in bio-interfaces to communicate with the living tissues. Specifically, visible light has been used to modulate neural activities, enzymatic reactions, CRISPR-mediated genome editing and other biological processes with high spatiotemporal precisions. However, due to the strong scattering and absorption of visible photons by the biological tissues, invasive optical implants are usually needed for deep-tissue light delivery. In this project you will develop a non-invasive light delivery method using deep-penetrating focused ultrasound (FUS) and mechanoluminescent nanoparticles (MLNPs). Followed by the synthesis, optimization and surface modification of MLNPs, their light emission response to FUS with different central frequencies will be tested in an artificial circulatory system, which mimics that of a live animal. You will also learn how to simulate the ultrasound pressure field and the corresponding light emission pattern in different biological tissues generated by FUS transducers with different geometries and frequencies. Furthermore, the MLNPs will be delivered into the blood stream of live animals, and the real-time light intensity measurement will be carried out at different organs to validate the light-sculpting method in vivo.


Professor Felipe Jornada
2D materials with a twist: computing the tunability of many-body interactions from first principles

Project Description: This project will familiarize the student with computational techniques to study novel atomically thin quantum materials and how their properties can be tuned in twisted heterostructures. The student will connect concepts of crystallography with recent trends in 2D materials, learning to create large-scale calculations of twisted heterostructures using classical force fields, and density-functional theory calculations to obtain band structures of a few selected materials.


Professor Aaron Lindenberg
Ultrafast two-dimensional topological switches

Project Description: This project is broadly focused on visualizing the atomic-scale steps that underlie how two-dimensional materials and their heterostructures can be dynamically manipulated on ultrafast timescales. A number of applications to next generation photonic devices follow from this work, including new possibilities for high bandwidth topological switches and nano-devices. Summer students will learn to use light spanning the range from X-rays to the far infrared to probe this functionality, and get first-hand experience building these devices from scratch.


Professor Andy Mannix
Development of electronic characterization protocols for high-throughput growth screening

Project Description: The summer REU student will work to develop high-throughput methods of electronic device fabrication which allow us to rapidly test the charge transport characteristics of novel 2D materials grown on a variety of substrates. Techniques may include deposition (e.g., masked deposition in an evaporator, liquid metal deposition, and van der Waals thin film metal transfer), patterning (e.g., adhesive template lithography, laser etching, scanning nanoscale probe abrasion), and/or gate electrode fabrication. The student will validate methods using the available experimental resources and apply these techniques to characterize the electronic quality of van der Waals materials grown via metal-organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD) and/or molecular-beam epitaxy (MBE).


Professor Nicholas Melosh
Nanostraws for cell delivery

Project Description: Nanostraws are a new form of nanostructures that enable non-destructive cell transfection and sampling. These high-aspect ratio ‘straws’ act as a massively parallel array of nanoscale syringes, allowing for injection of molecular cargoes such as mRNA, DNA, and proteins into cells. In this project, students will learn about nanostraw synthesis methods including reactive ion etching (RIE) and atomic layer deposition (ALD). Ultimately, our goal is to utilize nanostraws to manipulate cells such as controlling cell differentiation.


Professor Nicholas Melosh
Optical metasurfaces for minimally invasive biosignal imaging

Project Description: Wearable sensing provides and opportunity for a paradigm shift in physiological monitoring. However, "on-skin" wearables are limited by their non-specificity. Much richer data could be obtained by sensing directly inside the body. However, sensing inside the body currently requires insertion of electrical leads through the skin, leading to infection risk and mechanical instabilities, or the use of wireless implants requiring invasive components for power transfer and hermetic encapsulation. To non-invasively obtain biosignals from inside the body, we are developing an optical metasurface based platform to enable imaging through dense tissue. Summer students will have the opportunity to work on characterization of optical properties in response to electrical and chemical stimuli. Students will also simulate and test integrated devices for applications such as neural interfaces.


Professor Kunal Mukherjee
Crystal defects in mixed-bonded solids

Project Description: There are a small class of compounds where the nature of bonding cannot easily be classified as predominantly covalent, ionic, or metallic. These materials are now being considered for a range of applications in energy and electronics such as solar cells, infrared light sensors, and new types of memory. Crystal defects are known to strongly impact the electronic and mechanical properties of any material. The question naturally arises - are crystal defects any different in these solids over other conventionally bonded ones? A prototype of such a mixed-bonded crystal is the semiconductor PbSe. It has the same rocksalt crystal structure as NaCl, but it is not quite as ionic as the latter and has metallic and covalent character in its bonds as well. We are interested in learning how the behavior of simple point defects (vacancies and interstitials) and line defects (dislocations) in PbSe are different from conventional semiconductors that have the same energy gap. This insight may hold the key to successfully deploying them in technology. 


Professor Evan Reed
Computer modeling and machine learning for energy materials

Project Description: This project involves the development and use of machine learning and other computer algorithms to predict materials properties from the atomic structure. We will focus on two-dimensional materials like MoS2, phase-change materials for electronics applications, and electrolyte and other battery materials for energy storage applications. The student will develop a predictive model by applying machine learning techniques and statistical methods to information on materials structure and properties.


Professor Alberto Salleo
Multifunctional soft materials for sustainable IoT devices

Project Description: This project involves the utilization of Organic Mixed Ionic Electronic Conductors (OMIECs) for electrochemical sensor electrodes, transistors, energy storage devices, and actuators to enable fully integrated and sustainable IoT devices. OMIECs are polymeric materials that are redox-active and ionically and electrically conductive, resulting in their usage in a wide variety of electrochemical devices. The student will learn how to fabricate the above electrochemical devices and characterize their electronic and electrochemical performance. Ultimately, the goal is to demonstrate the unique processability and multifunctional properties of OMIECs to enable the circular economy of electrochemical devices.


Professor Shan Wang
DNA biomarkers in disease progression and treatment

Project Description: In this project we aim to develop a blood-based test for early assessment of mental health or cancer treatment. Using the GMR biosensor previously developed in Professor Wang’s lab, we will be probing peripheral blood samples for DNA signatures related to mental health or cancer treatment. By looking for specific genetic and epigenetic biomarkers within the DNA, we will gain insight into the status of the diseases and their treatment. Students will develop lab expertise in biological sample processing and analysis techniques according to their interests, including fluorescence microscope image acquisition, cell culturing, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for DNA and RNA characterization.