REU Summer Projects
Each of the research projects below centers around the creation, characterization and modeling of nanostructured materials for biological and energy applications. Discovering, designing, characterizing and applying nanomaterials are national research priorities because of the crucial importance of nanomaterials in solving the looming energy crisis, their growing application in medicine (in bio-mimetic and bio-compatible materials), and in post- silicon nanoelectronics. With such a wide range of project areas to choose from students will be assisted as needed in choosing a suitable project that matches their interests.
Summer 2023 Research Projects -
Atomistic Understanding of Nanostructures for Anion-Storage Batteries
De-en Jiang, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
The Jiang Group’s research focuses on computational chemical science and engineering, with a goal to achieve predictive modeling and design of functional materials and molecules for a sustainable society. Current research topics include computational nanocatalysis, simulations of separation media and processes, and first principles understanding of electrical energy storage and solid/liquid interfaces. One recent interest of our group is in novel anion-storage batteries. The project will focus on computational modeling of novel nanostructures (e.g., nanochannels) inside oxide-based electrode materials that allow reversible anion storage at high capacity. REU students working in the Jiang group would learn how to build atomistic models for electrode materials, how to carry out first principles calculations, and how to simulate atomistic processes of ion storage inside battery electrodes. Students will gain an appreciation for first principles calculations, materials modeling, battery chemistry, and electric energy storage.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student interested in computational nanoscience, materials chemistry, and battery research. Knowledge of Linux operating system, solid-state chemistry, and quantum mechanics is a plus.
Attosecond Quantum Dynamics at the Nanoscale
Kalman Varga, Physics and Astronomy
The main activity of Kalman Varga's group is computational modeling and simulation of electronic and transport properties of nanostructures interacting with short strong laser pulses. The group is interested in time-dependent electron dynamics including Coulomb explosion, Petahertz electronics, attochemistry, time dependent band structure engineering, and ultrafast energy transfer processes. The group is also actively working on studying electron transport processes in nanostructures using novel computational tools.
Researcher Interests and Skills: Students with interest in computational nanoscience are encouraged to join us. Basics knowledge of quantum mechanics and programming is advantageous but we are glad to train student interested in this direction.
Sokrates Pantelides, Physics
We carry our theoretical calculations using the best available techniques and combine the results with available experimental data, either in the open literature or taken by collaborators at Vanderbilt or other institutions, to probe the atomic-scale structural, mechanical, electronic, optical, and magnetic properties of complex nanostructures. An REU summer intern works closely with one or two post-docs, quickly acquires basic computational skills that are needed to carry out meaningful research, and focuses on a particular project. Projects are typically in a frontier area of materials physics and are selected carefully to be manageable within the time of the REU program. In the past, REU students have been able to be co-authors on a technical paper that gets published and present a talk at the annual “March meeting” of the American Physical Society.
Researcher Interests and Skills: You will explore the fascinating world of electrons and atoms using computer codes based on quantum mechanics – no prerequisite; we will teach you what you will need.
Controlling Infrared Light Propagation at the Nanoscale with 2D van der Waals Crystals
Josh Caldwell, Mechanical Engineering
The infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum offers opportunities for non-contact measurements of temperature through the collection of thermal radiation, chemical vibrational fingerprinting for sensing and identification, lab-on-a-chip, environmental and remote sensing, and astronomical observations. However, the long free-space wavelengths of light in this spectral domain restrict such optical components to large form-factors limiting the ubiquitous implementation in commercial applications. Furthermore, most of the materials used are either opaque in the visible, hygroscopic or very narrow band, while detectors typically require cryogenic cooling for efficient operation. The field of nanophotonics seeks to identify schemes by which the wavelength can be compressed to deeply sub-wavelength dimensions, opening the door to implementation of more traditional semiconductor and dielectric materials, overcoming many of these challenges. However, despite this promise, we continue to uncover additional materials featuring novel optical properties. One specific class is highly anisotropic (low symmetry) crystals, such as van der Waals or so-called two-dimensional materials or wide bandgap semiconductors. Recent observations from my research group have demonstrated such materials offer a means for label-free infrared imaging of nanoscale objects, frequency multiplexing of near- and mid-infrared signals for communications and sensing, novel IR light sources for gas sensing, IR barcoding and/or signaling applications, as well as fundamental insights into how to control IR light propagation at the nanoscale. An REU student working on this project will implement these materials for demonstrating such control of IR light propagation, using state-of-the-art 2D material transfer and lithography tools. The student will learn advanced IR spectroscopic methods including Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy and microscopy, the use of nano-optic probes such as scattering-type scanning optical microscopy (s-SNOM) and nano-FTIR, as well as the associated analysis, extraction of IR dielectric functions and the basic design principles for IR nanophotonic components. To date, all four undergraduate researchers (three of which were VINSE REU student alumni) of the Caldwell lab (since joining faculty in 2017) have seen their work published in a peer-reviewed journal, resulting in a novel approach to gas sensing (Fig. 1) with current undergraduate students (three in 2022) on track for publications early this Fall.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project would be ideal for students interested in practical research in nanomaterial fabrication and optical characterization techniques. Ideally students should have completed at least one course covering basic optics or the optical properties of materials. Undergraduate research, especially in materials science, optics, spectroscopy or experience with cleanroom use, are highly desired.
Covalent Bonding of Hematite to Silica Surfaces
Janet Macdonald, Chemistry
The hematite (iron oxide) rock paintings of the Anishinaabe of the Northern US and Canada are often on exposed rock faces that suffer extreme weathering conditions. Spray paint graffiti on the same sites can be worn off within a year or two, yet the rock paintings persist. Unfortunately, the methods to make such paintings have been lost. What is the chemistry behind their indelibility? Can we use our knowledge of chemistry to re-discover the painting technique? Can lab reagents and conditions be translated to “natural” granite surfaces and naturally sourced materials? The researcher will develop experiments to test hypotheses put forward previously by anthropologists and by chemists (us!), by making their own pigments, varying the chemical formulation of the paint and testing their durability.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project requires a minimum of senior level high school, AP or freshman chemistry and a strong interest in Chemistry or Materials Science. Students should have a secondary interest in Anthropology, History or Indigenous Studies. Given the nature of the project, interested researchers should be prepared to be respectful of cultures and religious beliefs to which they may not belong themselves.
Development of New pH-reactive Polymers for Drug Delivery
Craig Duvall, Biomedical Engineering
The Duvall lab develops and tests novel pH-responsive, "smart" polymeric carriers to be formulated as micelles and/or polymer drug conjugates for pharmaceutical applications. There are currently no mainstream clinical drugs consisting of intracellular-acting biologic macromolecules (i.e. peptides, proteins, and nucleic acids). These classes of molecules are too large and polar to diffuse across cell membranes, and if taken up by endosomal pathways, the predominant fates are lysosomal degradation or exocytosis. The pH-responsive polymers developed in the Duvall lab are optimized to respond to the discrete pH difference between the extracellular and endosomal environments to trigger biomacromolecular drug endosomal escape and cytoplasmic delivery. Current applications range cancer and regenerative nanomedicine. For the summer project, the student will implement microfluidic fabrication methods to form nanoparticles optimized for tumor penetration and anti-cancer therapeutic efficacy.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited to students interested in nanomedicine. The summer project will expose students to living free radical polymerization, polymeric nanoparticle fabrication and characterization, and basic cell culture and molecular biology techniques..
Development of New ROS-reactive Polymers for Drug Delivery
Craig Duvall, Biomedical Engineering
The Duvall lab develops various "on demand" drug delivery systems that release drug or undergo phase changes based on environmental cues. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are elevated, causing "oxidative stress", in many chronic inflammatory diseases. We are developing new classes of polymeric nanoparticles, microparticles, and hydrogels with ROS responsive/scavenging properties. These systems are tuned to release drug "on demand" - i.e., when ROS levels become elevated, the delivery system is triggered to release anti-oxidant drug. Many of these systems are also engineered to have inherent ability to sequester ROS from the local environment, which is therapeutically useful in order to limit inflammation-associated host tissue damage and promote disease resolution. Current applications range wound healing, breast cancer metastasis, and arthritis therapies. For the summer project, the student will learn methods for synthesis of ROS-reactive polymers, creation and characterization of particle formulations, and measurement of ROS scavenging activity and downstream therapeutic benefits.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited to students interested in polymeric biomaterials and inflammation. The summer project will expose students to living free radical polymerization, polymeric nanoparticle fabrication and characterization, and basic cell culture and molecular biology techniques.
Jason Valentine, Mechanical Engineering
The Valentine group is focused on developing nanostructured materials, referred to as metamaterials, that have unique optical properties which arise from the structuring employed. The goal for this REU is the development of dynamic metamaterials that can have their optical properties adjusted in real-time using electrical, optical, or thermal modulation. The potential uses of these metamaterials are far ranging and include tunable optical elements such as lenses, optical displays, and tunable light sources. The REU student will work closely with the PI and a graduate student on this project and be responsible for fabricating and optically characterizing metamaterials with an emphasis on studying the time-varying properties including changes in transmission and reflection as well as the modulation speed.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for individuals with interests in nanoscale optics and materials, nanoscale fabrication, and experimental optics techniques. The individual should have completed an electromagnetics course and experience with experimental optics and spectroscopy would be beneficial.
Enabling Next Generation Quantum Dot Emitters via Correlated Photophysics and Atomic Structure
Sandra Rosenthal, Chemistry
The Rosenthal group is accelerating the development of sub-microscopic crystals of semiconductors, or quantum dots, by employing a newly developed characterization methodology. With this characterization methodology it is possible to determine the optical properties and atomic structure of an individual quantum dot. These quantum dots can be made to efficiently emit very pure colors. However, quantum dot systems that do not utilize toxic lead and cadmium lag far behind in brightness and stability. Directly correlating structure with performance will enable precise tuning of the quantum dot synthesis to produce optimal structures. This will pave the way for new display and lighting technologies and tools for biomedical applications such as drug discovery. REU students will have an opportunity to learn nanocrystal synthesis and to operate the advanced analytical FEI Tecnai Osiris TEM/STEM electron microscope as well as participate in single nanocrystal spectroscopy experiments.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for student interested in hands on experimental science involving the synthesis of colloidal nanocrystals and the associated characterization techniques of optical spectroscopy and electron microscopy.
Energy Performance of 3D Printed Concrete
Florence Sanchez, Civil and Environmental Engineering
The Sanchez lab focuses on the development of sustainable and more durable infrastructure materials with reduced environmental impact. One effort is the realization of novel, functionally graded concrete materials that can enhance the energy performance of buildings. This is achieved by engineering concrete at multiple length scales through the design of a hierarchy of internal structures inspired by nature and the incorporation of nano/micro-inclusions using extrusion-based 3D printing technology. The student will assist in the 3D printing fabrication of cement-based materials displaying a hierarchy of internal structures and patterns and investigations into the structure and mechanical and thermal performance of these novel materials. The student will gain firsthand experience in laboratory research, will be exposed to fundamental materials science and engineering of composite materials, and will develop skills in state-of-the-art analytical methods for the characterization of material microstructures.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student interested in material synthesis and characterization, 3D printing, and the applications of materials in civil engineering. Student must have completed at least one semester of chemistry and two semesters of a laboratory course.
Engineering Collective Dynamics of Polarizable Colloids
Carlos A. Silvera Batista, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Colloidal materials display impressive features such as dynamic assembly, self-assembly and self-propulsion. These features are promising for achieving advanced materials that mimic the versatility of natural systems. Nonetheless, to harness colloidal building blocks into functional, reconfigurable, and active materials will require the capacity to encode structural and dynamical information into simpler autonomous units, that upon interaction, assemble and coordinate their motion. Patchy particles under electric fields serve as important model systems to achieve such goals. However, the polarizability—the property linking materials design with electrokinetics—has rarely been characterized, and therefore, it is not well understood. In this project, we will address this gap by using electrorotation to characterize the response of model systems, by performing transport analysis to obtain mechanistic understanding, and by mapping collective dynamics to link properties of individual particles to emergent collective behavior. This project will advance the design of nonequilibrium strategies that can endow synthetic materials with the flexibility and functionality typical of biomaterials.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student interested in chemical engineering or chemistry.
Etch, Release, and Transfer of High Electron Mobility Transistors (HEMT) Devices
Mona Ebrish, Electrical and Computer Engineering
High electron mobility Transistors (HEMTs) are often grown on special wafers to meet the layers specifications and avoid lattice mismatch. Often these special wafers are not suitable for several electronics applications. In this project, the student will work with graduate students on isotopically etching a sacrificial layer to release the HEMTs from their native wafer. The sacrificial layer is often a Si layer that can be etched using XeF2 etcher. The transfer will take place using a state-of-the-art technique using a Micro-transfer printer tool at Ebrish Device Lab (EDL). The objective of the process is to successfully transfer a single device or a cluster of devices to a host wafer. The success of the process is gauged by the structural integrity of the transistor after the transfer as well as maintaining the same electrical characterization. REU student might focus on the etching and release processes of the project which involves some fabrication processes like photolithography steps at VINSE. The student might also focus on the transfer process at EDL or the structural and electrical evaluation after the transfer. The area of focus will depend on the student’s skills and interest. All of the steps are novel and have the potential to be publishable in both peer reviewed journal or conference proceedings.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project would be ideal for students interested in practical research in microelectronics fabrication and characterization techniques. Ideally students should have completed at least one course covering basic electronics including diodes, and transistors, or semiconductor physics. Undergraduate research, especially in semiconductor materials, electronics or experience with cleanroom use, are highly desired.
Leukocyte Functionalization with Nanoscale Liposomes for Therapeutic Targeting of Circulating Tumor Cells
Michael R. King, Biomedical Engineering
More than 90% of cancer-related deaths are caused by cancer metastasis, in which cancer cells break away from the primary tumor, travel through the blood or lymph system as circulating tumor cells (CTCs), and form new tumors (metastases) in other parts of the body. Studies have shown that the neutralization of CTCs in the circulation for the prevention of metastasis could represent an effective anti-cancer strategy. The King Lab uses a unique strategy to target CTCs in the circulation that modifies the surface of circulating leukocytes with nanoscale liposomes. The liposomes are conjugated with cancer-specific tumor necrosis factor (TNF) related apoptosis inducing ligand (TRAIL) along with a leukocyte-binding protein. The protein for binding can either be E-selectin that recognizes and binds to the majority of leukocytes, or an antibody that binds specifically to a subpopulation of leukocytes such as natural killer cells. These bispecific liposomes, after intravenous administration, adhere to their target leukocytes and enable them to present TRAIL on their surface. Metaphorically, the liposome formulation converts circulating leukocytes into “hunters of CTCs”. In this summer project, the student will optimize liposome formulations to enhance the stability of the formulation, further increase their blood circulation time, and improve their CTC targeting efficacy.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This summer project is best suited for a student interested in translational nanomedicine. The student will learn how to make and characterize liposomes, basic cell culture techniques, as well as how to evaluate the formulation efficiency in a setting that mimics blood circulation in vivo.
Light in Quantum Materials
Richard Haglund, Physics and Astronomy
REU students working in the Haglund group will study the behavior of light in quantum materials with unusual optical and electronic functionalities. The materials include vanadium dioxide nanostructures that transform from insulators to metals when irradiated by laser pulses, two-dimensional crystals such as graphene-like hexagonal boron nitride, and metasurfaces with unusual light-beaming properties. Students will be able to fabricate thin films, grow crystals or prepare nanostructures of relevant materials, study nonlinear optical phenomena with femtosecond lasers or characterize single-photon emitters for quantum information science. For example, a REU student in the summer of 2021 learned how to grow bilayer films of gold and copper-sulfide nanoparticles, studied their response to femtosecond laser pulses and prepared the early drafts of a paper now submitted for publication.
Researcher Interest and Skills: This project is well suited for a student interested in nanoscale materials synthesis and spectroscopy, optical physics or quantum optics. A sophomore-level course in modern physics or optics provides sufficient background information. Experience with any of the following is a plus for this project: optical spectroscopy, lasers, LabView instrumentation and software, computer simulations and software (e.g., Matlab, Mathematica or C++), material characterization (e.g., X-ray diffraction) and microscopy.
Mechanochemistry and Catalysis
Tim Hanusa, Chemistry
Mechanochemical reactions occur because of the direct absorption of mechanical energy, often by grinding or ball milling. Usually no solvent (or a greatly reduced amount) is used in a mechanochemical reaction—it is considered a type of “green” chemistry. We synthesize inorganic and organometallic compounds that are new types of catalysts. These compounds are specifically not available through solution-based methods. In turn, the catalysts can be used to prepare polymers with a variety of properties, including biodegradability. REU students working with the Hanusa research group will learn the fundamentals of ball milling, and how to combine this with inorganic synthesis and characterization techniques. These will include methods for handling air- and moisture-sensitive compounds. Students will work side-by-side with graduate students in the Hanusa lab.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student interested in chemistry, especially synthetic chemistry. Students should have completed at least general chemistry with a corresponding lab course; additional work in organic chemistry (lecture+lab) would be helpful, but not required.
Microfabricated Tissues to Study Cancer Metastasis
Cynthia Reinhart-King, Biomedical Engineering
During metastasis, cells wind their way through a maze of fibers to escape a primary tumor and move to a secondary site. The goal of the Reinhart-King lab is to build models of the extracellular matrix in vitro to understand the molecular mechanisms employed by cells to navigate this maze. To rebuild the extracellular matrix, we utilize novel biomaterials and microfabrication approaches to mold and control the shape of scaffolds. In recent work, we have focused on building microchannels and bifurcated tracts to understand how cells use small membrane extension to probe their environment and make cell migration decisions.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best-suited for those with an interest in biology. Undergraduates working the lab will learn micromolding techniques, cell culture, microscopy, and basic cell biology.
Sharon Weiss, Electrical Engineering, Physics
Accurate and reliable detection of small, low molecular weight molecules is a major challenge for current sensor technology. The detection of these species is critical for applications including identification of disease biomarkers. The Weiss group is investigating the use of various silicon-on-insulator and porous silicon optical structures as promising sensors for small molecule detection due to the strong light-matter interaction that takes place between the optical mode and target molecules of interest. Both on-chip and smartphone-compatible sensor platforms are being explored. An REU student in the Weiss group will have the opportunity to participate in experiments and calculations related to the design, fabrication, and characterization of silicon-based sensors. Necessary fabrication and measurement systems, as well as simulation infrastructure, are well-established in the Weiss lab. The REU student will be trained to independently conduct experiments. This project is best suited for a student interested in optics and nanomaterials.
Researcher Interests and Skills: The REU student must have completed at least one semester of physics and one semester of chemistry.
Nanoscale Optical Trapping
Justus Ndukaife, Electrical Engineering
TThe Ndukaife Research group conducts research at the interface between nanophotonics and microfluidics to develop new lab-on-a-chip devices for trapping, manipulation, sorting and sensing of nanometric objects and biological molecules, which are too small to be trapped by the conventional optical tweezers that was recently recognized with a 2018 Physics Nobel Prize. For this particular project, we are interested in developing and characterizing novel optical nanotweezers that can trap and manipulate very small objects that are at least a thousand times smaller than the thickness of the human hair using light and electric voltage.Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student interested in nanotechnology and optics. Students should have completed at least general chemistry with a corresponding lab course.
Nanoscale Sculpting of Atomically Thin Materials
Piran Kidambi, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
This project will focus on 2D materials that are one atom thick. The student will synthesize 2D materials such as graphene, hexagonal boron nitride etc. using bottom-up self-assembly processes such as chemical vapor deposition. Post synthesis the student will develop methods to form atomically precise nanopores in these materials. The introduction of nanopores with atomic precision in 2D materials allows for the creation of nanoporous atomically thin membranes that could offer transformative advances for desalination, environmental protection and healthcare applications.
The project offers the student the possibility of exploring the ultimate paradigm in length scales probing single atom thick membranes with facile table top nanofluidic experiments.
The student will work closely with the PI, post-docs and graduate students on 2D material synthesis, nanoporous atomically thin membrane fabrication and testing.
Researcher Interests and Skills: The project is ideally suited for students interested in hands-on experimental research in nanotechnology.
New Biomaterials for Neovascularization
Ethan Lippmann, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
SThis project focuses on developing, characterizing, and testing new biomaterials for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. The Lippmann Lab has developed a simple gelatin-based biomaterial that robustly induces vascular remodeling and growth after implantation or injection as a polymerized hydrogel in vivo. Additional chemical and biological handles are being added to the biomaterial for customized, disease-specific applications, and there is rich design space to improve on the properties of this hydrogel system.
Researcher Interests and Skills: The REU student will work with graduate students in the project to synthesize and characterize biomaterial variants. No prior experience is needed, but the student will be expected to rapidly learn new skills and work in a fast-paced, team-oriented environment.
On-chip Silicon Nanophotonics
Sharon Weiss, Electrical Engineering, Physics
Silicon has traditionally been associated with being the most favorable material platform for most modern microelectronics technologies due to its electronic properties, compatibility with lithographic patterning, and earth abundance. However, silicon is also a favorable material platform for supporting light propagation, and silicon photonics is now considered to be the leading platform to achieve faster data transfer speeds on chip. The Weiss group is investigating on-chip silicon photonic components with subwavelength features and extremely strong electric field enhancements, which may lead to the next generation of on-chip photonic devices with ultrafast modulation speed, low power, and small footprint. An REU student in the Weiss group will be trained to independently carry out both experiments and simulations related to the design and characterization of advanced silicon nanophotonic components.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student interested in optics and semiconductors. The REU student must have completed at least two semesters of physics. Knowledge of electromagnetics would be helpful, but not required.
Optical Metamaterials for Information Processing
Jason Valentine, Mechanical Engineering
The Valentine group is focused on developing nanostructured materials with tailored electromagnetic properties at optical frequencies, specifically for applications in photovoltaics, detectors, and other more exotic devices such as invisibility cloaks. These nanostructured materials, referred to as metamaterials, can be engineered with unique optical properties due to the type of structuring and constituent materials employed. The purpose of this summer research experience is to implement metamaterials as pre-filters for image processing systems. For instance, metamaterials can be designed to perform derivatives and act as spatial filters, off-loading these operations from the digital system. Ultimately, this allows the digital system to operate faster and consume less power while also taking advantage of the unique design freedoms associated with metamaterials. The REU student will work closely with the PI and a graduate student on this project and be responsible for designing and optically characterizing metamaterials for various image processing tasks.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for individuals with interests in nanoscale optics and materials, nanoscale fabrication, and experimental optics techniques. The individual should have completed an electromagnetics course and experience with machine learning systems will be beneficial.
Patterning Sacrificial Smart Materials to Make Artificial Arterioles
Leon Bellan, Mechanical Engineering
In the human body, vascular resistance is regulated by non-capillary microvessels which autonomically contract or dilate in response to appropriate biochemical stimuli. This process is critical to ensuring appropriate local pressure-flow relationships in tissue such that metabolic needs are met. Engineered microvasculature, however, is currently unable to replicate this critical functionality. This is because engineered microvasculature currently does not incorporate circumferentially aligned smooth muscle cells (SMCs) capable of regulating vessel lumen diameter. The goal of this project is to use 3D printed sacrificial templates to pattern microvascular channel networks in hydrogels and culture SMCs on the channels walls, and then induce appropriate SMC behavior and architecture using the cyclic wall stretch that results from pulsatile flow in these compliant matrices. Cells will then be exposed to various stimuli and their ability to modulate vessel lumen diameter will be characterized. This interdisciplinary project will also provide participating students with valuable materials processing and cell culture skills, and expose students to the challenges and excitement of novel biomaterials micropatterning techniques. Students will work with the PI, and graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the Bellan lab, as well as with collaborators in other departments at Vanderbilt University.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is appropriate for students who are interested in hands-on experimental work and would like to learn more about biomaterials, flow characterization in a biomedical context, and 3D printing.. Experience with programming, electronics, biomaterials, or cell culture techniques would be beneficial but is not required.
pH-Responsive Polymeric Nanocarriers for Delivery of Vaccines and Immunotherapies
John T. Wilson, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
The Wilson group focuses on the treatment and prevention of disease through the design of nanoscale drug delivery systems that modulate the immune system. A major focus of our work is the design of nanocarriers to enhance the intracellular delivery of the key components of vaccines and cancer immunotherapies. This project will focus on controlling the delivery of vaccine antigens and/or immunomodulatory drugs to immune cells using materials that respond to changes in pH. REU students working in the Wilson group would learn how to synthesize and characterize polymers, how to formulate nanoparticles for drug delivery, and how to evaluate delivery of antigen and/or adjuvants to immune cells. Students will gain an appreciation for polymer science, drug delivery and immunobiology.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student interested in materials synthesis and characterization and the applications of materials in biology and medicine. Student must have completed three semesters of a laboratory course.
Phase Control in the Synthesis of Metal Sulfide Nanocrystals
Janet Macdonald, Chemistry
Metal sulfide nanocrystals have been a cornerstone of nanotechnology research: as examples Quantum dots of CdS, PbS and ZnS; graphene-like MoS2 and lithium ion storing cobalt sulfides. As we seek new nanoscale materials for their electronic, catalytic, thermoelectric and optical properties we need to mine farther and farther reaches of the periodic table. The geologic record tells us there are many untapped materials: there are nine known iron sulfides, four cobalt sulfides, seven nickel sulfides and ten copper sulfides. As physical and chemical properties depend on the identity and the specific arrangement on atoms in space, each of these phases has their own set of potentially revolutionary properties for any number of applications from display technology, catalysis, batteries, non-linear optics and even cancer treatment.
Some of the aforementioned metal sulfides have never been prepared as nanocrystals before, as to date, our syntheses have been mostly serendipitous. The community of chemists do not have the level of synthetic skill or knowledge of how to tweak a “failed” reaction to select for one crystal phase over another. In this project we will use libraries of organosulfur reagents to tease out how kinetics and decomposition mechanism each play a role in the phase selective synthesis of transition metal sulfides. Our goal is to synthetically traverse the full phase space of metal sulfides.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This REU will be conducting synthetic experiments at high temperatures using Schlenk techniques, and will learn to use and analyze their products with X-ray diffraction as a routine technique. Transmission electron microscopy on promising samples will be performed with the aid of a graduate student. Given the synthetic rigors of the project, organic chemistry with a laboratory component is a minimum requirement, or similar synthetic laboratory experience.
Photosynthesis-Inspired Films for Solar Energy Conversion
Kane Jennings, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Our society is experiencing the early stages of an energy crisis that will only intensify as long as alternatives to fossil fuels are not economically competitive. Jennings, in collaboration with David Cliffel (VINSE faculty in Chemistry), is developing new strategies for energy conversion that directly utilize nanoscale components from photosynthesis, nature’s vast solar energy conversion system. Specifically, they are developing biohybrid solar cells in which the active component is Photosystem I (PSI), a nanoscale protein complex in plants that drives photosynthesis. Recent discoveries by the Jennings/Cliffel team have led to the successful integration of PSI with semiconductors, graphene, and conducting polymers to more efficiently utilize the protein within solar devices. Until now, direct wiring of the protein at its active sites has been limited. The proposed work is focused on the direct wiring of each end of the PSI complex to nanoparticles and conducting polymers to provide a connected wire for electron flow across the protein. While working in Jennings’ group, the REU participant will learn to extract and isolate PSI from spinach, selectively assemble it into dense films on chemically tailored electrode surfaces, characterize its composition and structure on the surface, and measure the amount of photocurrent that is produced from the PSI layer in both wet-based and solid-state cell configurations. We expect that the REU participant will learn key aspects of photosynthesis, the fabrication of biomolecular films, the extraction of protein, strategies for solar energy conversion, and the characterization of surfaces.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is appropriate for a student who has an interest in investigating alternative energy and in characterizing materials and surfaces. Students should have completed general and organic chemistry courses.
Prediction of Hybrid Thermal Modes for New Class of Energy Conversion Materials
Greg Walker, Mechanical Engineering
Exciting new research indicates that infrared metamaterials can be used for directional emission, spectrally selective emission, and even possibly lasing. However, the design of these structures depends on light interaction with crystal lattice vibrational modes. Only through careful design and analysis can these novel materials be realized. We will use density functional theory and lattice dynamics modeling tools to understand phonon dispersions in highly structured materials to look for elusive but important hybrid modes, those where optical and acoustic modes overlap. These materials are important to a number of thermal energy devices such as thermophotovolatics, microelectronic optical interconnects, and infrared power transmission with a meaningful impact on energy utilization and storage technologies.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for students with an interest in using computers to solve engineering problems and an interest in learning about energy transport.
Probing Protein-Nanoparticle Interactions with Ultrafast Spectroscopy
Lauren Buchanan, Chemistry
The Buchanan group focused on the use of 2D infrared spectroscopy to study protein structure and dynamics. In this project, we are interested in determining the structure of nanoparticle-bound proteins. For proteins, structure determines function; thus, for biomedical applications of nanomaterials to be viable, it is crucial to understand precisely how protein-nanoparticle interactions alter protein native structure. While it is well-established that global structural changes do occur upon binding to a nanoparticle surface, no one has managed to localize structural rearrangements to specific regions of the protein or determine the mechanisms by which nanoparticles affect protein aggregation. Using 2D IR spectroscopy and isotope labeling of proteins, we can achieve residue-level structural resolution of these complex systems and observe transient species that are inaccessible by conventional methods.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for students interested in physical or bioanalytical chemistry. Students should have completed at least general chemistry with a corresponding lab course.
Radiation Effects on Electronics
Michael Alles & Enxia Zhang, Institute for Space and Defense Electronics, ECE
The Vanderbilt Institute for Space and Defense Electronics (ISDE) educates, conducts research, and provides engineering and test services for the characterization and mitigation of radiation effects and reliability in electronic devices, circuits, and systems. The research involves a multi-disciplinary team of faculty, engineers and students who work closely together to span hierarchical levels from detailed interactions of radiation with materials and defects, to microelectronic devices and circuits, to systems level studies. Activities include both experimental, and modeling and simulations aspects. Students gain knowledge and skills related to underlying materials, devices, circuits, and systems as well as to the impact of various natural and man-made radiation environments. Student will also participate in the SCALE Workforce development program actives, where Vanderbilt leads a multi-university team for the Radiation Hardened Microelectronics focus. This national educational program seeks to engage students early and foster the workforce for the current and coming long-term needs of the U.S. Government and defense industrial base in microelectronics, with the specialty of radiation-hardened microelectronics identified as the top priority. Students interact with peers and faculty at Vanderbilt and other universities on a regular basis and will have the opportunity to hear from representatives from industry, government, and other academic institutions about both technical and career-related aspects of the field of radiation-effects engineering.
Researcher Interests and Skills: Specific project opportunities and pairing with mentors within ISDE can be tailored to the students interests and background. Examples of potential projects include developing, testing, and applying computer simulation codes to predict the response of electronic devices and systems in space radiation environments, assisting in the experimental testing of the radiation response of advanced technologies and circuits including sample preparation (binding, packaging and de-packaging), studying the role of defects in radiation-induced failures of devices including application of advanced defects imaging-techniques, development of a training simulator for radiation-effects test engineers, and development of educations materials for other students. Projects are well suited for students interested in microelectronic and photonic design and fabrication, and the application in natural or man-made radiation environments. Courses in materials, semiconductor devices and processing, and electronic circuits are beneficial. Coding skills can also be useful.
Solvation Forces in Nanoscale Systems
Carlos A. Silvera Batista, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
The successful application of NPs in medicine depends on the controlled distribution in target organs and specific interactions with biomolecules of interest. However, the high ionic strength of biological media reduces colloidal stability. Colloidal stability is essential for NPs to circulate longer and therefore reach their target organs. Solvation forces and the structure of the solvation shell around NPs have emerged as a key factor controlling the NP-NP and NP-proteins interactions in biological media. However, there are limited measurements of forces between NPs and no systematic experimental studies correlating solvation dynamics of NPs, the structure within the solvation shell and the interparticle potential. The objective of this project is to extend our understanding of the solvent mediated forces between NPs through the systematic measurement of size of hydration shell, the structure and arrangement of solvent molecules within the solvation shell and its manifestation on interaction potential. This work will rely on techniques such as analytical ultracentrifugation, Raman spectroscopy, and the osmotic stress method.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student interested in chemical engineering or chemistry.
Synthetic Biomaterials for Regenerative Medicine
Scott Guelcher, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
The Guelcher group focuses on the design and development of synthetic biomaterials for soft and hard tissue engineering and drug delivery. Examples include delivery of biofilm dispersal agents to prevent infection and accelerate healing of contaminated bone wounds, and delivery of Wnt signaling inhibitors to enhance cutaneous wound healing. REU students working in the Guelcher group would learn the fundamentals of biomaterials synthesis and drug delivery, and perform experimental measurements using both in vitro and in vivo models. For example, previous undergraduate researchers in the Guelcher lab have measured the ability of novel biomaterials to support osteoblastic differentiation and the release kinetics of antibiotics from polymeric scaffolds. Each student initially works very closely with the PI and a graduate student or postdoctoral associate in the group, with the best students becoming essentially independent by the time they leave the lab.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student with interests in drug delivery and cell culture. The student should have completed a laboratory course, and courses in organic chemistry and biology would be helpful. The student will work in an inter-disciplinary environment with chemical engineers and molecular biologists to develop new therapies for regeneration of bone and soft tissue.
The Bends in Cell Culture: Preventing Spontaneous Nitrogen Gas Emboli in Microfluidic Culture
William Fissell, Nephrology and Hypertension
Many cell types in the body are exposed to fluid flow: endothelial cells, lung cells, and kidney cells when growing in vivo, but cell culture techniques for prolonged in vitro culture are often static. Static culture limits mass transport of respiratory gases and nutrients; furthermore some cell types require mechanical forces to cue differentiation. Microfluid systems are available for cell culture in vitro, but typical growth area and number of cells are small. In larger systems pr in systems grown for longer periods of time, spontaneous outgassing of nitrogen bubbles can occur. Most microfluid systems exist in a length scale regime where surface forces are similar to inertial forces; as a consequences bubbles can stop flow in a microchannel or mechanically traumatize a cell in the channel.
Many techniques exist for de-airing fluids and for separating out bubbles from relatively small channels at low flow rates. We require a technique that can continuously separate bubbles as small as 20 microns from flow rates up to 50 ml/min for artificial organ development.
Researcher Interests and Skills: TBA
The Effect of Radiation on Cellular Nanoscale Communication Patterns
Marjan Rafat, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Biomedical Engineering
Extracellular vesicles (EVs) can be categorized as microvesicles (MVs, up to 1000 nm in diameter) arising from the cellular outer membrane or exosomes (< 150 nm in diameter) that are derived from endosomes. They carry a variety of bioactive molecules, including RNAs, lipids, proteins, and matrix remodeling enzymes. Their secretion is known to alter cell-cell communication, immune cell infiltration, extracellular matrix properties, and tumor progression. The Rafat Lab is interested in studying how radiation of normal tissues and cells alters EV secretion, and how these nanoscale communicators influence immune cell attraction to damaged sites, extracellular matrix remodeling, and tumor cell recruitment. An REU student in the Rafat Lab will have the opportunity to participate in experiments and calculations related to the isolation, visualization, and characterization of EVs from control and irradiated cells. The necessary platforms and protocols are well-established in the Rafat Lab. The REU students will be trained to independently conduct experiments. The project is best suited for a student interested in learning about how cells communicate in the tissue and tumor microenvironment through a nanomaterials lens.
Researcher Interests and Skills: The Rafat Lab is accepting undergraduate students who would like to conduct research at the interface of engineering and cancer biology.
Understanding Energy Transport in Nanostructures
Deyu Li, Mechanical Engineering
The Li group explores heat transfer through individual nanostructures and their contacts, which provides critical knowledge for various engineering applications including microelectronic device thermal management and novel nanomaterials-based energy conversions. Currently we are probing how energy flows through a class of quasi-one-dimensional (quasi-1D) van der Waals nanowires, which are composed of covalently-bonded molecular chains assembled together via weak inter-chain van der Waals interactions. Many interesting transport phenomena occur in these materials but the underlying transport mechanisms are not yet fully understood. In addition, we are exploring how to enhance heat transfer through polar nanomaterials through introducing surface waves such as surface phonon polaritons. The REU student will work with a Ph.D. student to conduct experimental measurements of thermal transport through different quasi-1D van der Waals crystal or polar nanowires to understand how energy carriers flow through these structures.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student who is interested in experimental work exploring nanostructures. The student should have completed college physics courses and taken some engineering classes.
Using Photosystem I for Solar Energy Conversion
David Cliffel, Chemistry
In a collaboration between the Cliffel and Jennings Research groups, we investigate the use of Photosystem I (PSI) in a non-biological setting to efficiently convert solar energy into electricity or fuels. By taking this nano-machinery found in the process of photosynthesis and integrating with different electrode materials, we aim to both increase the efficiency and decrease the cost of modern solar conversion techniques. REU students working with the Cliffel and Jennings research groups learn the fundamentals of surface modification, surface analysis, and electrochemistry. For example, previous REU students have worked on projects integrating and analyzing PSI with carbon-based electrodes, and measured the resulting photocurrents of these systems. Typically 2 students work closely with and graduate students in both the Cliffel and Jennings lab.
Researcher Interests and Skills: This project is best suited for a student interested in chemistry or chemical engineering. Students should have completed at least general chemistry with a corresponding lab course.