REU Program


Research Projects

Students will be able to select their preferences from among 14 research groups described

Ultrafast dynamic properties in advanced magnetic materials
Dr. Darío Arena - Condensed Matter Physics & Materials Physics

Magnetic materials are ubiquitous and indispensable in our modern technological world. Our lab specializes in studies of advanced magnetic materials with an emphasis on ultrafast dynamic properties. We focus on conducting studies of new magnetic materials, which are typically thin film systems, with an array of university-based methods supported by highly specialized spectroscopic, scattering and imaging techniques at national user facilities (x-ray synchrotrons and neutron sources). We are also developing new materials with our own thin film sputter deposition system. Our goal is to understand the fundamental interactions that govern the dynamics of the spins that generate magnetism at relevant time and or frequency scales (typically in the GHz to THz range). Our research is relevant to spintronics (the additional use in electronics of an electron’s spin as well its charge), advanced sensors and emitters for the ultra-high frequency spectrum, and has applications for quantum information processing.

Laser spectroscopy of biomaterials
Dr. Dmitri Voronine – BioPhysics & Optics

The goal of this project is to perform molecular analysis of biological systems using laser spectroscopy. Laser analysis of small biological systems such as bacterial and blood cells is an important task because it can be performed non-invasively without adding extra chemicals or without destroying the biological sample. The students will use portable handheld instruments to perform Raman spectroscopy of various treated and control biological samples and of the
simple constituent biomolecules such as polysaccharides, lipids and DNA. Experimental
challenges such as weak optical signals will be addressed by using colloidal gold, aluminum
and 2D semiconducting nanoparticles to enhance the signals. Optical microscopy and nanoscale characterization techniques will be used to investigate the effects of the interactions
of the biological samples with nanoparticles. The results will have applications in biomolecular
sensing, medicine, energy and quantum science.

New Materials Research for Energy-Related Applications
Dr. George Nolas – Condensed Matter Physics & Materials Physics

Research in the Novel Materials Laboratory is designed for the synthesis and characterization of novel materials for technologically significant applications. The emphasis is on an understanding of the structure-property relationships of new material systems in developing a comprehensive understanding of their physical properties. The effect of structural and chemical variations on the electrical, thermal, optical, magnetic and mechanical properties of materials is thus of paramount interest. The laboratory applies this understanding in developing new and novel materials towards significant advancements in energy-related technologies. Current materials physics research includes complex chalcogenides, clathrates, half-Heusler alloys, nano-scale properties of materials, amorphous materials and composites for applications in thermoelectrics, photovoltaics and alternative fuel technologies. Close collaboration with industry, national laboratories and other universities is typical in this interdisciplinary research program that encompasses all aspects of physics, materials science and chemistry.

Hybrid magnetic nanoparticles for nanomedicine applications
Dr. Hari Srikanth - Condensed Matter Physics & Materials Physics

The goal of this project is to chemically synthesize and characterize biocompatible anisotropic and high aspect ratio magnetic nanoparticles based on iron oxide. These magnetic nanoparticles have a wide range of applications in nanomedicine such as hyperthermia cancer therapy, targeted drug delivery, MRI contrast enhancement etc. There is a need to go beyond conventional spherical particles and explore novel strategies such as tuning the shape anisotropy in hybrid structures like core-shell geometries. Our project will focus on enhancing the magnetic hyperthermia efficiency using these strategies. Undergraduate students will obtain training in chemical synthesis of nanoparticles as well as structural and magnetic characterization. In particular, the REU student will assist in: i) synthesis of iron-oxide nanostructures with high degree of core crystallinity using thermal decomposition ii) structural characterization of the particles using XRD and TEM iii) Magnetic measurements with a Vibrating Sample Magnetometer (VSM) over a wide range in temperature (5K-300K) and fields (0 to +/-7T) and iv) Magnetic hyperthermia analysis under AC fields.

Low-dimensional functional materials
Dr. Humberto R. Gutierrez – Condensed Matter Physics & Materials Physics

Two-dimensional (2D) functional materials have received increasing attention in recent years. These materials are chemically stable at atmospheric room conditions and present exciting optoelectronic properties with potential applications for developing a new generation of flexible, light-weight and portable optoelectronic devices. The fabrication of electronic devices based on 2D heterostructures with the optimal electronic band alignment, as well as understanding and controlling the electronic doping in these materials, are crucial for developing practical applications. The students will be trained in synthesis techniques
(chemical vapor deposition) and will be involved in the development of a controlled procedure
for substitutional doping of transition metal dichalcogenides atomic layers with the aim of tuning their electronic properties. He (she) will obtain hands-on experience in state of-the-art Raman, Photoluminescense and optical absorption spectroscopy used as a routing quality check as well as to study their optical properties. Additional training in scanning electron microscopy will be also part of the experience, this last will be used to monitor the morphology of the synthesized material. If times allows, basic electronic devices (FETs) will be fabricated to study variation in the electrical properties as a function of doping levels.

Exploration of electrocaloric effect in relaxor ferroelectrics
Dr. Inna. Ponomareva – Computational Condensed Matter Physics

Ferroelectrics are materials that develop spontaneous polarization. They undergo structural phase transitions and, therefore, often exhibit a giant electrocaloric effect. This is defined as a reversible change in temperature under adiabatic application of an electric field and is very promising for solid state refrigeration. Relaxor ferroelectrics are among the most appealing candidates for the giant electrocaloric effect, as they exhibit enhanced configurational entropy. Under an NSF funded project, Ponomareva's group has developed computational tools for investigating the electrocaloric effect. REU student will use these state-of-the-art tools to investigate the electrocaloric effect in the relaxor ferroelectric Ba(Zr.Ti)O3. At a technical level, the student will learn the basics of computational tools, high-performance computing, Linux, and shell-scripting and develop skills in data collection and interpretation. At the fundamental level he/she will advance his/her understanding of the concepts of thermodynamics. Although it is expected that the student will work as a member of the research team, he or she will have the opportunity to lead his/her own part of the project which will expose the student to modern computational research, help promote scientific curiosity, and develop leadership skills. It is expected that the results obtained by the student will become part of a publication and lead to conference presentations. Previously Ponomareva advised two REU students who co-authored peer-reviewed publications. Ponomareva has also successfully mentored many undergraduate students who co-authored peer-reviewed publications and joined prestigious graduate programs.

THz photonic phase modulator by polymeric micro actuator arrays
Dr. Jiangfeng Zhou – Optics & Materials Physics

Microscale polymer pillar arrays with embedded superparamagnetic nanoparticles aligned along different directions can be mechanically bended, compressed, twisted and stretched by applying a weak magnetic field. Although this new technique has been successfully used to create mechanical devices such as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), it has not yet been applied to optics and photonics. Our recent result based on the measurement of a polymeric microactuator array reveals giant phase modulation (~100deg) of THz waves by applying a low magnetic field. Since the height (~100µm) of pillars is comparable to the wavelength of THz waves (~300µm), we expect it has the potential to create an effective terahertz phase modulator, a critical component for THz communications and imaging systems. We plan to develop innovative techniques for THz photonics by enhancing this method, which has great potential to create low-loss, highly efficient and low-cost THz phase modulators as well as other THz devices such as beam reforming and reconfigurable lenses. Through this project, the REU students will apply their physics knowledge of electromagnetics and optics to practical research activities. Students will learn numerical simulation technologies that can be used to design RF, photonic and optical devices. By participating in the experimental characterization of samples using the THz-TDS system, students also gain hands-on experience in optics measurements.

Protein modules control membrane shape and organization
Dr. Jianjun Pan – BioPhysics

Cells utilize membrane budding and scission to facilitate vesicle trafficking and signal
transduction. An amphipathic helix (AH) is an important structural motif found in many proteins. By spatially segregating water-attractive and water-repellent amino acids, AH represents a suitable organization to modify membrane curvature. The interplay between AHs and cell membranes is often delicate; small changes in the AH motif can be magnified such that the mode of membrane interactions is markedly altered. Given the significance of AHs in mediating protein functions, theories have been formulated to predict the relationship between the chemical and structural features of AHs and their capabilities in modulating membrane
curvature. Despite advances in theoretical modeling, experimental data are confounded by
controversial observations. The challenge partially owes to difficulties in quantifying membrane
curvature. We propose to approach the problem from a different perspective. Instead of
qualitatively evaluating membrane curvature, we will focus on quantitative data of membrane
material properties. The proposed approach is substantiated by the physical principle that
membrane material properties can be translated into the bending energy that governs
membrane curvature remodeling. Here we propose to quantify how membrane physical
properties are modified by several AH-containing proteins. Results from the proposed research
will advance our knowledge of fundamental physics underlying the membrane shape transition
caused by fine-tuned AHs. A combination of experimental techniques will be employed, including atomic force microscopy, force spectroscopy, and electron microscopy.

Understanding Plastic Avalanches in Ductile Polymer Glasses
Dr. Robert Hoy – Computational soft condensed matter Physics

One of the most exciting developments in physical mechanics over the past decade has been the recognition that the plastic deformation behaviors of materials ranging from soils to crystals is controlled by avalanches whose size distributions are given by universal power laws. Polymer glasses, however, represent a challenge to this paradigm since they are capable of sustaining extremely large (> 100%) strains before fracturing and exhibiting massive strain hardening. These unique features arise from the extended random-walk-like structure and connectivity/uncrossability of their constituent molecules. The supported student will work with Prof. Hoy in collaboration with Karin Dahmen (Physics, U. Illinois) on analyzing avalanches in deformed model polymer glasses. Duties will include performing molecular dynamics simulations, writing analysis codes, and analyzing data.This project should result in a first-author publication (for the student) in Physical Review E or some other comparable journal.

Data-driven modeling of ion dynamics in neurological disorders
Dr. Ghanim Ullah – Computational Bio-Physics

Overwhelming evidence suggests a key role of neuronal calcium (Ca2+) signaling dysfunction in several neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease. A complete understanding of Ca2+ signaling remodeling and toxicity is therefore crucial for both the etiology of these diseases and designing efficient therapeutic reagents. The failure of all amyloid clearance-based approaches to provide benefit to patients in clinical trials makes the search for Ca2+ signaling-based therapies even more relevant. Although an area of active biomedical research in leading laboratories throughout the world, efforts in the mathematical modeling of Ca2+ signaling in neurodegenerative diseases are nonexistent. Development of biologically accurate and comprehensive computational models is of a paramount importance for further progress in this area. Our lab offers multiple undergraduate projects with the overall goal of developing comprehensive data-driven computational frameworks to understand the Ca2+ signaling bases of neurodegenerative diseases and explore the molecular pathways that can targeted to protect against these conditions. A closely related project involves modeling the aggregation of misfolded proteins related to these diseases and how these aggregates interact with different cell membranes to disrupt their integrity. Another area of active research in our lab is to understand the dynamics of various ions in pathological conditions such as epileptic seizure, migraine, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. We are particularly interested in elucidating the disruption of various pathways that control ion homeostasis and bioenergetics of the cells.

Optical metrology using direct measurement technique
Dr. Zhimin Shi – Optics

Light is a major carrier of information about our universe, from molecular and atomic to extraterrestrial scale. The ability to probe the information carried by light is crucial for fundamental studies of a diverse range of physical systems as well as for many applications including astronomy, remote sensing and microscopy. For a coherent field, such as one created from a laser, the optical field is characterized by its amplitude, phase, wavelength and polarization. Complex-valued spatial and spectral coherences are additional degrees of freedom that carry information for incoherent light fields from e.g., sunlight and most illumination light sources. However, conventional detectors, including human eyes, only respond to the intensity of an optical field, which leaves significant amount of demand to measure effectively other information channels of a light field. This project is aimed at developing direct-measurement-based optical metrology tools to measure the complex-valued information of an optical field in real time. The unprecedented measurement capability can be used to measure the phase of a transparent object, a threedimensional incoherent scene, the spatial coherence of a partially coherent light field, etc. The involving students will have the opportunity to be exposed to both numerical simulation and experimental implementation of advanced optical metrology systems. In particular, the students will use both Matlab and Labview, two powerful commercial programs for scientific programing and computer automation of experiments, respectively.

Molecular Dynamics Simulations of phase transitions in diamond at extreme conditions
Dr. Ivan Oleynik – Computational Condensed Matter Physics

Behavior of carbon materials such as diamond and graphite at extreme conditions is being actively investigated to develop predictive models for inertial confinement fusion experiments, where diamond implosion capsules are used to compress hydrogen fuel to initiate fusion reactions. In addition, the behavior of carbon at extreme conditions is of critical importance for understanding the evolution of many solar and extrasolar planets, as the interiors of Uranus, Neptune, or Neptune-like exoplanets have been posited to consist of diamond or liquid carbon. This research project will study fundamental mechanisms and kinetics of phase transitions in carbon under dynamic loading using first-principles and classical potential molecular dynamics simulations. Systematic exploration of the different types of materials (in crystalline, polycrystalline, liquid and amorphous forms) and full set of initial conditions will be performed with the goal of predicting new interesting phenomena, and guiding experiment by providing specific conditions and parameters to observe them, thus avoiding time-consuming trial-and-error experimentation.

Smart sensor technologies for space research and aerospace applications
Dr. ManhHuong Phan – Materials Physics

Electromagnetic (EM) sensors play an important role in space research and aerospace applications. They are widely used for monitoring EM field sources in objects such as aircrafts, spaceships, and satellites in space. They are also used to eliminate EM fields generated by the complex systems of mechanical, electrical and electronic components on-board spacecraft, and to control the speed of gears as well as determine the gear-tooth position precisely in aircraft engines. The majority of EM sensor technology is aimed at the development of cost-effective sensors with improved sensitivity and reduced size. In this project, we propose a novel class of EM sensors using ultrasoft magnetic microwires and the high frequency magneto-impedance and LC-resonance technologies. We anticipate that the proposed sensor will fulfil the strict requirements of a modern sensor for wide ranging applications in NASA research and aerospace industries. The proposed research also has the potential to open new opportunities to monitor astronaut health with key technological advancements. REU students will be trained to acquire good knowledge and experimental skills on the sensor technology. They will be mentored directly by a graduate student and the faculty.

Novel magnetic ordering in quasiperiodic tilings
Dr. David Rabson—computational solid-state physics

We have been collaborating with the experimental group of Lance DeLong at the University of Kentucky, which has deposited micron-scale permalloy patterns in the shape of Penrose tilings and used magnetic-force microscopy to measure local moments. Our preliminary analysis suggests that the magnetic ordering they measure may exhibit a novel color group. The proposed research will use existing computer micromagnetics and MonteCarlo code to predict how the magnetic ordering would scale with system size and to what extent it might reflect accidental direct-space symmetries. We will examine the implications for magnetism in quasicrystals.