Research Experiences for Undergraduates

The Research Triangle MRSEC focuses on studying programmed assembly of soft matter, inventing materials that have never before existed and creating new ways to use those materials. Join our collaborative and interdisciplinary center for an exciting Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Outstanding undergraduates will participate in a ten-week summer program designed to provide unique research experiences, professional development opportunities, and increased awareness of materials science and engineering. Each student will participate in an innovative research project that probes fundamental aspects of experimental and/or theoretical soft matter science under the guidance of a faculty and a graduate student mentor. Each REU project is designed to involve the student in all aspects of research, from project planning and experimental design to data analysis and presentation. Triangle MRSEC REU students have access to state-of-the art facilities and resources at Duke and NCSU, participate in several professional development and networking activities, and conduct research in a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary environment.

When to Apply

The application period opens January 1, 2017. All materials must be received by March 1, 2017.

Before you apply you will need to:

  • Prepare your resume and unofficial transcript.
  • Write a one page double spaced essay answering the question: Why are you interested in an REU in soft matter?
  • Review the projects below, you will be asked to select your top three.


Follow this link to access the MRSEC REU Application Form. (Opens in a new window.)

Apply Now

After you apply you will need to:

Recommendations should be:

Stipend Includes

  • 10 weeks housing on Duke's or North Carolina State University's campus
  • $5,000 stipend
  • Reasonable Travel Costs

Equal Opportunity Statement

Duke University and Duke University Health System are committed to affirmative action and fair employment. Whether in the classroom, the clinic, or elsewhere on or off campus, we believe in giving everyone the opportunity to succeed. Our commitment to principles of fairness and respect for all helps create a climate that is favorable to the free and open exchange of ideas and reinforces our knowledge that our differences are a source of strength, which help foster new opportunities in education, research, and patient care.


All applicants must be United States citizens or permanent residents and have health insurance coverage. Students entering their sophomore, junior, or senior years are eligible.

Relevant Dates (Tentative)

  • Students arrive: May 28-29
  • Orientation: May 30
  • End of Program: August 4


Research Opportunities for 2017

(Projects are updated on a rolling basis. Continue to check back.)


Mechano-responsive Elastomers and Gels

Professor: Stephen Craig , Duke University

Research in the Craig lab will center on the design, synthesis, and use of mechanically responsive functional groups (mechanophores) for stress-responsive polymers and soft devices.  Students will gain experience in small molecule and polymer synthesis and characterization and device fabrication.  Prior experience in organic chemistry is critical, and experience in physical chemistry or engineering is desirable.  For more information about work in the Craig group, please visit


Internal Fluidization of Granular Materials

Professor: Karen Daniels , North Carolina State University

Traditionally, granular materials (e.g. powders, grains, sand) are fluidized through external agitation such as shakers or air-flow. The material properties such as the rigidity/fluidity or the yield stress strongly depend on both the details of how the particles are packed, and degree of excitation. By supplying a particular amount of mechanical energy to the system, these properties can be tuned to a desired value  [Nichol and Daniels, PRL 2012].  (Link: )

In this research project, you will perform similar experiments which investigate the material properties that emerge in a granular material made from actively rotating particles. These turbine like rotators were designed and manufactured as part of the MRSEC 2016 REU program, and your job now will be to characterize their dynamics using a combination of high speed cameras and image processing tools.

Host: Karen Daniels, Jonathan Kollmer
NC State Physics


Understanding the Effect of Particle Concentration on Flow Stabilized Solids

Professor: Karen Daniels , North Carolina State University

Micron sized particles, known as colloids, can form flow stabilized solids (FSS) under flow in microfluidic devices. FSS are a novel class of matter formed through a combination of normal and tangential fluid forces [Ortiz, Riehn, Daniels Soft Matter 2013][link to This solid-forming behavior is similar to industrial microfiltration and agricultural grain accumulation, and we aim to understand it by comparison to liquid-solid phase transitions.

In this research project, you will learn to: (1) precisely control a microfluidic system; (2) grow FSS and measure their size, equilibration time, and fluctuations as a function of particle concentration; (3) capture videos on a laser-based microscopy setup; (4) analyze captured videos using image-processing techniques. The skills you acquire during this REU will intersect with both physics and chemical engineering concepts and methods.

Host: Karen Daniels, Scott Lindauer
NC State Physics


Soft and Stretchable Electronics and Actuators

Professor:  Michael Dickey , North Carolina State University

Key background knowledge needed:  Students with a chemical engineering or chemistry background are preferred, but other disciplines welcome

The goal of this project is to construct and study soft materials for new types of stretchable electronics and actuators.  Our bodies (tissue, skin, brain) and our surroundings (plants, animals, clothing, textiles) are often built from soft materials, yet electronics and robotics are typically built from rigid materials.  Thus, there is a mechanical mismatch. The project, which can evolve in several ways depending on student interest, will focus on new ways to pattern and actuate soft materials to make both electronics and actuators that are stretchable and deformable. We envision the soft actuators being created by combining elastomeric polymers with a moldable liquid metal. Our group has hosted several REU students in the past, and in some exemplary cases, that work has led to publications with the REU students as co-authors. We are a welcoming group and look forward to your application.


Design and Fabrication of Chemical and Wettability Gradients Through Degrafting

Professor: Jan Genzer , North Carolina State University

Many chemical and biological processes rely strongly on surface interactions, such as wettability and adhesion. The use of chemical and surface energy gradients allows for a wide range of parameters to be evaluated on a single substrate. This high-throughput approach allows for faster screening and discovery of materials and surface phenomena. Gradients on surfaces can be used to direct dynamic phenomena on surfaces, such as the motion of water droplets and cells. These gradient surfaces are most commonly formed through the use of self-assembled monolayers (SAMs) or polymer brushes. A successful method for this application must result in a gradient, which is easy to prepare, should provide sufficient control over the profile of the gradient, and should allow for specific chemistries to be placed on the. Previously, we have fabricated wettability gradients on hard substrates by a simple, two-step procedure. This process involves the deposition of homogeneous silane SAMs followed by the formation of a surface coverage gradient through the selective removal of silanes from the substrate. Removal of silanes was achieved using a tetrabutyl ammonium fluoride (TBAF) solution to cleave the Si-O bond at the surface. This work has focused on the formation of gradients using chlorosilanes bearing an alkyl chain as the functional group. This upcoming study will focus on the formation of gradients using ethoxy and methoxysilanes bearing different chemical functionalities (amine, anhydride, fluorinated, charged species, etc.) in order to better understand the kinetics of degrafting and achieve better control of the surface properties.


Carbon Nanomaterial Catalysts for Electrochemical Conversion of Carbon Dioxide to Liquid Fuel

Professor: Jeff Glass , Duke University

An emissions-free energy system is necessary to address the crisis of global climate change. Recycling atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon-based fuels would allow more widespread use of renewable energy resources, and using these fuels would result in net-zero emissions. To enable such a system, the Nanomaterials and Thin Films Laboratory is developing improved performance materials for electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide to liquid chemicals. The choice of material is a critical step and will require particular consideration. The undergraduate student will be expected to use a variety of techniques for synthesis of catalyst nanomaterials (plasma-enhanced physical vapor deposition, atomic layer deposition), as well as electrochemical (bulk electrolysis, potentiometry and electrochemical impedance spectroscopy) and physical-chemical (chromatography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy) techniques for product characterization. The student will gain knowledge in fundamental and experimental analytical chemistry and will improve her/his laboratory skills.


Engineering Semi-Synthetic Mechanoresponsive Materials

Professor: Brent Hoffman , Duke University

Key background knowledge needed: Students with biomedical engineering, materials or chemistry backgrounds are preferred. Basic laboratory skills required.

The mechanical forces generated by living cells are emerging as important regulators of physiological and pathophysiological function. However, there are relatively few approaches for studying these forces in the three-dimensional environments typical of biological tissues. Thus, we seek to develop novel tools enabling the visualization and quantification of mechanical forces generated by cells in model tissue comprised of semi-synthetic materials. Specifically, protein-based molecular tension sensors will be incorporated into synthetic poly(ethylene glycol) hydrogels to create a material whose optical properties are dependent on local cellular force generation. The student will focus on the development of this material, acquiring valuable skills in molecular cloning, biomolecular engineering and biomaterial characterization.


Hybrid Perovskite Deposition by RIR-MAPLE

Professor: Adrienne D. Stiff-Roberts , Duke University

Hybrid perovskites are an exciting material system for solar energy conversion due to the rapid achievement of solar cell power conversion efficiencies around 20%. Despite this demonstration of impressive device performance, the material system faces many challenges related to thin film deposition and control of material properties. Emulsion-based resonant-infrared matrix-assisted pulsed laser evaporation (RIR-MAPLE) is a novel deposition technique that is especially suited for hybrid organic-inorganic materials. In this project, materials and device characterization of hybrid perovskite thin films deposited by RIR-MAPLE will be conducted to determine the impact of different growth recipes and material compositions.


Magnetically Actuated Microbots as Tools for Microrheology and Biological Manipulation

Professor:   Orlin D. Velev , North Carolina State University

Anisotropic patchy particles could serve as new types of building units for making self-motile microdevices and microbots. We have introduced new dynamically and reversibly reconfigurable active microstructures assembled in the form of specific sequences from metallo-dielectric cubes.  The magnetization of the metallic facets leads to directional dipole-dipole and field-dipole interactions. Assemblies of specific sequences demonstrate prototypes of new microbot and colloidal origami structures. These dynamically reconfiguring clusters can also be designed to be self-motile in media with non-Newtonian rheology or to serve as microrheometers. The goal of this project is to assemble magnetically actuated microclusters and investigate their motility in non-Newtonian liquids, modeling biological environment. We will use them to characterize the specific properties of liquid crystal media (in collaboration with the group of Prof. N. Abbott, Univ. of Wisconsin) and large biologically relevant vesicles (in collaboration with the group of Dr. R. Dimova, MPI, Germany).


Computer Simulations of Self-Assembly of Biopolymers

Professor:  Yara Yingling , North Carolina State University


Simulations can assist and accelerate the design of hierarchal supramolecular architectures by elucidating structure and dynamics of individual polypeptides, binding energies, kinetics and thermodynamic and by guiding the experimental procedures. We are using atomistic and coarse-grained simulations to model our systems. Atomistic simulations, where all the atoms and interactions in the system are explicitly present, provide insights into the sequence dependent molecular structure and dynamics, relative importance of electrostatics and hydrogen bonding, effect of solvent and temperature. Coarse-grained simulations permit studies of the self-assembly process and formation of higher order assemblies. In this project, simulations will be used to predict and explain the effect of ionic strength, sequence and the chain length on assembly of micelles. Moreover, the temperature-dependent contributions to the stability of the polymer structures will be analyzed and used as a guide for polypeptide sequence engineering.


Creation of Hydrogel Nano-probes to Facilitate AFM Use with Soft Materials

Professor:  Stefan Zauscher, Duke University

Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) has become a ubiquitous tool for surface imaging with nano-scale resolution. Unfortunately, however, the traditional methods of AFM do not support a soft, biological ecosystem very well. The extracellular matrix (ECM) for example responds to exogenous pressure from the stiff, silicon AFM probes with a homeostatic response, influencing readings of forces on the surfaces being studied.  Therefore, this project will create soft hydrogel tips and cantilever beams more suitable to the study of soft materials.

Prior experience in hydrogel synthesis is preferred but not required. Required: strong desire to learn and troubleshoot new techniques, well-organized in maintaining a consistent work schedule, and strong communication skills.

What you will obtain as a result of this project: microfabrication experience, atomic force microscopy theoretical understanding, MATLAB programming experience, hydrogel synthesis experience, how to conduct and communicate research to peers at the graduate student level.


PDF icon MRSEC REU 2017 Referral Instructions377.72 KB