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. Oustanding undergraduates will paraticipate in a nine-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

We will begin accepting applications January 1, 2016. 

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 .

After you apply you will need to:

Recommendations should be:

Stipend Includes

  • 11 weeks housing on Duke's or North Carolina State University's campus
  • $5000 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 22-23
  • Orientation: May 24
  • Duke ends: August 5
  • NC State ends: August 4

Research Opportunities for 2016


Computational and Theoretical Study of Colloidal Assembly

Professor: Patrick Charbonneau , Duke University


Understanding the relationship between material properties and microstructure underlies the general quest for ever greater control and diversity over materials. This challenge is particularly acute for “bottom up” self-assembly, which achieves a rich set of material properties by forming complex structures from simple components. Colloidal building blocks are interesting targets for self-assembly because they are of the appropriate size (10nm – 10um) for building functionality at visible wavelengths, and because their interactions can be finely tailored. Yet identifying the relevant way to translating those interactions into a control over assembly remains challenging. The Charbonneau group uses and develops sophisticated computational and theoretical tools to guide that process. This project will allow you to gain experience with computational methods, such as molecular dynamics and Monte Carlo simulations, for materials study and to compare the results with experimental work conducted within Triangle MRSEC.


Self-Cleaning Materials

Professor: Chuan-Hua Chen , Duke University


The objective of this project is to create self-cleaning materials that function regardless of external forces, including gravity. The project takes advantage of the jumping-drop discovery at Duke, where water condensate self-propels to jump away from superhydrophobic surfaces, carrying away contaminants in the condensate drop. The background is discussed in this article in Scientific American . This project is primarily experimental but will also involve the development of scaling laws. The student will have the opportunity to use high-speed photography to capature the self-cleaning process at up to a million frames per second, and use mechanistic understanding to guide the engineering of practical self-cleaning materials.



Self-Removing Droplets

Professor: Chuan-Hua Chen , Duke University


The objective of this project is to identify biological interfaces (such as hairy insect wings) on which condensate droplets self-remove themselves upon coalescence on thin fibers, and apply the bioinspiration toward the development fibrous coalescers useful for separation of aerosols and emulsions. The background is discussed in this article in Physics . This project is primarily experimental, and involves both fundamental studies of biological systems and practical development of engineering systems. The student will have the opportunity to use high-speed photography to investigate the self-removing process on biological interfaces, and use the mechanistic understanding to guide the engineering of industrially relevant drop coalescers.


Mechano-responsive Elastomers and Gels

Professor: Stephen Craig , Duke University


Soft polymeric materials, including gels and elastomers, are increasingly being used as the basis for soft, flexible devices. Traditionally these materials are present as structural elements, providing flexibility, toughness, comfort, durability, and the ability to function within soft and often delicate environments, particularly in biological settings. The function of these devices, on the other hand, is typically provided by non-polymeric hard components. This MRSEC REU project will tackle key questions of fundamental materials chemistry, physics, and engineering to create elastomers and gels that are not only structural components of soft devices, but are simultaneously active device components. The research activities center around the fabrication and testing of new stress-responsive elastomers and gels, especially their mechanical properties. Anticipated activities include polymer synthesis, fabrication of parts, and mechanical property and image analysis. Student participants should have completed two semesters of organic chemistry and at least one semester of physical chemistry or a basic materials science/mechanical engineering course.


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].

In this research project, you will perform similar experiments which investigate the material properties that emerge when a granular material is instead driven by internal agitation, in the form form of a small population of active particles. To achieve this goal, you will construct macroscopic particles with a propelling mechanism, and place them within a larger granular system to observe the dynamics.


Soft and Shape Reconfigurable Metals on Slippery Surfaces

Professor:  Michael Dickey , North Carolina State University


This project will explore various methods to move non-toxic liquid metals through microfluidic systems. Moving or actuating liquid metals is one possible approach to creating electronic components with tunable properties (i.e., smart antennas). Such devices can be made with low-modulus materials, such as elastomers and gels to create wearable electronics (i.e., smart watches, health monitoring bandages) that are soft and stretchable. As a result, such devices may provide more accurate measurement of human activities (i.e., heart rate), and are more comfortable to wear. Through this project, the student will learn a variety of micro/nano-fabrication techniques used in the microelectronics industry, perform experiments relating to surface chemistry of liquid metals, and combine aspects of material science and electrical engineering to demonstrate a novel electronic device.


Soft and Stretchable Electronics

Professor:  Michael Dickey , North Carolina State University


Liquid metals at or near room temperature are promising due to their soft and fluidic nature which allows them to flow readily in response to stress. Various applications of liquid metal include microfluidic devices, stretchable electronics and soft robots. Unlike mercury, which is commonly-known liquid metal with significant toxicity, eutectic gallium indium (EGaIn, 75% Ga, 25% In by weight, m.p.=15.5°C)has many desirable properties such as low toxicity, vapor pressure and viscosity. Here, we propose a way to synthesize and pattern EGaIn nanoparticles for fabrication of soft electronics. Compared to other nanomaterials, the soft nature liquid metal nanoparticles could enable new properties, such as deformable devices and printable inks that are sinterable at room temperature. This project will be a hands-on lab experience and will give students the opportunity to learn new laboratory techniques in a friendly and exciting lab environment.


Assembly of Elastin-Like Polypeptides on Solid and Elastomeric Substrates

Professor: Jan Genzer , North Carolina State University


In this research project, you will perform similar experiments which investigate the material properties that emerge when a granular material is instead driven by internal agitation, in the form form of a small population of active particles. To achieve this goal, you will construct macroscopic particles with a propelling mechanism, and place them within a larger granular system to observe the dynamics.

Elastin-like polypeptides (ELPs) with the amino acid repeat sequence of Valine-Proline-Glycine-Xaa-Glycine, where Xaa is a guest residue and can be any amino acid aside from proline, are biopolymers inspired by human elastin. Their recombinant synthesis allows the sequence and size of ELPs to be exactly defined, leading to control over their structure and function. Most ELPs exhibit a phase transition at a lower critical solution temperature (LCST) and are highly biocompatible, making them useful materials for stimuli-responsive applications in biological environments such as filtration and drug delivery. The actual value of the LCST depends on the guest residue in the repeat units and their sequence in the polypeptides. While the properties of ELPs in aqueous solutions have been studied, little is known about their behavior on surfaces and interfaces. Comprehending the interplay among the ordering of chemical sequences in ELPs (with the same overall chemical composition) and their grafting density on substrates will provide important new insight into both assembly of soft materials and stimuli-responsive surfaces as well as their thermodynamic behavior (i.e., coil-to-globule transition, micelle formation, etc.). This study will be the first to focus on the use of perfectly monodisperse (i.e., molecular weight, chemical composition, and co-monomer sequence) polymeric chains to observe the effect of confinement on self-assembly and response to stimulus. We will study the physisorption and assembly of ELPs on solid surfaces featuring gradients in chemical composition. In addition, we will graft chemically the ELPs to solid surfaces and to surfaces of silicone elastomers. In both sets of experiments, we aim to obtain insight into the behavior of these ELPs confined to interfaces.


Transparent Energy Storage

Professor: Jeff Glass , Duke University


The Glass group focuses on the fabrication, characterization and understanding of thin films and nanomaterials. This project aims to combine two electrodes utilizing nanomaterials and a solid electrolyte to form a transparent asymmetric supercapacitor. The materials to be studied will be nickel hydroxide coated copper as the positive electrode and MXene as the negative electrode. While a great deal of study has been done on both the positive and negative electrodes, no such work has been done to combine these materials into an efficient charge storage device. A student involved in this project would gain experience in the fabrication of electrodes, setup of electrochemical experiments and various characterization equipment such as an electrochemical potentia stat, scanning electron microscope, raman spectroscopy, ultra-violet visible spectrometer and likely others as we seek to understand our electrode materials and overall device performance. Moreover, this project will allow students to gain experience with energy storage materials and their characterization.


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.


Biosynthesis of Advanced Lipidated Peptide-Based Biomaterials

Professor: Michael Lynch , Duke University


Metabolic pathway engineering is a powerful tool to optimize the production of a specific product by utilizing the cell’s pre-existent machinery. Moreover, more complex products can be achieved by introducing non-native enzymes or conferring them with new functionalities using directed mutagenesis. The long term goal of this project is to utilize both metabolic engineering and protein engineering to synthetize nanoparticles made of lipidated rationally designed peptides. As a goal for the summer, the REU student will work towards attaching 2/3 lipids on a single peptide. The student will learn basic laboratory and molecular biology techniques, mutagenesis approaches, high-throughput enzyme mutant library screening and microbial fermentation.


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.


Design and Testing of Prototypes of Self-Propelling Microbots

Professor: Orlin D. Velev , North Carolina State University

Anisotropic patchy particles and particles with embedded microcircuits are 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. These microcube clusters can be reversibly actuated, oriented and spatially transported via the magnetic field parameters. The goal of this project is to establish further structures and principles of device prototypes that can be manipulated to demonstrate basic operations in soft micro-robotics, including grabbing, moving and release of microscale particles and live cells. This study will involve the assembly of magnetically actuated microclusters and characterization of their motility in non-Newtonian liquid media, modeling biological environment. We will also seek to combine the magnetically actuated assemblies with electrically powered and propelled microcircuit “motors” (in collaboration with the groups of Profs. Nan, Duke and Klotsa, UNC).


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.


Photoresponsive Self-Assembly of Azobenzene-Functionalized DNA

Professor:  Stefan Zauscher , Duke University


Stimulus-responsive micellar nanostructures have increasingly become attractive for controlled drug delivery systems. The objective of this project is to create photoresponsive micellar nanostructures with DNA backbone that can be disrupted and reformed by UV and visible illumination. Azobenzene is a ubiquitous chromophore that can reversibly convert between cis- and trans- state by irradiation with UV light or visible light. In this project, we first synthesize the ssDNA backbone by bioinspired enzymatic DNA polymerization, and then post conjugate multiple photoresponsive azobenzene units onto the DNA constructs. The modified ssDNA constructs will allow for azobenzene isomerization which provides a means to change the hydrophobicity of the ssDNA block copolymers and thus their self-assembly behavior. This project involves the synthesis of functionalized ssDNA and NHS coupling chemistry. Students will have the opportunity to learn basic molecular biology techniques, for example gel electrophoresis, as well as characterization techniques, including dynamic light scattering and atomic force microscopy.


Brush Copolymers for Anti-clotting Coatings

Professor:  Stefan Zauscher , Duke University


Anti-clotting clotting coatings are important for a wide variety of biomedical applications, including hemodialysis membranes and vascular grafts. The goal of this project is to synthesize and characterize brush copolymers for anti-clotting coatings. The project will have three facets: 1) chemical synthesis, 2) structure characterization, and 3) functional characterization of the coatings. The copolymers will be made by using established coupling chemistries to couple carbohydrates to a polypeptide backbone. Functional characterization will involve experiments to measure coating thickness and to test if the coatings prevent clotting. Although the subject matter is biomedical in nature, the techniques employed throughout the project will be predominantly chemistry and materials-oriented.

Key background knowledge needed: Chemistry majors preferred. Organic chemistry (one full course). Synthetic organic chemistry lab experience would be great (either from past research or classes).


Synthesis of a CdS-Conductive Polymer Compound and Incorporation into an Optoelectronic Device

Professor:  Stefan Zauscher , Duke University


CdS quantum dots can be precipitated by engineered bacteria. Considering that there is a residual organic matrix into which the QDs are embedded, there is a potential to integrate the organic matrix with conducting polymers, thus improving the optoelectronic performance of the CdS and allowing for the assembly of simple heterojunctions. We recently showed the potential photoactivity of a CdS-PEDOT:PSS compound, deposited onto an ITO substrate. In this REU project we are seeking to further develop the CdS-PEDOT:PSS device, and compare its performance with that of bare CdS devices. To this end we will explore the oxidative polymerization of PEDOT/CdS nanocomposites. Ultimately we are looking for a device design that, in combination with conductive polymers, will benefit from the bacterially precipitated CdS QDs.


Encapsulation of Small Molecules into Silicone Particles for Transdermal Delivery

Professor:  Stefan Zauscher , Duke University


This project aims to synthesize silicone micro and nanoparticles using a simple nucleation and growth technique developed in the Triangle MRSEC to encapsulate small molecules for controlled release. It has been recently discovered that these particles can efficiently encapsulate certain small molecules, which could be useful in drug delivery, cosmetics, and the formulation of new commercial products such as high performance paints and inks. The first major aim of this project is to test the uptake of various compounds and small molecules into the particles and measure their uptake using established techniques (e.g., FT-IR). The second major aim of this project is to explore various methods of excitation to release the encapsulated payloads and measure the efficiency of release. The execution of these tasks will provide valuable interdisciplinary research experience and may lead to the development and application of these particles into medical as well as chemical and industrial practice (in collaboration with Prof. Gabriel P. Lopez, University of New Mexico).