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Research Areas

The research projects of the faculty mentors have been classified as either Biochemistry, Chemistry or Material Science. A summary of the research areas can be found below. Clicking on the faculty name will take you to a more in-indepth description of their research area and potential ten week REU students projects.

Summary of faculty research areas

Rachell Booth Structure-function relationships in proteins
Steven Whitten Protein structure and energetics
David Easter Experimental and theoretical study of neutral molecular clusters
Debra Feakes Design and synthesis of polyhedral borane anion derivatives
Todd Hudnall Activation of small molecules with main group elements
Chang Ji Electrochemical studies of metal Schiff base catalysts and functionalized
gold nanoparticles/electrodes
Xiaopeng Li Design, synthesis and characterization of supramolecules
Ben Martin Structure-property relationships in alkali metal intercalated transition metal
chalcogenide structures
Material science/Polymers  
Gary Beall Nanoparticle synthesis, surface modification, and characterization
Tania Betancourt Development of responsive polymeric biomaterials for disease
detection and treatment
Bill Brittain Surface modification of surfaces with surface-immobilized polymers
Chad Booth Synthesis and characterization of high performance material
Jennifer Irvin Synthesis and characterization of electroactive polymers



rachell e. boothDr. Rachell E. Booth (Biochemistry)- Research in the Booth lab is directed at understanding structure-function relationships in proteins. Our model system for these studies utilizes the expression of the epithelial sodium channel (ENaC) in a yeast host system, in which ENaC expression induces a salt sensitive phenotype of growth inhibition. In humans, ENaC is rate limiting for sodium reabsorption in the kidneys and essential for maintaining electrolyte balance. Gain- and loss-in-function genetic mutations lead to hyper- and hypotension, respectively.

An REU student in the Booth lab will gain experience in a diverse set of traditional biochemistry laboratory techniques as well as new methods including bioinformatics. Initially, traditional molecular biology techniques (i.e. PCR, plasmid isolation, etc.) will be used to generate random mutations in targeted regions of ENaC, which will be screened for salt sensitivity in yeast. Yeast cells expressing mutant ENaCs that result in a reverse of the salt sensitive phenotype will be subjected to further analysis including isolation of the mutant ENaC, bioinformatic analysis of the mutant’s sequence to identify the critical residue(s)/region, and advanced characterization of the mutant ENaC’s properties. Students with some organic laboratory experience will be most successful in these studies.

whittenDr. Steven Whitten (Biochemistry)- Research in the Whitten lab investigates how binding interactions modulate protein structure and energetics. Determining how binding energy propagates in protein is important for understanding biological signaling and communication mechanisms, as well as functional allostery. In these pursuits, I have two model systems: 1) a ligand-induced protein misfolding model, which investigates the amyloid structural conversion observed in the Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and prion diseases, and 2) an allostery model, using the tumor suppressor protein p53, which explores the role of structural disorder in molecular communication.

Students in the Whitten group will use multiple biophysical and thermodynamic methods to dissect the relationships between protein structure, stability, binding recognition and affinity. In these efforts, students would gain experience in modern research techniques such as: liquid chromatography (sample purification), various recombinant technologies (gene mutagenesis and bacterial expression), centrifugation (sample separation), electrophoresis (gel shift assays to monitor binding and/or purity), and spectroscopy (circular dichroism, fluorescence, UV/Vis absorbance - to monitor molecular structure, stability, and bound state).


easterDr. David Easter (Physical chemistry)- Research in the Easter Research Group is centered primarily on the experimental and theoretical study of neutral molecular clusters. Experiments involve a laser in combination with a molecular-beam high-vacuum system. Theoretical work implements commercial software in addition to Monte Carlo simulation software that was written in our lab. The outcomes of this work are of fundamental scientific importance: they focus on fundamental interactions between molecules, and attempt to understand how such interactions affect basic properties such as structure, isomerization, and electron delocalization.

An REU student would have the opportunity (1) to participate in an experimental project in which the spectra of size-resolved molecular clusters are collected by use of a laser/molecular-beam system; and/or (2) to implement theoretical calculations that explore and help to interpret existing experimental data. The REU student should have completed a two-semester calculus-based physical chemistry sequence.

feakesDr. Debra Feakes (Inorganic chemistry) – Research in the Feakes group centers around the design and synthesis of polyhedral borane anion derivatives for application in boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT), a binary cancer therapy proposed for the treatment of a particularly lethal brain tumor, glioblastoma multiforme, and metastatic melanoma.  In addition to the preparation of the compounds, the students will also be investigating the mechanisms of these reactions in order to predict the factors which control the structure of the resulting products.

Students working in the Feakes laboratory learn a variety of air-sensitive synthetic techniques as well as the isolation (recrystallization, chromatography, and the like) and characterization techniques (1H, 13C, and 11B NMR and IR) necessary to verify the identity, purity, and structure of the resulting polyhedral borane anions.  A student that has completed the first semester of general chemistry can be trained for this project in the Feakes laboratory.

hudnallDr. Todd W. Hudnall (Main group organometallic chemistry)-Research in the Hudnall Group is centered on utilizing main group elements to effect the activation of small molecules of industrial and biological importance (H2, NH3, CO, HCN or HF). The goal of this work is the discovery of new methodologies and materials for applications in catalysis and renewable energy. Two primary areas of research to achieve this goal include: i. the synthesis, characterization and reactivity studies of discrete main group complexes, and ii. the development of new methodologies to prepare novel main group element-containing polymers for hydrogen activation/storage.

An REU student will have the opportunity to develop a broad range of useful capabilities ranging from the manipulation of air-sensitive materials (i.e. Schlenk and glove box techniques) to polymer synthesis and characterization. Additionally, students will learn and actively utilize a large number of characterization techniques including multinuclear NMR spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction analysis, cyclic voltammetry and DFT/molecular modeling. Students of all levels are encouraged to apply.

chang jiDr. Chang Ji (Analytical chemistry) – Research in the Ji Group is focused on the study of various types of electrochemical catalyses and the electrochemical properties of functionalized gold nanoparticles/electrodes. These projects are helpful for the effective degradation of environmentally harmful organic halides, for the design of new synthetic routes by electrochemical means, and for the development of efficient electrochemical sensors.

The students would have the opportunities to learn various techniques in analytical chemistry, electrochemistry, and organic synthesis. They could also develop the skills in purification, identification, and quantitation of chemical products by using different instruments. The students are required to explain the reaction mechanisms to improve their capabilities in critical thinking. Students at all levels can carry out the research after brief training. 

xiaopeng liDr. Xiaopeng Li (Analytical Chemistry and Materials Science) - Supramolecular chemistry has evolved as an international focal point for the construction of novel, high‐performance materials while maintaining self‐healing abilities, and stimulus‐responsive behavior. These supramolecular architectures are held together by noncovalent interactions, e.g., metal-ligand coordination, hydrogen bonding, and π-π stacking. One of our major interests is design, synthesis and characterization of giant metal coordination supramolecules, which generally have molecular weight larger than 10,000 Da. These novel structures may possess excellent sensing, magnetic, optical, and catalytic properties in new materials development. Such weakly bound and highly dynamic features of supramolecular chemistry need specialized characterization methods; whereas, the rapid expansion of knowledge and capabilities in supramolecular chemistry has not yet been paralleled by an expansion in characterization research.

In addition to traditional characterization, such as NMR and IR, students in the Li laboratory learn multi-dimensional mass spectrometry techniques for supramolecules characterization, including matrix-assisted laser desorption/ ionization mass spectrometry (MALDI-MS), electrospray mass spectrometry (ESI-MS) and ion mobility mass spectrometry (IM-MS). A student that has completed the first semester of general chemistry can be trained for this project in the Li laboratory.

martinDr. Ben Martin (Inorganic chemistry)-– Research in the Martin laboratory explores structure-property relationships in alkali metal intercalated transition metal chalcogenide structures (for example, LiNaMnS2).  These compounds are of interest due to their potential use as ion storage materials, catalysts, and solid state electrolytes.  However, due to the instability of many of these compounds to ambient conditions, the chemistry of these compounds remains relatively unexplored.  Careful control of reaction conditions in vacuum sealed tubes followed by subsequent reaction and analysis under inert conditions allows for the discovery of systematic trends and materials properties.

Undergraduate research students will gain valuable experience in air-free manipulations (using vacuum and Schlenk methods), solid state synthesis techniques, electrochemical methods, and X-ray diffraction analysis (powder and single crystal) as they develop the chemistry of an unexplored class of compounds.  Since most of these concepts are not introduced in the typical undergraduate curriculum, this project will significantly broaden a student’s knowledge base.  Only a strong background in general chemistry is required for success in this project.

Material Science

BeallDr. Gary Beall (Material science) Research interests of Dr. Gary Beall include fundamental studies of; the synthesis, modification and characterization of nonspherical nanoparticles with particular emphasis on two dimensional structures, the self-assembly of molecules at surfaces especially in the nanophase, the interactions of nanoparticles with the environment and biomolecules, molecular modeling of nanophase systems, studies of gas transport theory in polymer nanocomposites, and synthesis and structure/property relationships for polymers and nanocomposites. Particular interest in recent research is on two dimensional nanoparticles.

The students in Dr. Beall’s group under the proposed program will choose a research topic in the areas of nanoparticle synthesis, surface modification, and characterization. The main nanoparticles of interest include smectite clays, hydrotalcites, and graphenes. These nanoparticles are being utilized to produce a whole new generation of composites and materials with performance characteristics far exceeding existing materials. The students will need to have had physical chemistry. The student in consultation with Dr. Beall will choose a project of interest to them. The students will have opportunity to learn hydrothermal synthesis techniques, x-ray diffraction, atomic force microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, and Raman. The projects will be designed to end with the drafting of an open literature paper to be sent to a peer reviewed journal for publication. The technical writing experience is a critical component of the internship. 

betancourtDr. Tania Betancourt (Material Science)- The research in Dr. Betancourt’s laboratory focuses on capturing the promise of nanomaterials for the development of new strategies for the detection and treatment of diseases. Specifically, her group develops functional nanostructures that can act as highly specific contrast agents for bioimaging, in vitro and in vivo biosensors, targeted and intracellular drug delivery systems, and externally controlled delivery systems. These responsive nanomaterials incorporate functional nucleic acid linkers, enzymatically cleavable linkers, polyelectrolytes, and amphiphilic copolymers to mediate physico-chemical changes in the polymeric networks upon interaction with target molecules, leading to the desired material response.

Current projects in Dr. Betancourt’s laboratory include the development of: (1) aptamer-based responsive nanostructures that can be activated by disease-specific molecules, and on the study of the applications of these functional materials in targeted drug delivery, bioimaging, and biomolecular sensing; (2) highly specific nanoparticle-based near infrared contrast agents for optical detection and monitoring of cancer; (3) amyloid-based hybrid materials that can self-assemble into highly organized structures; (4) self-assembled nanostructures based on amphiphilic copolymers. Students performing research in Dr. Betancourt’s laboratory will be involved in the synthesis and characterization of copolymers and nanoparticles, in vitro confirmation of stimuli-responsive behavior, and the evaluation of the particle functionality on cultured human cells.

brittainDr. William Brittain (Organic polymer chemistry)-Research in Brittain Research Group is centered hybrid inorganic-organic assemblies.   Prototypical systems under current study are silica nanoparticles that are surface-modified with polymers and photochromic molecules.  Photochromic molecules, such as spiropyrans, are used as molecular sensors of microenvironments and as reversible ‘smart’ materials whose properties can be altered by light activation.  

REU students in the Brittain Research Group will learn the following experimental skills:
1.) organic synthesis and small molecular characterization, 2.) surface analytical techniques,3) UV-Vis spectroscopy, 4) physical organic chemistry, and 5) polymer synthesis and characterization 
Dr. Brittain will personally mentor and supervise REU students to ensure the best possible
learning environment.

cboothDr. Chad Booth (Polymer chemistry)- Research in the Booth lab deals with the synthesis and thermo/mechanical characterization of high performance polymers. The potential applications of these materials range from transparent ballistic protection to gas purification membranes. Other projects deal with the development of new rigid aliphatic monomer units for the development of novel polymeric materials.

Students (both undergraduate and master’s) work on independent projects that are tailored to both their specific interest as well as current projects of interest within the group. Undergraduate students are typically considered after they have completed their sophomore year (organic chemistry). All students get hands on experience with monomer and polymer synthesis and purification as well as the thermal/mechanical characterization of both small molecules and polymers. These characterization techniques include FT-IR, NMR, GPC, TGA, DSC, DMA, and Gardner Dart Impact.

irvinDr. Jennifer Irvin (Polymer chemistry)- Research in the Irvin Research Group is centered on electroactive polymers, that is, plastics that change their properties (color, shape, conductivity, etc.) in the presence of an electric field. These polymers are useful for alternative energy, sensors, drug delivery, static dissipation, corrosion inhibition, actuators, and electrochromics, among other things.

Students have the opportunity to develop a broad range of useful capabilities including synthesis of novel organic molecules, polymerization, standard small molecule and polymer characterization techniques, electrochemical characterization, and device fabrication and testing. While some knowledge of organic chemistry is helpful in this research, it is not required.