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Materials Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Each of Drexel's Department of Materials Science and Engineering's tenured and tenure-track faculty maintains an active research group with expertise in various areas of cutting-edge materials science and engineering research. Undergraduates, including freshmen, are encouraged to work in a lab to gain hands-on research experience. Students can use a work-study position to work in a lab. Undergraduate students frequently go on to apply to graduate fellowships, such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the Department of Defense NDSEG, the Department of Defense SMART, and Fulbright to continue research at the graduate level.

Freshmen have the opportunity to apply to Drexel's STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) program, which allows first-year students to participate in faculty-mentored research, scholarship, or creative work during the summer after their freshman year. High-achieving students from across the university are invited to participate in the STAR Scholars Program during the admissions process; current students who were not invited to participate have the opportunity to apply for the program during the Winter Term of their freshman year. STAR Scholars earn a $3,500 stipend over the course of the summer and are provided with on-campus housing.

Undergraduate students can use the Discover portal to create a profile and find and apply for research opportunities that align with their interests.

Sample undergraduate research projects:

Electrospinning biocomposite keratin-based nanofibers for heavy-metal filtration

Name of Undergraduate Researcher: Angela Le

Mentors: Dr. Caroline L. Schauer, PhD student Reva Street

Abstract: Keratin, a cysteine-rich protein primarily extracted from human hair and wool, has been proven to have heavy-metal absorption properties due to the potential for disulfide bonds from the cysteine. Electrospinning is a facile technique to produce nanofibers for applications such as tissue scaffolding, wound healing, drug release, energy storage and filtration. While keratin has been electrospun previously with synthetic polymers such as poly(ethylene oxide) and poly(vinyl alcohol), keratin cannot be successfully electrospun on its own. Here we investigate using natural polymers (NPs) gelatin, chitosan, alginate and pectin in NP-keratin blends in varying weight ratios to yield biocomposite nanofibers. The results show that NPs that are basic on the pH scale, gelatin and chitosan, aided in fiber creation and showed good uniformity in fiber morphology. Trends show that as the concentration of keratin is increased, the average diameter of the nanofibers increased from approximately 140 nm to 180 nm. However, the acidic NP-keratin solutions did not form fibers, possibly due to the inability of alginate and pectin to spin independently. This knowledge provides potential to reuse natural byproducts of commercial industries (such as the hair, wool and feathers from which keratin is derived, crustacean shells from which chitosan is derived and orange peels from which pectin is derived) as environmentally-friendly and cost-effective materials used in water filtration and purification.

Pseudocapacitive Behavior of Bilayered NaxV2O5 in Aqueous Cells

Name of Undergraduate Researcher: Emma McKee

Mentors: Dr. Ekaterina Pomerantseva, PhD student Mallory Clites

Abstract: Owed to their high energy density, lithium-ion batteries have become a prevalent form of energy in the rechargeable battery industry. Since lithium is a material of limited abundance, beyond-Li energy storage devices are being explored. A hybrid of supercapacitors and batteries, pseudocapacitors are able to achieve high power and high energy density. Bilayered vanadium oxide is of interest in aqueous-based pseudocapacitors because of its achievable capacities in other beyond-Li energy storage systems.1,2 Vanadium oxide typically dissolves partially in water, causing a reduction of electrochemical performance over time. The goal of this work was to stabilize the active material to prevent it from dissolving. Post-synthesis treatment methods and the effects of pH were investigated. Cells were run through 50 cycles and evaluated by their highest capacitance on the 2nd cycle, as well as percent capacitance retained after 50 cycles. Highest initial capacitances, above 160 F/g, were achieved for cells that were aged and annealed, while highest retentions were achieved for aged films. Cells performed better in more acidic electrolytes, which was in agreement with previous studies.3 This work demonstrates the feasibility of post-synthesis treatment and electrolyte tailoring to increase stabilities of aqueous pseudocapacitor electrodes.

1 Clites et al. J. of Mat. Chem. A 2016, 4 (20).

2 Tepavcevic et al. ACS Nano 2015, 9 (8).

3 Lee et al. J. of Solid State Chem. 1999, 148.

Recycling energy from heat

Name of Undergraduate Researcher: Cosmin Popescu

Mentors: Dr. Yury Gogotsi, PhD student Muhammad Boota

Abstract: Development of new methods of energy generation for meeting the growing energy needs of our society is an active area of research in the energy conversion and storage field. A relatively unexplored method of energy generation is the conversion of low-grade heat into electricity. Thermoelectric devices based on the Seebeck effect (the generation of electrical current when a temperature gradient is applied to dissimilar semiconductor materials) have been explored for this application, but thermoelectrics are expensive and time consuming to manufacture. Carbon materials are abundant and easily processed to have properties tailored to specific applications. Using carbon for such energy conversion devices could make them more suitable for use in electricity generation. Carbon can be casted into films that can generate current via the electrokinetic (EK) effect. The EK effect is created by the flow of polar solvent molecules through a material which causes electrical charges in the material to move with the solvent. This flow of charge induces a streaming potential which can be used for useful work. The EK effect is driven by the transport and evaporation of the solvent from the material; this effect can be enhanced using a temperature gradient, similar to the Seebeck effect. This project aims to optimize porous carbon films to make them suitable for energy generation. Various compositions for the films were tested in order to achieve an optimized device.

Mechanisms of cell recruitment in scaffolds using in vitro models

Name of Undergraduate Researcher: Kevin Wu

Mentors: Dr. Hao Cheng, Zhiyuan Fan

Abstract: Recently, porous biomaterial scaffolds have been used in situ to recruit and modulate immune cells for cancer therapy. However, the factors affecting cell recruitment and differentiation remain to be elucidated. This study aims to understand the mechanism of differing cell recruitment and differentiation within different scaffolds using in vitro models. In order to determine whether monocytes are recruited into scaffolds and then differentiated into dendritic cells, and how biomaterials affect these processes, both methacrylate-alginate (MA-Alg) scaffolds and methacrylate-hyaluronic acid (MA-HA) scaffolds were prepared and loaded with human monocytes to observe the generation of dendritic cells and any possible differences induced by scaffold materials. The scaffolds were fabricated via cryogelation in order to form a macroporous structure. Consequently, pore sizes of around 100 μm were observed using confocal microscopy. In the MA-Alg scaffolds, 45.1% of monocyte cells differentiated into dendritic cells, whereas the MA-HA scaffolds had a differentiation rate of 31.4%. These rates indicate the potential for monocyte differentiation within scaffolds. By determining crucial properties of scaffolds that allow for higher degrees of immune cell recruitment and differentiation, observations from this study will help to contribute to the anti-tumor efficacy of scaffolds in the future.