Putting the pieces together

Summer interns are learning research skills while helping to make progress in materials, drug delivery, and energy in MIT labs

Denis Paiste July 22, 2015 MIT News

From wet chemistry to computer simulations, this year’s Materials Processing Center-Center for Materials Science and Engineering Summer Scholars are engaged in MIT research projects targeting stronger materials, more efficient drug delivery, and catalysts for biofuel production.

“I’m really interested in putting the molecular pieces together to make a functional drug delivery mechanism,” says Hope College chemistry major Lisa Savagian, who is working this summer in the lab of Paula T. Hammond, the David H. Koch Professor in Engineering and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. Her project involves synthesizing layer-by-layer films with gold nanorods that release a drug when exposed to near infrared light.

Alexander Constable, a Pennsylvania State University junior majoring in materials science and engineering, is studying aligned-carbon nanotube carbon matrix nanocomposites in associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics Brian L. Wardle‘s lab. Constable will use X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy to characterize chemical bonds. “We are hoping to get a better understanding of the cross-linking behavior and microstructure of carbon nanotubes in pyrolytic carbon,” Constable says. “Specifically, we want to understand these properties as we increase the volume fraction of carbon nanotubes, hopefully yielding a significantly harder and tougher carbon-based composite material for aerospace applications.”

Katharine Greco is working under chemical engineering Assistant Professor Willliam A. Tisdale on hybrid semiconductor nanocrystals. She will be growing quantum dots with a cadmium selenide core, a cadmium sulfide inner shell, and a zinc sulfide outer shell, then characterizing them using X-ray diffraction and transmission electron microscopy. “My goal for the summer is to accurately model the structure of these dots based on the characterization data. This is important because the interactions between the core and shell change the photoluminescence and thermal conductivity properties of the nanocrystals,” says Greco, who just completed her junior year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The long-term goal of the project is develop synthesis techniques to tune the properties of quantum dots so the same nanocrystals can be used for applications such as LEDs and solar cells.

Rowan University chemistry and physics major Olivia Fiebig is working in assistant professor of chemical engineering Bradley Olsen‘s lab on how the microscopic structure of elastin-like polypeptide sequences in block copolymers affects the macroscopic properties of thermoresponsive protein hydrogels. Her project will determine the effect of amino acid substitution on macroscopic behavior. She is learning how to grow E. coli cells and extract proteins to make the hydrogels. “It’s definitely new for me and a good experience,” Fiebig says.

Stephen Gibbs is working in chemical engineering Professor Michael S. Strano‘s lab to understand chemically driven, nanotube-guided thermopower waves. Gibbs, a University of Florida chemical engineering major, explains that applying fuel along a carbon nanotube fiber and initiating a reaction on one end, creates a reaction front, or “thermopower wave,” which results in a voltage along the fiber that exceeds values predicted by thermoelectric models. This technology might provide strong pulse energy signals from nanoscale devices.

Nathan Zhao, who studies physics and mathematics at Columbia University, is investigating inherent stability of nanocrystalline composites in associate professor of materials science and engineering Michael J. Demkowicz’s group. Copper-niobium multilayered metals are of particular interest because of their high strength and resistance to radiation damage. Zhao will simulate properties at metal-to-metal interfaces using phase-field and Cahn-Hilliard equation methods.

Rutgers University materials science and engineering major Zhenni Lin is working in David H. Koch Professor of Engineering Michael J. Cima’s lab on synthesizing and characterizing solid-state magnetic resonance imaging contrast agents. These biocompatible solid-state contrast agents can be used to measure pH internally. Lin’s work will include characterizing the contrast agent through time-domain nuclear magnetic resonance, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy.

Other Summer Scholars and their lab affiliations are: Bartholomeus Machielse in the lab of Juejun (JJ) Hu in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Jonah Sengupta in the lab of Karl Berggren in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Jahzeel Rosado Vega in the lab of Markus J. Buehler in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Mariely Caraballo Santa in the lab of Ronald G. Ballinger in the departments of Nuclear Science and Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering; and Lena Barrett in the lab of Yuriy Román in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

The 12 college interns were selected from among 156 applicants for the program run jointly by the Materials Processing Center and the Center for Materials Science and Engineering. Students chose their projects from among 21 faculty presentations after three days of presentations and lab tours June 8-10. The program runs through Aug. 8.

Machielse, a University of Pennsylvania physics student, will be contributing to Hu’s mid-infrared spectrometer work. Sengupta, who studies electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, will work with postdoc Amir Tavakkoli on using mechanical vibration to control self-assembly of block copolymer thin films. This work will require both thermal annealing and solvent annealing while at the same time using controlled vibration.

A mechanical engineering major at the University of Turabo, Rosado Vega will study wave propagation in spider webs using simulation of proteins. Caraballo Santa, who also studies mechanical engineering at the University of Turabo, will learn how to model naval submarine shafts. Her work is part of a project to double the time between inspections for submarine rotor shafts. Barrett, a Lehigh University chemical engineering and business information systems double major, will be running one-pot batch reactions with beta-structured Lewis acid catalysts and altering various parameters to determine optimal reaction conditions for the production of neopentyl glycol, an industrially important intermediate. “Ultimately, we would like to uncover a more economical method to run this reaction,” Barrett says.

The Materials Processing Center and the Center for Materials Science and Engineering sponsor the nine-week summer research internships through the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates, which is supported under the NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers program (grant number DMR-1419807). Summer Scholars will present their research results at a poster session on Wednesday, Aug. 5.

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