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Research Projects

Kat Barger, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy

Project: Galaxy evolution through the gas flowing within & around them

The formation of new stars in galaxies requires the availability of gas. As galaxies rapidly consume their gas supplies in stellar projection, they rely on external gas supplies to produce stars on long time scales. Possible projects include an investigation of the gas enclosed within galaxies to determine how conducive that environment is for stellar production, tracking the gas flowing in and out of galaxies to explore how galaxies obtain new gas supplies or loose their gas to their surroundings, and examining how the environment of galaxies affects their evolution by studying galaxies that are interacting with other galaxies. These projects could utilize data obtained from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS/MaNGA), the Wisconsin H-alpha Mapper (WHAM) telescope, the McDonald Observatory, and others. The student will learn how to analyze these observations through the use of computer programing and astronomical software. Students will learn how to determine the properties of the gas in or around galaxies (temperature, ionization state, etc.,) to decipher the processes that are influencing that gas and how that gas is ultimately tied to the evolution of galaxies.

For more information:

Jeffrey Coffer, Professor of Chemistry

Project: New Porous Cardiovascular Materials.
Cardiovascular disease remains a serious health threat to the American population. One common treatment modality involves the use of synthetic stents to remove blockages in affected vessels. However, the failure of such devices in vivo remains a concern. One strategy proposed by our group centers on the design and fabrication of so-called ‘smart stents’ that involve a combination of metals and the well-established backbone of the electronic industry, semiconducting silicon (Si). The goals of this specific project are two fold: (1) fabricate and characterize new combinations of biocompatible metals with silicon; followed by (2) an analysis of the biocompatibility and mechanical properties of these new materials via a cellular body fluid. The first part of this project, fabrication, has two components. The first involves the preparation of a systematic series of composites of varying iron to silicon ratios, incorporating different structural types of silicon (mesoporous, nanosphere, nanowire, microcrystal) into the composite. Characterization of these composites will be done using a combination of optical and scanning electron microscopy, and elemental energy dispersive x-ray analysis. After an optimal formulation has been established, we will then attempt to construct more authentic tube-like geometries to confirm the size/shape independence of such structures. In the second phase, the chemical stability in common simulated plasma solutions will be evaluated, along with an assessment of their mechanical properties (hardness and elasticity).
For more information:

Hana Dobrovolny, Assistant Professor of Biophysics

Project: Modeling of infectious diseases

Our research group develops, analyzes and performs computer simulations of mathematical models that describe the spread of virus between cells. These models are used to help us understand how different biological processes affect the time course of the infection. They can also be used to simulate drug treatment in order to test different treatment regimens. Over the course of the project, the student will learn how to use math to describe biological processes, will learn computer programming and how to use it to run simulations of a model, and will learn how to fit mathematical models to experimental data.


For more information:

Peter Frinchaboy, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy

Project: Fundamental Parameters of Star Clusters.
Star clusters are a key tracer of the chemical and dynamical evolution of the Galaxy; however, most remain poorly studied.  New surveys, such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III/APOGEE) andSpitzer/GLIMPSE I, II, 3D and 360 surveys, allow the study of hundreds of clusters that have previously been neglected.  The uniform photometry and spectroscopy data from these surveys allow the detail analysis to be conducted in a uniform way.  The student will learn basic astronomical software and techniques and be involved in the analysis of one or more clusters to isolate the cluster from the contaminating field population and determine the cluster’s fundamental parameters (e.g., age, distance, reddening, chemical abundances).
For more information:

Karol Gryczynski, W.A. Moncrief Professor of Physics

Project: Novel Methods for Ultrasensitive Detection of Diseases.

For many years fluorescence technology has been the foundation of numerous analyses in sensing, medical diagnostics, biotechnology, and gene expression. As an example, DNA sequencing by fluorescence was first reported in 1987, resulting in completion of the sequencing of the human genome by 2001, just 14 years later. For last 20 years fluorescence detection is considered as one of the most sensitive technologies that has been successfully replacing biochemical assays and radioactivity in medical testing. Fluorescence methods have quickly extended to microscopy enabling single molecule detection and single molecule studies. Recently emerging fluorescence-based technology which takes advantage of quantum-photonic interactions of fluorophores with surface plasmons in nanometer thin metallic films and nanostructures opens novel possibility for further enormous enhancement in fluorescence sensitivity. This new concept for developing detection devices for fast and reliable biochemical and biomedical detection presents incredible potential for use in microscopy, biological assays, immunoassays, and for studying biophysical properties of macromolecules on a nanoscale level. Our goal is to utilize these new nano-photonic phenomena for development of generic assay platform for detecting physiological markers. Our interest is to develop technologies that could be easily adopted for detection of cardiac and cancer markers directly in blood. Coronary heart disease and cancer are leading causes of mortality in developed countries across the world. Developing reliable methods of early blood and serum maker detection is a crucial step towards risk stratification and successful preventive care. The student projects would involve participating at various steps of the development like antibody and sample preparation, nonophotoni platform assembly, or test measurements.
For more information:

Benjamin Janesko, Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Project: “Rung 3.5” DFT functional modeling.
The Janesko group develops and applies electronic structure theory for molecules, surfaces, and solids. We are developing a new class of “Rung 3.5” approximate exchange-correlation functionals for Kohn-Sham density functional theory (DFT). We also apply standard and new DFT methods in computational simulations of transition metal catalysts for alkyl cross coupling, organocatalysts for organophosphorous synthesis, heterogeneous catalysts, ionic liquids for lignocellulose dissolution, and conjugated polymers. The Janesko group develops new electronic structure approximations, primarily in density functional theory (DFT), and applies them to problems in renewable energy and “green” chemistry.

For more information:

Rhiannon Mayne, Assistant Professor of Geology and Curator of the Monnig Meteorite Gallery

Project: Characterizing meteorites in the Oscar E. Monnig Meteorite Collection.
My research interests lie primarily in the interdisciplinary field of planetary science, which encompasses physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, and biology.  I am interested in how planetary bodies like the Earth differentiate, or how they form a crust, mantle, and core.  The answers to this question are not found on Earth because it is an active planet and does not preserve its earliest history.  However, the asteroids have not been subjected to the same processes and, as such, preserve the processes occurring during the early Solar System.  In order to study the formation of differentiated asteroids I employ both ground-based telescope date and meteorite studies, as the vast majority of meteorites come from the asteroid belt.
Planetary science research at TCU benefits greatly from the Oscar E. Monnig Meteorite Collection, which is one of the largest University based meteorite collections.  Projects will be tailored to student interests and depend on what courses the student has taken so far in their undergraduate careers but will likely include topics such as characterizing unclassified meteorites in the collection and comparing spectroscopic data of asteroids to similar meteorite data.
For more information:

Bruce Miller, Professor of Physics

Project: Dynamical Systems Theory and Computation.
Getting a grip on the role of nonlinearity in Physics has produced the Chaos revolution. During the last two decades it has influenced nearly every branch of physics from the instabilities of stellar atmospheres to the beating of the human heart. In my group we employ idealized nonlinear models, which are amenable to both numerically accurate simulation and mathematical analysis to study the statistical physics and thermodynamics of systems with long-range forces. These models provide a fertile testing ground for current theories. Recently we have used a dynamical systems approach to investigate models of both gravothermal catastrophe and structure formation in the early universe. Experimentalists at the University of Texas have employed our related work on the theory of low dimensional accelerated billiards to demonstrate chaos with laser-trapped atoms. In addition, mathematicians have proved the existence of strong ergodic properties, i.e. chaos, in these models and educators have incorporated them into popular texts. Past experience at TCU has shown that motivated undergraduate science majors enjoy solving problems involving nonlinear dynamics. Moreover, they have made useful contributions to a number of articles published in the standard literature. In carrying out their work, students become acquainted with basic dynamical methods and develop valuable programming and model building skills. In addition they are introduced to some of the seminal literature in the field and learn how to use on-line resources to determine what has already been established by others.
For more information:

Anton Naumov, Assistant Professor of Physics

There are two possible projects for summer REU research:

Project 1: Carbon nanotubes for the past decade have led the frontiers of nanotechnology. Their remarkable properties allow nanotubes to be used in multiple applications in science, engineering and biomedicine. For example, they can be employed as vehicles for delivering molecular therapeutics into cancer cells and tissues, or as cancer imaging agents in the near-infrared, where biological tissue is more transparent. Their needle-like geometry may give them an important advantage: nanotubes are predicted to penetrate biological cells faster and in a more efficient manner than other common drug transport particles. Instead of experiencing regular cellular entry through endocytosis, carbon nanotubes may penetrate fast by piercing through the cell membrane. Such “nanospearing” mechanism has been predicted but not verified experimentally. In this research project we will test the hypothesis of nanospearing by monitoring cellular entry of carbon nanotubes at different conditions via fluorescence microscopy. We will study cellular entry/exit process kinetics and, based on these observations, predict the mechanism of cellular penetration. As a result of this data we will verify the hypothesis of nanospearing, which can strongly impact biomedical applications of nanomaterials. If experimentally proven, such advantageous cellular entry mechanism can promote the use of carbon nanotubes as a future revolutionary tool in the field of drug delivery and molecular cancer therapeutics.

Project 2: Since the 2010 Nobel Prize for the discovery of graphene, it has been a central topic of materials research. Graphene has found many applications in modern electronics as a major material for field-effect transistors, ultracapacitors and transparent contacts in solar cells. However, due to its unique electronic structure, in all of these applications graphene was integrated only as passive, non-emissive element. Therefore, in order to lay a foundation for future graphene-based optoelectronic devices, one needs to modify its optical properties. In this research project we will deliberately alter optical properties of graphene by controlled functionalization, while continuously monitoring induced response via optical spectroscopy. We will systematically vary processing conditions in order to produce graphene derivatives with specific optical properties that are desirable for particular microelectronics applications. As a result, this research will allow tailoring electronic and optical properties of the graphene material, opening a route for novel graphene-based optoelectronic device applications.

Yuri M. Strzhemechny, Chair of Department of Physics and Astronomy, Associate Professor of Physics

Project: Optoelectronic surface properties in nanoscale ZnO.
Nanoscale ZnO came to the forefront as an object of vigorous research because of the potential of this material to yield numerous breakthrough applications, the effectiveness of which strongly depends on the microscopic properties. Many of such applications involve essentially surface phenomena, which in turn strongly depend on the surface quality, and hence on the surface state properties. However, as of today, despite a substantial research effort in recent years on ZnO systems with nanosclale dimensions, understanding of these properties is largely lacking. It turns out that even the most fundamental questions are presently not answered, such as the existence of localized purely surface electronic states at clean stoichiometric surfaces, as well as the influence of surface defects (intrinsic and extrinsic) on the electronic surface structure in nanocrystalline zinc oxide. It is possible that at the moment the ZnO surface is too complicated a system for unambiguous theoretical predictions because of the multiplicity of control parameters, and hence only an adequate experimental approach can settle the uncertainties. Thus, the main task of the ongoing research activities in our lab is to experimentally establish a clear picture of the surface electronic states in the studied material. ZnO nanostructures reveal a remarkable variety and ease of control of morphologies, and this can be a key factor allowing for a systematic investigation addressing these fundamental issues. We will offer REU students an opportunity to investigate multiple nanoscale ZnO systems with a wide range of nanomorphologies, dimensionalities, sizes, and functionalities. The students will learn a range of important and popular surface-specific and surface-sensitive characterization probes and processing tools (surface photovoltage spectroscopy, scanning probe microscopy, Auger electron spectroscopy, remote plasma treatment) as well as other defect-sensitive probes and procedures (photoluminescence spectroscopy, resistive annealing, etc.). A separate question addressed in the context of this approach will be how one can controllably manipulate the electronic structure in nanocrystalline ZnO. Design and modification of experimental hardware and software will be encouraged during the REU collaboration.

For more information: