Summer Research Program

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Summer Undergraduate Research Programs

Overview of the 2017 Summer Undergraduate Research Programs in the Department of Chemistry. Summer 2017 application will be open December 1, 2016.


Life Science bridgeThe Department of Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Program gives undergraduate students opportunities to participate in frontier chemistry research at a major research facility.

The National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program focuses on catalysis and dynamics. You can perform research with the listed participating faculty on any of the topics of the REU program: we match your interests with those of current faculty. 

The 3M Fellowship program provides funding for students to conduct research in ANY research group in the department, including faculty listed on this site. We encourage you to consider the projects listed here and on the general research pages found on the chemistry web site.

Students work closely with a Penn State faculty member, together with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the research group.

Applications for summer 2017 will open December 1, 2016.

Use the menu bar on the left to find out more about the summer undergraduate research program.

Prospective Students

Summer Undergraduate Research Program

The Penn State Department of Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Program hosts undergraduate students with support both from the National Science Foundation Division of Chemistry and from the 3M Foundation. This program gives visiting undergraduate students the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research at a major research facility. The Chemistry Department at Penn State University was recently ranked among the top 10 departments in the United States and is a major research facility with 36 research faculty and more than 200 graduate students.

These summer positions are:

  •  open to undergraduate students who are majoring in chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering etc. and who have an interest in research in chemistry.  

REU program

Direct research experience is one of the most effective ways to prepare undergraduates for careers in mathematics, science and engineering.  Come to Penn State Chemistry to:

  •  work closely with a faculty member, and the graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in his or her research group
  • get hands-on experience in the challenging and exciting work in chemistry research 
  • acquire valuable skills, participate in seminars, and join in a variety of extra-curricular activities.

One of our central goals is to provide the opportunity to do research to students who would not normally have the chance to do so. This group especially includes women, first generation college students, members of minority groups, and the disabled, whose talents will make important contributions to the nation's scientific resources for the future.

Penn State is one of the largest land-grant universities, with approximately 45,000 undergraduates and graduate students at the University Park campus during the academic year. 

Penn State encourages persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities. If you anticipate needing any type of accommodation or have questions about the physical access provided, please contact the staff at (814) 865-8859 in advance of your participation or visit.

Possible Undergraduate Research Projects

List of types of available research projects

Your summer research project will enhance your educational experience by integrating research and education in active and collaborative research, and through individual mentoring and support networks. 

Below are examples of research projects within the Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research program. These change annually based on the interests of students and faculty. Please also see for the faculty research pages for more information.  Each summer, we have projects that emphasize synthesis, exploration and discovery, analysis, and computation, as well as combinations of these in collaborative teams of scientists.  We encourage you to consider not only projects of interest but also those that extend and enhance your learning.

 Project 1: Functional Annotation and Characterization of Enzymes within the Radical S-Adenosylmethionine Superfamily
Faculty Mentors: Squire Booker, Carsten Krebs, Alexey Silakov, and Amie Boal

Project Description: Enzymes within the radical S-adenosylmethionine (SAM) superfamily catalyze a dazzling array of chemical transformations that proceed via free radical intermediates. Radical SAM (RS) enzymes use radicals derived from SAM to initiate catalysis by abstracting hydrogen atoms from their respective substrates. This project will focus on developing methods to annotate the functions of RS enzymes catalyzing unknown reactions. Students will learn how to generate sequence similarity and genome neighborhood networks to provide insight into function via 9 bioinformatics methods. They will also learn molecular biological techniques, such as cloning and site directed mutagenesis and gene expression. Lastly, they will learn how to purify and manipulate these oxygen-sensitive proteins under anaerobic conditions and characterize them using UVvis, EPR, ENDOR, HYSCORE and Mössbauer spectroscopies, x-ray crystallography and techniques.

Project 2: Catalytic Mechanisms of RNA Enzymes
Faculty Mentors: Philip Bevilacqua and Christine Keating

Project Description: It is well known that protein enzymes catalyze a diverse array of chemical reactions with exceptional rates and specificity. RNA is comprised of only four similar nitrogenous heterocycles, yet it too can catalyze chemical reactions and do so with remarkable rate acceleration and specificity. The surprising discovery that RNA can catalyze reactions is relatively recent and led to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989. Moreover, because RNA can also store genetic information, the notion of an RNA World in which RNA, or a related polymer, was key to the emergence of life has been advanced. This project will employ interdisciplinary approaches to understand how RNA catalyzes reactions. Students will be engaged in a combination of molecular biology, chemical kinetics, and bioanalytical techniques. In addition, there is the option to study chemical reactions that may have formed the first RNAs that were then copied to begin life.

Project 3: Elucidating the broad reaction profiles of iron and 2-(oxo)glutarate-dependent enzymes
Faculty Mentors: Amie Boal, Carsten Krebs, Marty Bollinger

Project Description. Iron- and 2-(oxo)glutarate-dependent (Fe/2OG) enzymes activate dioxygen and couple oxidative decarboxylation of 2OG to many reactions of importance to agriculture, bioremediation, and even blockbuster natural-product drugs. The Bollinger/Krebs and Boal research groups are deploying an arsenal of structural, biochemical, spectroscopic, and computational approaches to understand the structures and mechanisms of these and similar enzymes. The most exciting new directions concern several enzymes that mediate two or three distinct reaction types (e.g., hydroxylation followed by cyclization and/or desaturation) or drastically different outcomes in parallel (e.g., production of ethylene and three equivalents CO2 from 2OG in parallel with a "standard" hydroxylation of L-arginine). These sequential and divergent reactivities are certain to involve dynamic repositioning of substrates within the enzyme active sites to enable different substrates, different positions on the same substrates, or different outcomes to be targeted within the same active site. The combination of novel chemical mechanisms and active-site structural dynamics will make for rich vehicles for excited, aspiring young biochemists and biophysicists to study modern enzymology.

Project 4: Trapping and spectroscopic investigation of metalloenzyme reaction intermediates
Faculty Mentor: Alexey Silakov

Project Description. Metalloenzymes catalyze a wide variety of difficult reactions that, in a majority of cases, require a chain of chemical transformations. The Silakov group is interested in a novel hybrid class of metalloenzymes containing two catalytically active domains: a hydrogen-utilizing [Fe-Fe] hydrogenase and a rubrerythrin. It is hypothesized that hydrogen is heterolytically cleaved by the [Fe-Fe] hydrogenase domain to provide electrons and protons, which in turn are used by the di-iron site of rubrerythrin to reduce hydrogen peroxide to water. This REU project will focus on understanding the interaction between the two domains by means of trapping and characterizing intermediates in the reaction. REU students will learn to overexpress and isolate metalloenzymes, perform rapid-freeze quench experiments and characterize intermediates by electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) and/or fourier-transform infrared spectroscopies. Students will also be provided with an opportunity to perform theoretical modeling of the experimental data using EPR simulation software and perform density functional theory calculations.

Research Topic: Dynamics of Biological Processes

Project 5: Viral RNA replication in motion
Faculty Mentors: David Boehr, Craig Cameron

Project Description: RNA viruses, including Zika, Ebola, hepatitis C and poliovirus, cause a number of acute and chronic diseases. The viral RNA-dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp) is the catalytic machinery responsible for the replication of these RNA genomes. The central objective of this project is to exploit our ability to use solution-state NMR to “watch” the RdRp reaction to elucidate the conformational states governing each step of the nucleotide addition cycle. Our insights can be leveraged towards the rational design of new anti-viral drugs and vaccines. REU students on this project will learn state-of-theart, high-dimensional NMR techniques as they pertain to understanding protein structure and dynamics. These NMR methods will be complemented by other spectroscopic and calorimetric methods, along with other biochemical and molecular biology techniques.

Project 6: Engineering new regulatory activities into enzyme catalysts
Faculty Mentor: David Boehr

Project Description: The Boehr lab is interested in the development and engineering of new stimulusresponsive enzyme catalysts. Enzymes can be viewed as small-world networks of amino acid residues connected through noncovalent interactions. Using solution-state NMR methods, we have identified amino acid networks that stretch from the surface of enzymes into their active sites. These networkassociated, surface residues are potential attachment points for new regulatory modules, which would tune catalysis in response to ligand-binding and/or changes to physical parameters (e.g. pH, lightactivation). An REU student on this project will learn approaches to covalently modify proteins, protein NMR methods to identify changes to the amino acid network, and kinetic and biological methods to determine changes to enzyme function. These studies can be leveraged towards designing new biological systems for improving applications in industry and biomedical research, including the biological syntheses of new fuels and pharmaceuticals.

Project 7: Probing glutathione trafficking in cell
Faculty Mentor: Joseph Cotruvo

Project Description: Glutathione (GSH) is a ubiquitous thiol-containing tripeptide present at millimolar concentrations in eukaryotes and many prokaryotes. Although the effects of alterations in GSH redox potential are well known, dramatic yet regulated fluctuations in total GSH levels also occur during apoptosis and as a part of the normal cell cycle in nuclei. GSH is also elevated in many cancers. The mechanisms and physiological targets of these redistributions are almost completely unknown. The Cotruvo lab has developed protein-based fluorescent sensors that respond to GSH selectively and that can be targeted to organelles to probe the proteins involved in GSH movement within cells. In this project, students would aid in sensor optimization and targeting to organelles of interest, and investigate putative transporters via genetic knockdown. The REU student would gain experience in a variety of biochemical and chemical biology methods such as protein engineering, protein purification, molecular biology, mammalian cell culture and transfection, and confocal microscopy.

Project 8: Understanding Macromolecular dynamics
Faculty Mentors: Scott Showalter and Will Noid

Project Description. A central problem in modern physical biochemistry is to quantify the conformational dynamics of highly flexible biological macromolecules, such as intrinsically disordered proteins, and then to establish the connection between those dynamics and molecular function. This REU project will focus specifically on the role of conformational dynamics in producing specific and reversible proteinprotein and protein-nucleic acid interactions that drive the process of gene transcription. REU students will gain experience with recombinant protein expression in bacterial cell culture as well as protein purification and characterization. Depending on the interests and background of the individual student, projects will emphasize different areas of analytical and physical chemistry, including high-resolution NMR spectroscopy, mass spectrometry, micro-calorimetry, and functional assays involving introductory mammalian cell culture, as well as computational analyses to generated detailed molecular structure sets for highly flexible biomolecules.

Project 9: Unraveling the Molecular Mechanism of Chemotaxis
Faculty Mentors: Paul Cremer, Ayusman Sen, Tom Mallouk

Project Description. It has been found that receptor molecules, such as porphyrins, nanoparticles and proteins, can migrate up a concentration gradient of their corresponding ligands. This phenomenon, which is called chemotaxis, may have physiological consequences and can be exploited to create a new generation of nanomotors that respond to subtle changes in the chemical environment of the surrounding medium. We are exploring ligand-receptor binding systems to determine the underlying molecular mechanism of this process as well as to build a new generation of devices that can produce chromatographic separation of receptor materials. Significantly, many of the proteins that display chemotaxis are also enzyme-based catalysts wherein their ligand fuel may provide a direction of motion for the substrate. Students involved in this project will obtain a unique opportunity to study the motion of nanomaterials using novel spectroscopic techniques as well as help in the development of microfluidic platforms and assays.

Project 10: Chemically-Powered Autonomous Active Matter
Faculty Mentor: Ayusman Sen

Project Description. Self-powered nano and microscale moving systems are currently the subject of intense interest due in part to their potential applications in nanomachinery, nanoscale assembly, robotics, fluidics, and chemical/biochemical sensing. REU projects will involve the design, characterization, and study of autonomous, chemically powered, particles. One of the projects will involve the fabrication of bimetallic nanorods and the examination of their movement arising from redox reactions occurring at the two-ends of the rods. The second project will involve the synthesis of enzyme-anchored particles powered by catalytic reactions and the study of their collective behavior in the presence of external and internal stimuli. Such systems can be further configured to observe predator-prey behavior among the swimmers, where groups of particles functionalized with different enzymes will form interaction cascades and display emergent dynamic patterns. The projects will expose the REU students to a variety of synthesis and materials characterization techniques, More broadly, the students will learn how chemistry, physics, nanotechnology, and fluid dynamics can be integrated to create synthetic materials that exhibit unprecedented biologically-inspired behavior.

Project 11: How Translation Kinetics Alters Enzyme Activity
Faculty Mentor: Ed O’Brien

Project Description: The specific activity of enzymes changes depending on the rate at which the ribosome synthesizes the enzyme during the elongation phase of translation. The molecular origins of this phenomenon is unknown, although the most likely hypothesis is that translation kinetics alters cotranslational folding events that influence the population of soluble, but kinetically-trapped non-functional protein molecules. The goal of this project is to understand the extent to which protein structure around the active sites of enzymes can be perturbed by changes in codon translation rates. REU students working on this project will use in-silico coarse-grained models developed in the O’Brien Lab to simulate the synthesis of different cytosolic enzymes, such as Luciferase and EgFABP1, that have been experimentally shown to exhibit altered specific activity. REU students will gain experience in computer coding, molecular dynamics simulations, and statistical and kinetic analyses of simulation trajectories. And ultimately, they will help contribute to the emerging paradigm about how kinetics more than thermodynamics determines protein structure and function.

Research Topic: New Insights into Chemical Catalysis

Project 12: Synthesis and Characterization of New Catalysts for Carbon Dioxide Reduction
Faculty Mentor: Tom Mallouk

Project Description: The electrochemical reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) may provide an economical means of storing renewable energy - generated as electricity from wind or sunlight - in the form of liquid fuel. This program focuses on the discovery of better electrocatalysts for the reduction of CO2 to small molecule feedstocks for the synthesis of liquid hydrocarbons. In this project, REU students will synthesize bi- and trimetallic alloy catalysts and characterize them structurally and electrochemically. Structural characterization techniques will include X-ray powder diffraction, electron microscopy, and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy. Students will use electrochemical methods to measure the onset potentials for CO2 reduction and proton reduction as a function of catalyst and additive composition. Product distributions will be measured by gas chromatography. The choice of catalyst materials will be guided by theoretical and mechanistic considerations.

Project 13: Discovery of New Heterogeneous Catalysts
Faculty Mentor: Ray Schaak

Project Description: Catalysts can facilitate chemical reactions that otherwise would be kinetically and/or economically prohibitive. The discovery of new catalysts can therefore enable new types of reactions and also improve the efficiency and/or selectivity of existing reactions, which in turn can lead to new applications. In this project, REU students will engage in multi-disciplinary efforts to discover new heterogeneous catalysts that are relevant to applications in solar energy conversion, fuel cells, and target-oriented organic synthesis. Representative types of catalytic transformations include the oxygen evolution reaction, the oxygen reduction reaction, CO2 reduction, and selective hydrogenations and oxidations. Students will first synthesize a variety of solid-state materials as nanoparticles, films, powders, and single crystals, and then analyze them using a suite of materials characterization and catalytic testing techniques. Inspiration for target catalytic materials will be drawn from computational and mechanistic predictions, as well as from structural and compositional analogies with known homogeneous and biological catalysts.

Project 14: Molecular Scale Heat for Catalysis of Molecular Transformations
Faculty Mentor: Benjamin Lear

Project Description: Catalysis is the foundation of the modern chemical economy, allowing the accomplishment and commercialization of reactions that would otherwise be cost and energy prohibitive. The traditional means of increasing catalytic efficiency is to modify the catalyst to lower the barrier for any given specific reaction. The Lear laboratory’s approach is different: they modify the means by which heat is distributed to the catalyst. This REU project will focus on understanding how to use the properties of nanoparticles to control more precisely the distribution of this heat, and to understand the impact that this increased control has over the efficiency of catalyzed reactions. Students involved in this project will design and synthesize nanoparticle systems and characterize these systems using microscopy and diffraction techniques. They will then incorporate the nanoparticles into catalytically primed reaction mixtures and measure the efficacy of the photothermal effect for driving catalysis using a variety of analytical techniques.

Project 15: Earth Abundant Nanocrystalline Catalytic Materials for Solar Fuels
Faculty Mentors: John Asbury and Ray Schaak

Project Description. A central problem in the development of solar power as an alternative energy supply is the ability to store the energy for later use when the sun is not shining. Catalytic materials based on inexpensive and earth-abundant elements are attractive alternatives to noble metal and rare-earth catalysts. This REU project will work toward development of new earth abundant nanocrystalline materials systems that enable high efficiency photocatalysts for hydrogen production and oxygen evolution. This REU project will involve use of inorganic solution chemistry methods to synthesize novel metal-phosphide catalysts with a variety of structures. These catalysts will be coupled to light absorbing copper-zinc-tin-sulfide nanocrystals to combine light harvesting and catalysis together in the same system. A variety of materials characterization methods (TEM, XRD, FTIR, UV-Vis, and TGA/DSC) and time-resolved spectroscopies will be used to examine photocatalytic reactions at the catalyst surfaces. The corresponding surface chemistry and photocatalytic activity will be characterized by monitoring the evolution of hydrogen and oxygen gases.


Life as a Summer Undergraduate Researcher

DatesOld Main

The period of the program for the summer of 2017 are from May 25th to August 3rd.  It is expected that students will normally be working here at Penn State throughout this time. If these dates conflict with your school's academic schedule please let us know on your application form. It may be possible to arrange alternative dates in some cases.


Students will receive a stipend of $4,800 for the ten-week summer research program.

Travel Support

We will be able to reimburse out-of-state students for travel expenses to and from Penn State. The University Park campus is located in central Pennsylvania, in the town of State College. State College is about a three hour drive or bus ride from Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and about four hours from Philadelphia, Washington DC or New York. Flights into State College are available through Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago O'Hare or Washington Dulles. For more information about traveling to State College, visit Penn State visitors' guide webpage.

Housing Arrangements

Visiting REU participants will be housed in apartments that are a short walk from the Department of Chemistry. Students will be responsible for making their own arrangements for meals. A number of restaurants are available both on and off campus. On campus meal plans are available. Convenience and grocery stores are also within easy reach should students want to use the apartment kitchens and microwave ovens will also be provided.

Please let us know if you will be staying in the housing provided.  Parking is an option but will be an extra charge.


The first full day on campus will be spent on an orientation tour of the chemistry department, research facilities, libraries, and Penn State campus. This tour also includes recreation and cultural facilities, and other resource centers. You will meet your faculty advisor and the graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in your research group. During the second day, we offer an introductory safety course and a workshop on utilizing library and electronic resources. Additional professional development workshops will continue throughout the summer.

Throughout the ten week period we will have a weekly seminar where faculty will describe their work or other exciting current developments in their field. There will be plenty of time for discussion and questions. There will also be picnics, outings and other recreational activities organized. The aim is to encourage the participating undergraduates to get to know the graduate students, postdocs and faculty on an informal level.  These activities will help participants to get a feel one of the best ways of really getting a feel for what a career in chemistry is all about.


At the end of the summer students will present their work at a symposium. Each student will present a short talk and poster about their research to an audience of students and faculty advisors. We will provide training and assistance in preparing both the poster and oral presentation. In 2016, over 100 students participating in undergraduate research across campus took part in the symposium, giving students broad exposure to research at Penn State and experience presenting their work in a professional meeting environment.

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Requirements to participate in the Summer 2017 Undergraduate Research program.


  • US citizens or legal permanent residents of the United States are eligible to apply
  • Preference is for students who are entering the junior or senior year in fall 2017
  • Students should have successfully completed core courses in science and math
  • Applicants must be majoring in chemistry, biochemistry, chemical engineering or related majors 
  • Have a minimum GPA of 3.00


Application for the summer 2017 Summer Research Program in Chemistry at Penn State.

The Summer 2017 application is open!

The main criteria for selection will be the student's academic record and letters. We will also take into account the student's enthusiasm for chemistry, and interest in career goals related to chemistry research. The central aim to the selection process is to identify students who are well qualified, who have a keen interest in chemistry, and who want to find out whether a career in chemistry research is right for them. 


If you have read the requirements and are eligible to apply, there are two steps. Please:

1) create a friends of Penn State account at:

2) complete the on-line application (we recommend opening in a new window to keep the below instructions open) following the directions below:

  • indicate two faculty members from whom we will request recommendations (please do not send these separately). We recommend that these letters be from your faculty advisor and a chemistry professor.
  • In your statement of research interests, Indicate your first, second and third choice of research project topics
  • send an official transcript by regular mail to:

    Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Program
    c/o The Department of Chemistry
    The Pennsylvania State University
    104 Chemistry Building
    University Park, PA 16802

  • The application will close on March 1, 2017.
  • after submitting, you may log back in at any time to check the status of your application
If you have questions or comments about the application please contact us at

Contact Information

Contact information for the summer undergraduate research program:

MascotChemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Program
c/o The Department of Chemistry
The Pennsylvania State University
104 Chemistry Building
University Park, PA 16802