Undergraduate Research

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Participating in cutting edge research, whether at a computer screen or a lab bench, can be one of the most enriching experiences of your undergraduate career. Even if you think that you will not be going to graduate school or to an industry job that involves research, you should seriously consider working in a research group. The experience of working in a research group under the guidance of an experienced researcher will deepen your understanding of what you learned in the classroom. It will also sharpen your problem solving skills and ability to work independently. Additionally, you will make contacts with faculty members and graduate students who can help you with future career decisions.

Penn State chemistry majors have opportunities to work with some of the best research groups in the world on projects that have the potential to impact many of the most important issues facing our society today: energy; the environment; health and disease; the development of new materials. Each year nearly seventy-five percent of our majors work in a research group during the academic year or the summer term. Many of our student researchers receive a stipend when working during the summer term.

Interested in joining a group? Talk to your advisor. Talk to the faculty members whom you have met in your course work. Look at faculty web pages.


Harry Allcock:  Polymer chemistry and materials synthesis; biomedical uses of synthetic polymers, hybrid organic-inorganic ring systems and macromolecules; organometallic chemistry; synthesis, reaction mechanisms, and x-ray structure studies; solid state and surface chemistry; electroactive, optical, and electronic materials; use of polymers in solid ionic conductors, energy storage, and fuel cell devices; molecular recognition by porous solids. Students should have an interest in organic or inorganic synthesis.

John Asbury:  Physical and materials chemistry; ultrafast laser spectroscopy of emerging photovoltaic materials based on conjugated polymers and colloidal quantum dots. Research opportunities include working with lasers, time-resolved vibrational spectroscopy, fabrication of solar cells, and synthesis of small molecules and semiconductor nanocrystals.

John Badding: Materials chemistry. Optical materials and photonics. Materials for optoelectronic devices and optical fibers. Optical fiber lasers, modulators, detectors, and chemical sensors. High pressure science. Carbon materials and their behavior under pressure with applications in hard materials and hydrogen storage.

Phil Bevilacqua:  Biological and biophysical chemistry; characterization of RNA folding  and dynamics; catalytic RNA; prediction of RNA structure from  sequence; kinetic mechanism for the RNA-activated protein kinase PKR.  Prerequisites: Freshman or Sophomore (or an exceptionally motivated  Junior), willing to work at least 10 hours per week and over the  summer, an honors student or willing to write a thesis, any relevant  major, independent and highly motivated.

David Boehr:  Biological and biophysical chemistry; structure and dynamics of proteins in solution.  The emphasis is on understanding the role of protein dynamics in enzyme function and regulation. This information can be used for optimizing protein engineering and structure-based drug design. Our lab combines nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy with other molecular biology and biochemical/biophysical techniques to study enzymes important for bacterial and viral pathogenesis.

Squire Booker: Understanding the unique chemistry of S-adenosylmethionine and its use in donating methyl groups in cellular reactions. The chemistry and biochemistry of iron-sulfer clusters. Elucidation of natural product biosynthetic pathways with a particular focus on steps that involve radical-mediated catalysis.

Joseph Cotruvo: Chemical biology and biochemistry to probe how cells acquire, traffic, and utilize metal ions and organic cogactors. Design of protein- and RNA-based fluorescent sensors to study metals in biology. Applications to host-pathogen interactions, neurodegenerative disease, and cancer biology. Mechanistic enzymology.

Paul Cremer: Studies of biomaterials, water structure, ions, and interfaces. Our laboratory uses a combination of fluorescence microscopy, vibrational spectroscopy, and microfluidic methods to understand the interactions of ions at lipid bilayer, polymer, and protein surfaces. We also design new biosensors for these applications.

Elizabeth Elacqua: Application of directional and responsive assembly to synthetic polymer and materials science. Organic polymer nanoparticles; directional supramolecular assembly; dynamic covalent and noncovalent chemistry; organic synthesis and polymer chemistry; fabrication of well-defined polymeric and colloidal materials.

Miriam Freedman: Atmospheric chemistry. Spectroscopy of laboratory-generated aerosol particles; microscopy of particle morphology; surface science of laboratory proxies for atmospheric particulate matter; computational studies of particle optical properties and water uptake. Instrument design and development. The goal of our research is to understand the interactions between aerosol particles, solar radiation, and clouds. Interested students should have completed a year of general chemistry.

Lasse Jensen: Development and use of new theoretical and computational tools for addressing fundamental questions relevant to optical spectroscopy of bio- and nano-systems.  Areas of particular interest are: resonance Raman scattering of proteins and surface-enhanced Raman scattering for chemical and biological sensing applications using metal nanostructures.

Christine Keating:  Application of surface and materials chemistry to problems of biological significance. Artificial cells; model systems for studying the effect of macromolecular organization on cell function; biomimetic mineralization; multiplexed bioanalysis, self- and directed assembly of particles, integration of nontraditional materials such as biomolecules with silicon electronics.  Students will need sizable blocks of time to commit to the research, rather than spread out an hour here and an hour there.

Joseph Keiser:   Chemical education, development of lab experiments and related activities for general chemistry.

Kenneth Knappenberger: Physical, analytical, and materials chemistry. Research objectives include determining the influence of material structure on the optical properties of plasmonic particles, nanoclusters, and semiconductor heterostructures. These materials have applications as catalysts, sensors, medical diagnostics and therapeutics, and quantum information. Student researchers learn experimental methods needed for drawing these structure-function correlations, such as laser spectroscopy and super-resolution microscopy.

Gerald Knizia: Theoretical chemistry; our group develops and applies computational methods for (a) investigating the electronic structure of molecules and (b) for finding the mechanisms of chemical reactions. Prerequisites: interest in quantum mechanics, algorithms, and software development. Previous experience with programming or scripting (e.g., in Python, C++, C#, Java) or with quantum chemistry software highly welcome, but not strictly required.

Ben Lear: Synthesis of inorganic and organic molecules for use in studies of electron transfer and molecular dynamics. Spectroscopic measurements of these compounds. We focus on problems that are of fundamental importance to molecular electronics and alternative energy. Prerequisites: one semester of organic chemistry and at least two semesters of a laboratory course.

Tae-Hee Lee:  Single molecule biophysics. Spectroscopic/microscopic method development and applications with an emphasis on the role of dynamics in the functions of biological macromolecules and complexes. Methods of interest include single molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer, precise localization of macromolecules by fluorescence and light scattering, single photon correlation spectroscopy, and optical trapping. Molecules and complexes of interest include nucleosomes, RNA polymerases, DNA clamps/loaders, and various chromatin modification enzymes.

Tom Mallouk: Assembly of nanoscale inorganic materials and their applications to interesting problems in chemistry, including photocatalysis, electrochemical energy conversion, nanoscale electronics, environmental remediation, superconductivity, and motion on the nanoscale.

Mark Maroncelli:  Solvation and solvent effects on chemical processes, especially ultrafast electron and proton transfer reactions; unusual solvent environments such as supercritical fluids, gas-expanded liquids, and ionic liquids; ultrafast spectroscopy and computational chemistry.  Prerequisites:   CHEM 450 or CHEM 452.

Katherine Masters: Curriculum development; design and implementation of experiments for organic laboratory courses, specifically Chem 213H and Chem 431W. In Chem 213H, the current focus is the implementation of theme-based modules, which focus on teaching basic organic lab techniques in a specific context. In Chem 431W, recent interests include collaborating with faculty in other departments to design synthetically focused experiments with direct relevance/applications to other fields. Prerequisites: CHEM 213, preferably CHEM 213H.

Bratoljub Milosavljevic: Kinetics and mechanism of reactions in various fields of physical chemistry such as photochemistry, radiation chemistry, sonochemistry, materials chemistry, colloidal chemistry, and free-radical chemistry of biologically important molecules.

Will Noid:  Application of theories and methods from statistical mechanics to questions in structural biology and materials science; development, application, and theory for multiscale modeling for complex systems; interactions of unfolded and intrinsically disordered proteins; aggregation phenomena in energy-related nanomaterials. Knowledge of vector calculus, classical mechanics, and thermodynamics are useful, but not necessary for undergraduate research.

Ed O'Brien: Theoretical and computational chemistry and biophysics; development and application of coarsegrained simulation models to biomolecules and the cellular environment; mathematical modeling of molecular and cellular processes using tools such as chemical kinetics and statistical mechanics; bioinformatic and systems approaches to integrating large experimental data sets into predictive models. This group is ideally suited for undergraduate students interested in multi-disciplinary research at the interface of chemistry and physics with biology.

Ray Schaak:  Chemical synthesis of inorganic solids and nanostructures with applications in catalysis, magnetism, optics, and solar energy conversion.

Ayusman Sen:  Organotransition metal chemistry; catalysis; polymer chemistry; nanotechnology; nano/microrobots; complex systems.

Scott Showalter:  Biophysical chemistry; solution NMR spectroscopy of intrinsically disordered proteins and microRNA; computational and theoretical studies of disordered protein and RNA conformational dynamics; biophysical studies of macromolecular interactions involving intrinsically disordered proteins and/or RNA. Emphasis is placed on understanding the functional implications of biomolecular dynamics and disorder for cellular signaling and the regulation of gene expression. Freshmen and Sophomores are required to provide the name of a faculty member who can be contacted for a reference. Appropriate choices would be a chemistry instructor from a course they took or an honors adviser. Juniors and Seniors are welcome to provide a reference, but are not required to do so.

Alexey Silakov: Biochemistry, Spectroscopy, Enzymology; Structure and dynamics of proteins. Our laboratory aims at understanding the functionality of various metalloenzimes and proteins that are important for human health and renewable energy fields. The research is very interdisciplinary and includes application of molecular biology, synthetic chemistry, theoretical chemistry and spectroscopic methods (including advanced EPR spectroscopy and IR spectroelectrochemistry). Particular systems of interest at the moment are Fe-Fe hydrogenases and amyloidogenic proteins such as prion proteins.

Dan Sykes:  The development of silane coatings (HPLC, GC, SPME) with a high-degree of selectivity towards specific nitro aromatics and develop mixed-mode phases with broad selectivity and use multiple component analysis to recover individual analyte species; the analysis and detection of antidepressants, personal care products, and novel club drugs in blood, urine, and water/waste streams and the development, optimization, and validation of GC-MS and LC-MSMS methods for their analysis; the construction and use of small-scale instruments in the chemistry curriculum at the high school and college levels. Prerequisites for undergraduate research students: CHEM 227 and CHEM 210.

Dr. Lauren Zarzar: Materials chemistry, synthesis and laser writing of inorganic nanomaterials and polymers, active and stimuli-responsive soft materials including polymers and complex fluids.

Dr. Xin Zhang: Biological chemistry and chemical biology; folding and misfolding of proteins in cells. Our lab develops small molecule tools to image folding, misfolding, and aggregation of proteins in live cells. Emphases are to understand (a) how the cellular proteome can be properly maintained under cellular stresses and (b) the biochemical nature of soluble protein aggregates in diseases. A combination of synthetic chemistry, biochemistry, and cell biology is employed in our research to achieve these goals. Knowledge from our research will be used to direct our efforts to develop drugs that counteract the human diseases that are rooted in defective proteostasis.