First-Year Research in Engineering

Microscope The First-Year Research in Engineering program provides research opportunities for first year undergraduate students, and provides prospective engineering majors with early hands-on experience and mentoring within engineering. Up to 12 two-term research projects will be available to first-year students who want to participate in engineering research projects.

To apply for a project, review the project descriptions below and then fill out the application form (Word). Students will then participate in interviews with faculty mentors, who will then select a student for each project.


Magnified snowflakes General Timeline


To apply, fill out the application form (Word) for each internship you are interested in, and return your completed application to by October 16.

Using biomedical and engineering approaches to develop and design high efficacy antibody therapeutics and vaccines

Faculty advisor: Professor Margaret Ackerman

Our projects use high-throughput technologies, molecular approaches, engineering principles and statistical modeling to evaluate immune response during disease states. Using clever genetic engineering and molecular tools we seek to develop robust humoral response by engineering and manipulating antibodies to effectively bind and neutralize pathogenic antigens. We also work to augment immune protection by harnessing innate immunity (body’s intrinsic first line of defense) through antibody interaction to clear infections. WISP students who join our group will have the liberty to choose a project of interest within the given research domain. Students will have the opportunity to learn and apply tools in:

  1. Recombinant-DNA technology to engineer antibodies with high efficacy characteristics. 
  2. Use biochemical approaches to study antibody interactions with other proteins in the immune system, and 
  3. Use statistical analysis to evaluate and draw correlations which will aid in the selection of potential antibody and tools to be used as therapeutic candidates.

Self-Assembly, Dynamics, and Actuation of Multistable Thick-panel Origami Structures

Faculty advisor: Professor Zi Chen

The objective of this research is to identify the mechanical principles governing the self-assembly, dynamics, and actuation of multistable thick-panel origami structures. These principles can then be exploited to guide the design and prototyping of novel origami structures with programmable multistability and stimuli-responsiveness under various loading scenarios. Origami has inspired novel designs at all size scales, from metamaterials to biomedical devices to space structures. Origami structures created with thick panels are more challenging to fold than traditional zero-thickness material, but they also provide new opportunities in practice. Multistability is a unique feature of structures that exhibit shape changes in response to certain external stimuli. Origami multistability has recently garnered attention by the research community, but most studies have mainly focused on the statics of a single-vertex unit and in nearly zero-thickness origami. Gaps remain in our understanding of mechanical self-assembly and dynamics in multistable thick-panel origami. 

The goals of this project will be accomplished with a combination of theoretical and experimental efforts by:

  1. creating a mathematical framework to account for self-assembly and the dynamics of multistable thick-panel origami structures;
  2. developing thick-panel origami prototypes using a strain-engineered method to control the shape, multistability, and dynamic transition between stable states; and
  3. fabricating programmable thick-panel origami systems using smart materials that can achieve controllable shape changes and tunable multistability under certain external fields (thermal, electric, etc.).

The Microstructural and Mechanical Properties of Permafrost

Faculty advisor: Professor Ian Baker

The effects of global warming on the permafrost that covers up to 25% of the land in the Northern Hemisphere (permafrost also exists beneath the sea) will be quite profound.  Permafrost is a combination of rock, sediment, soil and some organic matter “cemented” together by ice.  Permafrost, which can be up to 1500 m deep, contains 1500 GT (1.5 x 1015 kg) of carbon, twice as much as the carbon in the atmosphere and in all vegetation.  Each year depending on location and local climate, the top 0.3-4 m of the permafrost, the so-called “active layer”, thaws.  As temperatures climb, the depth of this active layer increases and if it becomes too deep then some of the below surface layers do not refreeze in winter. There are four major issues as permafrost thaws:

  1. The carbon locked up in the permafrost will be attacked by microbes leading to the production and release into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and methane, two potent greenhouses gases - methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide - that will accelerate Global warming;
  2. Permafrost is impermeable to water: permafrost thawing allows water to percolate through it leading to a loss of surface water, including whole lakes;
  3. Warmer permafrost is mechanically weaker and existing structures, such as buildings, roads, bridges and pipelines built on permafrost can collapse when the permafrost no longer supports the load – when the permafrost has thawed it cannot support a load but flows under its own weight;
  4. As coastal permafrost regions thaw, their weakened state along with the lack of sea ice cover allows wave action to erode the coast.

All of these phenomena are currently happening.  The latter two problems both affect Northern communities now and are also a challenge to construction in these regions as the temperature increases and the resources in these regions are exploited.  Thus the ability to understand the behavior of permafrost as it warms and relate it to its microstructure will enable prediction of the effects of warming and possible mitigation of the effects.

The aim of this project is to relate the mechanical properties of permafrost to its microstructure determined using x-ray microcomputed tomography and scanning electron microscopy.

Tidelines - Understanding Paper Degradation

Faculty advisor: Assistant Research Professor, Rachel Obbard

Tidelines are the brown marks on paper that are caused by water. They represent residual damage at a former wet/dry boundary and can be the result of environmental wetting (i.e. a flooded storage area) or even deliberate cleaning. We are examining the microstructural aspects of tidelines on paper. This project is a follow-on to a year-long collaboration with the Library of Congress and The Metropolitan Museum of Art to do 3D analysis and visualization of tidelines on historical artifacts. We hope that this work will eventually lead to improved treatment and prevention of tidelines in works of art and historical documents.

This project is an opportunity for a student interested in the intersection of art and engineering to gain research experience in materials science. The direction of the intern’s project will evolve from our initial conversations and the interests of the selected intern. It might lie in either computational stereology, in physical experiments, and/or in characterization using a scanning electron microscope or Raman spectroscopy.

Requirements include attention to detail, the ability to work independently, and good communication skills. Some type of previous responsible work experience is preferred. 

Computational applications in sea ice microstructure 

Faculty advisor: Assistant Research Professor, Rachel Obbard

Sea ice, which acts as a permeable barrier between the polar oceans and the boundary layer atmosphere, is a critical part of the polar ecosystem and global environment. Sea ice is actually a complex maze of water ice, brine and air bubbles. The network of brine channels is particularly important, because it spans the thickness of the ice, providing permeability for gas and fluid transport.

We have developed MatLab code to analyze data from micro-computed tomography and produce the critical information about that brine channel network. We seek a student who would like to continue this work, analyzing Arctic sea ice structure and examining new ways to create representational network models.

We are seeking a student with an interest in earth science, environmental science, geochemistry, materials science, and/or applied math, who is likely to want to continue working on similar projects. This would be an ideal position for a student interested in graduate school. Requirements include attention to detail, the ability to work independently, and good communication skills. Some type of previous responsible work experience is preferable.  Knowledge of MatLab would be a plus. We offer the potential for coauthorship on scientific papers and possible fieldwork opportunities.  

Lab testing heat flow through sea ice

Faculty advisor: Assistant Research Professor, Rachel Obbard

Sea ice is a critical part of the polar ecosystem and global environment, and one that is threatened by climate change. We are particularly interested in how heat flows through sea ice, as it controls how much heat is lost from the ocean to the atmosphere during the cold polar winters. 

The WISP student will run experiments in heat flow through sea ice. We have developed a test setup using an ICE-MITT (a large box outfitted with controlled cooling plates to maintain a temperature gradient through a cylindrical sea ice core) to run experiments in the cold room. The student will prepare ice cores (real and manufactured) for the test setup, set up the experiments, program the test conditions into the controller (with assistance) and then check on the tests over a period of several days to a week. This project will involve some work in the cold room (-18C) while handling ice and tools. After each experiment, there will be some data analysis and write-ups required.

We are seeking a student with an interest in earth or environmental science, material science, or thermodynamics. This would be an ideal position for a student who enjoys hands-on work and is interested in helping design experiments. Requirements include ability to focus, attention to detail, the ability to work independently, and good communication skills. High-school level physics is a pre-requisite. Safety training for working in the cold room will be provided. Some experience with computer programming would be helpful, but not required.

The experiment setup and cold-room work will require some longer blocks (~3 hours) on a weekday (days and times flexible) and periodic check-ins through the week. Analysis work can be done at any time. We offer the potential for co-authorship on scientific papers.

Development of Diagnostics for Infectious Diseases 

Faculty advisor: Professor Jane Hill

The Hill Lab seeks to push the technological boundaries of what can be achieved diagnostically using human breath. Breath is such a simple medium. We can sample it non-invasively (if you can breathe, we can take a sample!) and envision a system in clinics and hospitals that is portable, easy to use, and inexpensive. We are particularly focused on respiratory infections – viral, bacterial, and fungal – and our work over the past few years shows great promise, including for tuberculosis, flu, and MRSA. We are also deeply interested in using our approach to determine antibiotic resistance profiles and thus guide treatment decisions even more precisely. The student project would involve working on one of our cool topics where studies may include lab work and/or field work at a clinic (locally, regionally, internationally) with a group of passionate others who are seeking to transform diagnostic medicine. I am seeking a highly motivated cadre of students who will learn about what we do and then help us push the boundaries of science and engineering in order to improve the quality of life for humans and animals. 

Determine the butanol tolerance of Clostridium thermocellum and identify mutants with higher butanol tolerance

Faculty advisor: Professor Lee Lynd
Lab mentor: Liang Tian (Postdoc)

Butanol is a biofuel that can be made from cellulose. Clostridium thermocellum is an anaerobic, thermophilic bacterium which is capable of directly converting cellulosic substrates (corn stover, switchgrass, wood chips, etc.) to ethanol and other chemicals. However, C. thermocellum cannot natively produce butanol.  We are planning to introduce several heterologous genes that encode enzymes in the butanol production pathway. However, since butanol is somewhat toxic, we first need to determine the butanol tolerance of C. thermocellum and potentially develop improved strains that can tolerate higher levels of butanol.  We plan to improve tolerance using a continuous culture system. 

Improving the transformation efficiency of Clostridium thermocellum by optimizing competent cell preparation and handling methods

Faculty advisor: Professor Lee Lynd
Grad student mentor: Shuen Hon (Ph.D. student)

Clostridium thermocellum is a bacterium that is studied by the Lynd research group as a candidate organism for producing biofuels such as ethanol from cellulosic biomass. These efforts heavily involve genetically engineering C. thermocellum to not only better understand its metabolism but also involve introducing and expressing foreign genes to improve ethanol production.

One impediment to our research workflow is the relatively poor transformation efficiency of C. thermocellum (the efficiency by which the bacteria takes up foreign DNA). Improving the transformation efficiency of C. thermocellum will enable the research group to broaden the scope of our genetic engineering efforts. While there are techniques that have been used to successfully improve transformation efficiency in other microorganisms, these techniques have not been extensively tested on C. thermocellum.

The student will work under the supervision of a senior graduate student to test the effects of various culture conditions and cell treatment methods on C. thermocellum competent cells, to determine a method or combination of methods that will significantly improve transformation efficiency. The student will acquire skills in microbiology and genetics, such as culturing microorganisms both in aerobic and anaerobic conditions and DNA purification and transformation. 

Nanoparticle Synthesis and Characterization for Biomedical Imaging

Faculty advisor: Geoffrey Luke
Lab mentors: Austin van Namen and Sidhartha Jandhyala

We have developed a new type of nanoparticle which can undergo a liquid-to-gas phase transition when exposed to a laser. We are currently exploiting this nanoparticle for ultrasound imaging and drug delivery. We are working to optimize the nanoparticle in a variety of ways, including drug loading, stability, triggering sensitivity, size, and biocompatibility. We are looking for 2 first-year students to assist in the synthesis and optimization of these particles. Tasks will include:

  1. performing wet chemistry synthesis of the particles;
  2. characterization of the particles through UV-Vis spectroscopy, dynamic light scattering, and transmission electron microscopy; and
  3. development of gelatin imaging phantoms to test the particles.