Research Projects

Projects are posted below; new projects will continue to be posted through February. To learn more about the type of research conducted by undergraduates, view the 2017 Research Symposium Abstracts.

This is a list of research projects that may have opportunities for undergraduate students. Please note that it is not a complete list of every SURF project. Undergraduates will discover other projects when talking directly to Purdue faculty.

You can browse all the projects on the list, or view only projects in the following categories:

Life Science


A dual-tuned, metamaterial-enhanced radiofrequency coil for MRI and phosphorus-31 spectroscopy

Research categories:  Bioscience/Biomedical, Chemical, Computational/Mathematical, Electronics, Innovative Technology/Design, Life Science, Material Science and Engineering
School/Dept.: Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, School of Electrical & Computer Engineering
Professor: Joseph Rispoli
Preferred major(s): Electrical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering
Desired experience:   CAD modeling, soldering, circuit characterization

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners can be used to acquire real-time localized metabolic information. This technique, known as magnetic resonance spectroscopy, can quantify the concentration of specific metabolites incorporating NMR-active nuclei. In this project, we will build a radiofrequency coil that will detect both typical proton (1H) and phosphorus-31 (31P) spectra using Purdue's 7T MRI scanner. The coil design will include metamaterial periodic structures to boost 31P sensitivity.

For this project, the SURF student will be part of the Magnetic Resonance Biomedical Engineering Lab (MRBEL) and work with Prof. Rispoli and a dedicated graduate student advisor. The SURF student's role will be to contribute to the final coil design (given electromagnetic modeling results from the graduate student advisor), to create a CAD model of the mechanical former, to prototype the former using our lab's 3D printer, to construct the required electrical circuitry on the former, and to validate the device on the 7T scanner. Familiarity with CAD software (Inventor/SolidWorks), soldering, analog circuits, metamaterials, and/or radiofrequency/microwave circuits is desired but not required.

More information:


Assessing Nutrient Usage during Harmful Algal Blooms

Research categories:  Chemical, Environmental Science, Life Science
School/Dept.: COS
Professor: Greg Michalski
Preferred major(s): Chemistry, Biology, natural resources
Desired experience:   basic chemistry/biology lab experience

Harmful algal blooms are a serious environmental, economic, and human health issue. They occur when cyanobacteria undergo rapid growth when nutrient availability and physical conditions coincide. There rapid growth and decay can release toxic compounds that is harmful to organism including humans. The project will probe the mechanism of N uptake versus N fixation using isotope techniques. The student will collect field samples, conduct incubation experiments, and analyze chemical and isotopic tracers.


Drinking water safety and sampling in buildings

Research categories:  Agricultural, Bioscience/Biomedical, Civil and Construction, Environmental Science, Life Science
School/Dept.: Civil Engineering -AND- Environmental and Ecological Engineering
Professor: Andrew Whelton
Preferred major(s): Open
Desired experience:   Science or engineering background Prior lab or field experience with chemical or microbiological analysis preferred, but not required. Students will be trained with all necessary methods. Clear motivation to make a difference Able to effectively work in diverse teams Work hours will be based on the time of day and actual date of prescheduled sampling

The student will assist graduate students, a postdoctoral research association, and the professor conduct drinking water sampling in buildings. The project's focus is to better understand how drinking water quality changes during a plumbing system's age and also differences in drinking water across buildings. This project will be a mix of field and laboratory work. One study site is located in West Lafayette, IN while others are elsewhere. The student would accompany the researchers to those sites. Prior study can be found here:


Enhancing Transgene Expression and Retention by Co-delivery of DNA Vectors with Modified Histones

Research categories:  Bioscience/Biomedical, Chemical, Life Science
School/Dept.: Chemical Engineering
Professor: Chongli Yuan
Preferred major(s): Chemical Engineering/Biochemistry

Conventional transgene delivery/therapy approaches currently lack the safety, efficiency and durability required for many research, industrial and/or clinical applications. Understanding how to create and maintain active gene expression will have broad-ranging impacts by facilitating transgene delivery and tailored expression in plants and animals.

The participating student with make recombinant histone proteins with defined modifications and examine their respective contributions in affect transgene expression efficiency both in short- and long term.


How strongly do oysters stick?

Research categories:  Bioscience/Biomedical, Chemical, Life Science, Material Science and Engineering
School/Dept.: Chemistry
Professor: Jonathan Wilker

Up through the 18th century intertidal oyster reefs provided a major determinant of sea life along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Billions of shellfish aggregated into reef structures tens of meters deep and several square kilometers in area. In doing so, oysters created habitat for other species, filtered large volumes of water, and protected the coast from storms. Since the late 1800s overfishing, pollution, and disease have reduced stocks substantially. During this time oyster harvests from once-bountiful locations such as the Chesapeake Bay have declined by 98% or more. A great deal of effort is currently being invested to reintroduce oysters to their earlier habitats.

Despite the vital role played by oysters in maintaining robust coastal ecosystems, we know few details about the chemistry of how these shellfish build reefs. Furthermore, we do not even have any data telling us how strongly the animals can attach.

Work this summer will include development of a method for determining the strengths with which oysters bond to surfaces. At the end of this summer we will both have the method in hand as well as adhesion data.


Neural coding of an auditory pitch illusion

Research categories:  Bioscience/Biomedical, Life Science
School/Dept.: Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering
Professor: Mark Sayles
Preferred major(s): Biology, Biomedical Engineering, Neuroscience
Desired experience:   MATLAB experience would be helpful but not required Experience handling small animals would be helpful but not required Interest in music would be a bonus!

Vocal communication, musical melody recognition, and the perceptual organization of our acoustic environment into meaningful “auditory objects” relies on the accurate neural coding of pitch. Despite many neurophysiological studies characterizing the neural representation of pitch-evoking sounds in the auditory periphery, there is no single unifying theory to explain all (or even most) pitch phenomena.

Most pitch-evoking sounds used in neurophysiological studies have been those which produce a very strong salient pitch percept when presented to one ear alone (monaurally). However, there is an additional class of pitch-evoking sounds, for which a pitch emerges only when sound is presented to both ears (binaurally). When listening to either ear alone, the sound has no pitch, and is simply broadband noise. These “binaural pitch” phenomena can be considered an “auditory illusion,” somewhat akin to the visual illusion of “magic eye” images.

We propose that binaural pitch phenomena offer an important clue regarding the neural basis of pitch in general. It is likely that all pitch phenomena involve the neural circuitry for binaural hearing. In the brainstem neurophysiology laboratory we have a unique capability to record from binaurally sensitive brainstem neurons. This project will involve characterizing the neural representation of binaural pitch in the patterns of spikes from brainstem neurons in anesthetized mammals. Students will perform in-vivo neurophysiological experiments to record spikes from single neurons, and analyze data using MATLAB. This project will be particularly appealing for students with an interest in the relationship between neuroscience, music and mathematics.


Neural mechanisms of hearing in noisy environments

Research categories:  Bioscience/Biomedical, Life Science
School/Dept.: BME/SLHS
Professor: Mark Sayles
Preferred major(s): Biology, Biomedical Engineering
Desired experience:   MATLAB would be a bonus, but is not required. Animal research experience would be a bonus, but is not required.

Listening in noisy environments can be challenging. The mammalian auditory system uses neural mechanisms involving tightly synchronized activity between the two ears to detect micro-second differences in timing between the two ears which can be used to boost the signal-to-noise ratio of auditory representations in the brain ("binaural hearing"). People with even mild hearing loss appear unable to take full advantage of these neural mechanisms, and therefore suffer disproportionately in noisy places. The reasons for this are unknown.

We hypothesize that normal binaural hearing requires a specific pattern of cochlear inputs to binaural brainstem neurons, and that hearing loss alters this pattern - resulting in an inability to use binaural information to de-noise important sounds such as speech. In this project, students will record activity from binaural neurons in the brainstem of small mammals (some with normal hearing, and some with hearing impairment), and quantify the ability of those neurons to de-noise acoustic signals presented in background noise. This will involve animal work. Experience with MATLAB would be beneficial, but is not required.


Production of essential aromatic amino acids from cyanobacteria

Research categories:  Chemical, Life Science
School/Dept.: Chemical Engineering
Professor: John Morgan
Preferred major(s): Chemical Engineering
Desired experience:   CHE 205, CHE 348

The amino acids phenylalanine and tryptophan are valuable as feed additives. Currently they are produced from microbial fermentations from sugar. We are examining their direct photosynthetic production in cyanobacteria. Previously, our group has generated cyanobacterial strains that produce the amino acids. This project is do find the growth conditions that are optimal for maximizing amino acid production. The student will grow the cyanobacteria, measure the production of amino acids, and mathematically model to determine optimal conditions for high productivity.


Role of Microbial Motility in Degradation of Dispersed Oil

Research categories:  Bioscience/Biomedical, Chemical, Computational/Mathematical, Life Science, Mechanical Systems, Physical Science
School/Dept.: Mechanical Engineering
Professor: Arezoo Ardekani
Preferred major(s): Biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, biology, environmental engineering
Desired experience:   bacteria/cell culture laboratory and/or transport phenomena and/or microfluidic experiments

Microbial biodegradation processes play an important role in reducing the harmful
effects of a marine oil spill. The fate and transport of spilled hydrocarbons in the ocean depends on a combination of nonlinear effects such as environmental factors, ocean flows, chemical and physical properties of the crude oil, and the distribution of the oil-degrading microbial community. The over-arching goal of this research project is to quantify the role of motility of marine bacteria in the initial stage in biodegradation of oil through experiments and/or computational modeling.


The ecology of infectious disease in freshwater systems

Research categories:  Life Science
School/Dept.: Department of Biological Sciences
Professor: Catherine Searle
Preferred major(s): Biological sciences or similar field
Desired experience:   Basic laboratory techniques including pipetting, dilutions, and sterile technique are desired. A basic understanding of major ecological concepts is also desired (e.g., BIOL 28600).

The Searle lab primarily studies the ecology of infectious disease in freshwater systems. We aim to understand how changes to natural communities (e.g., the loss or gain of species) impact disease risk in these systems. During the summer, we will be performing multiple studies including 1. experiments to understand the effects of eutrophication on the susceptibility of zooplankton to disease, 2. surveys and experiments to quantify the effects of invasive zooplankton on epidemics in native species, and 3. field surveys of amphibian disease. The student will work closely with the Searle lab’s technician and/or graduate students to develop their own project within one of these research themes. Exact projects will be determined based on the interests of the student.