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Summer Research Programs in the College of Sciences Inspire the Scientists in Undergraduates

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Emma Stowell has enjoyed her time at Monmouth University, in central New Jersey. But the small private school has only one ultracentrifuge in its labs, a situation that can occasionally send the senior chemistry major into a tailspin.

“I didn’t even know how to work it,” she says. “But this summer, I’ve learned how to work multiple kinds of centrifuges.”

That’s because Stowell spent her summer at Georgia Tech with the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s  Undergraduate Summer Research Program. When Stowell presented her poster on July 26 – about peptide extensions on virus-like particles – she joined 49 other students from Georgia and around the country taking part in undergraduate research programs in the School of Physics and the School of Biological Sciences, in addition to the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“This summer experience has been awesome,” Stowell says. “Being able to work in such a large science university is amazing. I got to use equipment I had never even heard of before.”

The summer undergraduate research programs expose students to the kind of academic work they’ll be doing if they pursue graduate studies. The students receive a $5,000 stipend for 10 weeks of work on high-level research projects. Graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and professors serve as mentors

This was also the second year for the College of Sciences to offer the BEE-Inspired Summer Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nine students worked on research relating to pollinators, ecosystems, or sustainability. Jennifer Leavey, integrated science curriculum coordinator for the College of Sciences and director of the Georgia Tech Urban Honey Bee Project, says BEE-Inspired participants also spend one day a week on community service projects.

“Sometimes we go to community gardens and urban farms, or work on sustainability projects, such as planting a pollinator garden,” Leavey says. “We work with summer enrichment camps for school children, teaching them about the role of pollinators and ecosystems and doing STEM outreach.”

Community partners for 2017 included Atlanta Food and Farm PBC, Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, West End Community Garden and Urban Nursery, Greening Youth Foundation, Aluma Farm, Piedmont Park Conservancy, Zoo Atlanta, City of Atlanta Bee City USA, Georgia Tech CEISMC - GE Girls and G.I.R.L.S. camps, and Fulton County Cub Scouts.

The Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer program in the School of Physics is funded by the National Science Foundation. It is hosted by Georgia Tech, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark University Atlanta.

Another NSF-funded REU program, Aquatic Chemical Ecology (ACE) at Georgia Tech, gave second-year Tech student Patrick Heritier-Robbins a chance to study bacteria that break down oil spills.

“I learned that research in graduate school is a major life commitment,” says Heritier-Robbins, an environmental engineering major. “I also gained an understanding of the high level of perseverance required to conduct research.”

Helping students learn how challenging research can be is another outcome of the summer programs, says Brian Hammer, professor in the School of Biological Sciences. “It was a steep learning curve for some, and they learned a lot about the process of science. For some of them, it was not what they expected.”

The work didn’t scare Stowell, who says she will now study for the Graduate Records Examination. “Doing research this summer has really solidified the idea that I want to go to graduate school,” she says. “I’m definitely going to apply to Georgia Tech. Everyone here has been so kind and open to answering all my questions.”


Media Contact: 

Renay San Miguel
Communications Officer/Science Writer
College of Sciences



Students taking part in summer undergraduate research programs at Tech get an early taste of the work expected of them if they pursue graduate studies. 


Students taking part in summer undergraduate research programs at Tech get an early taste of the work expected of them if they pursue graduate studies. 


The Swim Pressure of Active Matter

Figure 1: Athermal phase separation of active matter. (Adapted from Takatori & Brady PRE (2015).)

Insights from the swarm: understanding collective problem-solving using ants and slime mould

Complex systems are those systems that are comprised of a large number of interacting units, such as neurons in a brain, and individual animals in fish schools and ant colonies. Each unit acts on its own, using only local information, and there is no centralised control of the collective. The thousands of tiny interactions between the individuals leads to sophisticated ‘emergent’ behaviour at the group level, such as solving mazes, making efficient trade-offs and building self-assembled, adaptive structures.

How to Watch the Solar Eclipse at Georgia Tech

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

It is expected to be the most-watched celestial event of the year: A total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017, that will be visible across the U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina.

Georgia Tech isn’t on the path of 100 percent totality, but above campus, the moon will block 97 percent of the sun’s disk at approximately 2:37 p.m. EDT. The eclipse should darken skies, drop air temperatures, and make birds think it’s bedtime.

The sunlight from a partial eclipse is bright enough to injure unprotected eyes, says James Sowell, senior academic professional in the School of Physics, and director of the Georgia Tech Observatory.

“Even a sliver of sunlight, that three percent, could damage your eyes if you persist in looking at it directly,” he says.

The temptation to report to social media or record the event with mobile devices will be strong. We urge you instead to take in the experience. Those who have watched total eclipses say they are spectacular for how they make you feel.    

“It humbles you,” says David Baron, science journalist and author of “American Eclipse,” about the total solar eclipse of July 29, 1878. Baron has witnessed five of these phenomena. “They are awe-inspiring and humbling, and they make you realize we are just a tiny part of something enormous.”

Here are three simple rules to safely and fully experience the 2017 solar sensation in an age of mobile devices:

  • Anytime you look up, wear special eclipse glasses.
    Whether you’re observing the sun at 1 p.m., 2:37 p.m., or 4:01 p.m., use glasses with ultradark lenses specified for direct observation of the sun. Eclipse glasses will be distributed around campus beginning at noon on Aug. 21.
  • Keep the smartphone in your pocket.
    It’s possible to take a photo of the eclipsing sun, but we don’t recommend it. You risk glimpsing the sun and injuring your eyes while lining up the shot.
  • It’s a rare event, so be in the moment.
    It’s not just the breathtaking spectacle of the sun slowly blocked by the moon. It’s also what’s happening around you. With good weather conditions, the bright planet Venus may appear. Birds may stop chirping. Spaces between tree leaves can act as pinhole cameras; you may end up with a dappling of crescent, eclipsed suns at your feet.
Media Contact: 

Renay San Miguel
Communications Officer/Science Writer
College of Sciences



The skies over Georgia Tech will be at 97 percent darkness during the Aug. 21, 2017, solar eclipse. Watfching the spectacle will require special eclipse-viewin glasses, but you'll also want to notice the changes in the environment around you as the skies get darker during this rare celestial event.


The skies over Georgia Tech will be at 97 percent darkness during the Aug. 21, 2017, solar eclipse. Watfching the spectacle will require special eclipse-viewin glasses, but you'll also want to notice the changes in the environment around you as the skies get darker during this rare celestial event.


Soft, Structured, Living Materials

The central narrative of contemporary biology is that DNA encodes all relevant information for an organism’s function and form. While this genotype-to-phenotype framing is appealing for its reductionist simplicity, it has a substantial problem. Between nanometer-scale DNA and organismal-scale phenotype sits a gap of 5 to 9 orders of magnitude in length.

Metamorphic InAs1-xSbx/InAs1-ySby superlattices with ultra-low bandgap as a Dirac material.

Recently proposed short period metamorphic InSbxAs1-x/InSbyAs1-y superlattices (SLs) [1, 2] manifest a new class of quasi 3D materials with ultra-low bandgap. Application of the virtual substrate approach relieves strong limitations dictated by the substrate lattice constant and makes it possible to grow materials with high crystalline quality in the entire range of the alloy compositions.

Electricity in the Air – Rapid, Inexpensive, and Dynamically-Scalable Flight Characterization and Control System Prototyping for Airborne Wind Energy Systems

Airborne wind energy (AWE) systems, which replace conventional towers with tethers and lifting bodies, have the potential to unlock vast amounts of untapped energy at altitudes unreachable by towers. However, the dynamic modeling and control design for these tethered systems is far from optimized, and full-scale experimental prototyping costs act as a bottleneck to AWE systems’ widespread adoption.

Pablo Laguna at Stephen Hawking's 75th Birthday Bash

An international conference, entitled "Gravity and Black Holes," marking the 75th birthday of Stephen Hawking, will be held at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Wilberforce Road, Cambridge, UK, in July 2017.

This meeting will discuss recent advances in gravitational physics and cosmology, and the exciting future of this field following the recent direct detection of gravitational waves.

School of Physics Chair Pablo Laguna will deliver a lecture on "The Kicking of Black Holes" on July 4, 2017.

Here's a complete list of conference speakers:

Tech researchers team up for advanced materials

Thursday, June 1, 2017

By Renay San Miguel

Ask Georgia Tech researchers working with advanced materials for examples, and they give a pop culture reference. Two of them even cite the same reference.

“It’s like The Terminator, liquid metal that then becomes a solid,” says Alberto Fernandez-Nieves, associate professor in the School of Physics.

“Think of The Terminator,” says another School of Physics associate professor, Jennifer Curtis.

Pop culture so effectively appropriates next-level science research, that it comes as no surprise that these scientists first thought of Oscar-winning director James Cameron’s shapeshifting “mimetic polyalloy” assassin from the future in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

“Or that animated movie, Big Hero 6,” Curtis adds, referring to a 2014 Disney film about nanobots combining to form bigger objects. “We would love to find an original way to create small shapes. And then make them intelligent enough to properly reconfigure in some other way.”

Georgia Tech scientists aim to make those science-fiction scenarios real through collaborative, interdisciplinary research at the Center for the Science and Technology of Advanced Materials and Interfaces (STAMI).

Launched in 2016, STAMI comprises four groups:

Of all those acronyms, COPE’s has been around the longest, since 2003. COPE helped develop the optical technologies that enable flat-screen HDTV to deliver sharper resolutions on any monitor size while consuming less power.

Over the years, COPE has attracted some $84 million in research funding and research-related awards, says Seth Marder, Regents Professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and COPE’s founding director. That’s because “we were able to create multi-investigator proposals with a very high degree of success,” Marder says.

Because proposals from centers with teams of researchers tend to attract more funding, Marder and colleagues set up STAMI to brew ideas and foster collaboration among researchers across Georgia Tech.

“People who work in advanced materials recognize that collaborative approaches are critical,” Marder says. At COPE and now in STAMI, he adds, “we recognize that if you build the strong human relationships, the strong collaborative scientific relationships will be that much stronger, that much more fun, and it will lead to that much more productivity and the opportunity to do other things.”

The promise of advanced materials

When subjected to stimuli – such as current, light, heat, or chemicals – liquids, foams, gels, liquid crystals, and other substances may respond and change, or even acquire new functions.

The liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) in smartphones and TV/computer monitors are organic photonic technologies in action. They are marvelous combinations of thin films, electrolytic gels, and molecules that respond to light and electricity.

Soft matter is anything that can be prodded, poked, folded, warped, or deformed by weak external causes, including heat and mechanical forces. Examples abound but the science around them is relatively young.

Polymers, strings of repeating molecular units, can be natural, like the DNA in cells, or synthetic, like the plastics in houses. Manipulating them can yield stronger construction materials or more effective medical treatments.

Advanced materials can mean progress from healthcare to defense technology and consumer electronics. But getting materials to work together – and allowing users to program, control, and predict their behaviors – is key to realizing the next-generation promises.

COPE: Collaboration before collaborating was cool

It was the spirit of teamwork that first brought Marder to Georgia Tech in 2003, after appointments at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, and the University of Arizona.

He and three others who were focused on optical sciences started COPE shortly after they arrived at Tech. They believed that a center like COPE would help them brainstorm research ideas while increasing their chance of funding.

That teamwork helped Marder ignore temptations to move to other universities. “What kept me at Georgia Tech is the people,” he says. “If you’re fundamentally connected with the people around you, that’s a pretty strong adhesive.”

To that end, Marder became a strong protagonist for COPE’s collaborative propensity. Materials science can involve physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering, and reaching across Tech’s colleges and schools is key. COPE pioneered this approach.

“You’re not just bringing people together to work on a problem; you need the right culture,” says Bernard J. Kippelen, a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and current COPE director. “Georgia Tech is uniquely positioned in that respect because interdisciplinary research is part of Georgia Tech’s DNA.”

Research themes exemplify the intrinsic interdisciplinarity:

  • Organic photovoltaic materials, for solar cell technology
  • Flexible organic materials that can go inside or on the body, for medical and sensing applications
  • Organic materials to protect sensors and human eyes from laser pulses, of interest to the Defense Department
  • Organic materials to enable rapid and safe removal of heat from its source, for computers and consumer electronics

“We focus on organic – carbon-based – materials,” Kippelen says, because they can be processed at room temperature, making manufacturing easier. And because the building blocks are molecules, physical properties can be controlled by changing chemical structure.

“As we study more of these materials to understand why they work, we come across new surprises, new breakthroughs that were not anticipated,” Kippelen says. “It’s the gift that keeps giving.”

GTPN: Pushing polymers for fun and profit, but mostly fun

When John Reynolds joined IBM Research in the late 1970s, scientists had just discovered that plastics can conduct electricity. Until then, “if you wanted high conductivity, you had to get a piece of metal,” says Reynolds, a polymer chemist. “That an organic polymeric material could do that was earth-shattering.” The breakthrough eventually won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Now Reynolds is a professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and in the School of Materials Science and Engineering.  He also serves as director of GTPN, which launched shortly after he joined Tech in 2012. Reynolds leads with co-directors David Collard, Zhiqun Lin, Elsa Reichmanis, and Paul Russo.

“Georgia Tech and the interdisciplinary atmosphere is why I moved here,” he says. “The walls between colleges and schools here are very low, and that makes Georgia Tech special.”

Reynolds has had a front-row seat for many advances his GTPN colleagues are making in polymer science.  He anticipates new materials for applications such as:

  • Electrochromism, reversibly changing a material’s color in the presence of an electric field
  • Energy savings through separation of hydrocarbon and industrial chemicals using nanoporous membranes
  • Energy storage, such as batteries and capacitors to store chemical energy and electrical charge
  • Drug and active-molecule release using polymer-modified nanoparticles

When it comes to electrochromic application, Reynolds notes, this technology using polymer gel electrolytes has allowed automakers to eliminate the mechanical switch on rear-view mirrors to suppress blinding high-beam lights from the vehicle behind. Most mirrors now use light sensors and color-changing electrochemical systems to dim that harsh glare.

“That’s a $1 billion a year sales business for a company in Michigan,” Reynolds says.

Yet the most innovative aspect of GTPN, Reynolds says, is its impact on graduate students and researchers at Tech. They’re not just increasing their knowledge of chemistry and physics. “They grow professionally by participating in meetings and seminars, hosting people, and learning how to be professionally social. And they get contacts with companies.”

SMI: Fundamental science from soft matter

Soft matter is described by the University of Edinburgh School of Physics and Astronomy as “all things squishy.”

In that spirit, the School of Physics has been hosting Squishy Physics public events since 2012. Restaurant chefs from Atlanta and beyond prepare foods that illustrate aspects of soft matter: “gelation (jams and jelly), phase transitions (melting chocolate ice cream), emulsions (Hollandaise and other sauces), foams (meringue), and glass formations (confections),” says the Squishy Physics web page.

“In many cases, soft materials are mixtures of phases – solids in liquids, gases in liquids, or liquid-liquid mixtures, for example,” says Fernandez-Nieves, director of SMI. “A polymer gel may be 99% water, but it behaves like a spring. If you push on it, it deforms and retains its shape due to the presence of restoring forces, and thus it’s a solid from that perspective. It’s an elastic material. And it’s made of 99% water and 1% polymer.”

SMI is itself in its early phase, launching in July 2016 to coalesce soft matter research interest at Tech and provide brainstorming opportunities, workshops, and seed grants.

So what exactly is SMI incubating: ideas or specific research projects?

“Both,” Fernandez-Nieves says. “You can use soft materials as models to address interesting questions beyond soft matter.” The holy grail in the field is matter with controllable and predictive qualities. “What do I need to do to make that happen? That’s where fundamental science comes in.”

A recent research paper co-authored by Fernandez-Nieves offers an example of soft matter’s potential. Microgels and polymer networks made of natural fibrin, a blood-clotting protein, self-assemble to form tunnels that could allow healing substances to pass through. The Department of Defense, hoping for battlefield applications, supported part of the research.

SMI is a place “where you can incubate ideas and so they can come to fruition,” Fernandez-Nieves says. “I think of SMI as driven by people with ideas and drive, and the desire to do new things.”

You don’t have to be CRĀSI to study interfaces, but it helps

Since 1978, Odyssey of the Mind has staged global problem-solving competitions for students in kindergarten through college. The competition stresses teamwork. Thinking outside the box isn’t just encouraged; it’s necessary.

At Tech, Jennifer Curtis and Michael Filler, CRĀSI co-directors, are hosts of their own Odyssey of the Mind-style competitions for professors only. The focus is on thinking way outside the box in getting advanced materials – their surfaces, actually – to communicate, work together, and respond to human commands.

These gatherings of the minds are needed, because none of the next-level advances in materials science happens without figuring out surfaces and interfaces, says Filler, an associate professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“There is an opportunity to target interfaces, the position where materials change from A to B,” he says. “They’re ubiquitous, and they’re really hard to study, because they’re dynamic.”

“The big thing we would love to do is control how smaller objects interact with each other to make programmable, reconfigurable matter,” Curtis says.

The idea of assembling matter is not new. But with the types of assemblies Curtis and Filler are talking about, it might be easier to kill the Terminator. Why?

“We’re just not good enough with the interfaces, programming them and controlling them,” Filler says.

That’s the obstacle CRĀSI wants to topple. Like SMI, CRĀSI also launched in the summer of 2016 to start conversations about possible solutions to tough science problems. So far, CRĀSI has hosted a total of 10 events, mostly Odyssey of the Mind competitions. Curtis and Filler never share the agenda for their meetings because they don’t want any biases to creep into the discussion.

Curtis is pleased with the buy-in from researchers. “There’s a critical mass of people who want to be in the same room to talk science and explore ideas,” she says. “We’re really trying to identify the grand challenge of the next decade.”


Media Contact: 

Renay San Miguel
Communications Officer/Science Writer
College of Sciences



Films, gels, liquids and liquid crystals, all kinds of soft matter and polymers can be acted upon and combined for new functions and uses. Bringing intelligence to advanced materials is the goal of a new collaborative and interdisciplinary Georgia Tech research initiative known as STAMI - the Center for Science and Technology of Advanced Materials and Interfaces. 


Films, gels, liquids and liquid crystals, all kinds of soft matter and polymers can be acted upon and combined for new functions and uses. Bringing intelligence to advanced materials is the goal of a new collaborative and interdisciplinary Georgia Tech research initiative known as STAMI - the Center for Science and Technology of Advanced Materials and Interfaces. 



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