Designing Fluorescent Sensors to Detect Contaminants in Water

The student scholars in the Molecular Engineering lab are the first to study a previously undiscovered fluorescence property in a well-researched material, with exciting applications as a sensor for detecting contaminants in water. This new fluorescence feature is an exciting discovery in a material, called peptide amphiphiles (PAs), that already has some amazing features such as (1) using precision synthesis to allow researchers to exactly control the molecular structure and (2) spontaneously self-assembling in water into ordered macro-scale structures called nanofibers. PA nanofibers have been used for important applications like resource recovery from water, nerve regeneration, and tissue scaffolding.

However, despite being well studied for the past 2.5 decades, no one had reported that PA nanofibers are intrinsically fluorescent. Until now! It also turns out that when PA nanofibers bind to a target molecule, the fluorescence signal gets amplified, so they are stimuli-responsive too! All of these features make PA nanofibers a very intriguing platform to detect contaminants in water - a technology that is desperately needed in the water crisis, especially in low-to-middle-income countries.

Current members have spent a year enhancing the fluorescence signal to make it easier to detect (increasing the signal by up to 40x!). Now we are ready to design new molecular systems to sense contaminants in water by designing in binding sequences and measuring stimuli-responsive fluorescence signal changes.

To read more about the science behind this work, please look over this article ( and read through our group website.

These positions are open to students who can commit to working in the Molecular Engineering lab for Summer 2024 and Fall 2024. If students are also able to sit in on Spring semester group meetings, that would be awesome to be able to get some context before the summer. The intent is that new students can learn the skills and project background from current members, then they can hit the ground running for 10 weeks this summer for paid summer research, and then in the Fall they can continue on the project and train new students on their project.

To apply, please share with me why you are interested in this project (~one paragraph in length) and provide the names of 2 references that can comment on your work habits.

Name of research group, project, or lab
Molecular Engineering for Sustainability Applications
Why join this research group or lab?

If you are interested in (1) researching an exciting material property that no one else has studied before, (2) molecularly designing self-assembling materials that glow, or (3) breaking ground on project that has end goals in addressing a key need in the water crisis, especially in low-to-middle income countries - then consider joining the Molecular Engineering lab!

Representative publication
Logistics Information:
Project categories
Chemical Engineering
Materials Science
Molecular Design
Student ranks applicable
Student qualifications

This research is accessible to all academic levels and requires just introductory chemistry to start. Some knowledge of organic chemistry would be helpful but isn’t required.

Besides technical background, a successful student scholar will be willing to learn, take initiative, ask lots of questions, and contribute to a welcoming and inclusive environment with Prof. Fowler and other students.

Time commitment
Fall - Part Time
Summer - Full Time
Academic Credit
Paid Research
Number of openings
Techniques learned
  • Molecular design and synthesis
  • Self-assembly fabrication and characterization (using an SEM)
  • Fluorescence characterization using UV-Vis spectroscopy and fluorometry
Project start
Summer 2024
Contact Information:
Whitney Fowler
Principal Investigator
Name of project director or principal investigator
Prof. Whitney Fowler
Email address of project director or principal investigator
2 sp. | 23 appl.
Hours per week
Fall - Part Time (+1)
Fall - Part TimeSummer - Full Time
Project categories
Sustainability (+5)
ChemistryEngineeringChemical EngineeringMaterials ScienceMolecular DesignSustainability