Studying Fluorescence in Bio-Inspired Materials for Sustainability

The student scholars in the Molecular Engineering lab will be the first to study a previously undiscovered fluorescence property in a well-researched material, with 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 micelles. PA micelles 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 micelles are intrinsically fluorescent. Until now! It also turns out that when PA micelles bind to a target molecule, the fluorescence signal gets amplified, so they are stimuli-responsive too! All of these features make PA micelles a very intriguing platform to detect emerging contaminants in water - a technology that is desperately needed in the water crisis, especially in low-to-middle-income countries.

To work towards the end goal of designing effective sensors, we first need to understand this fluorescence and learn how to optimize the signal. Students scholars on this project will design PA molecules and their self-assembled micelles to uncover which features optimize the intrinsic fluorescence. To read more about the science behind this work, please look over this article:

To apply, please share about 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 helping to pioneer the start of the Fowler research 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
Spring - 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
Contact Information:
Whitney Fowler
Principal Investigator
Name of project director or principal investigator
Prof. Whitney Fowler
Email address of project director or principal investigator
5 sp. | 11 appl.
Hours per week
Spring - Part Time (+1)
Spring - Part TimeSummer - Full Time
Project categories
Engineering (+5)
ChemistryEngineeringChemical EngineeringMaterials ScienceMolecular DesignSustainability