PRELS Potential Research Projects



Dr. Jorge Almodovar – Associate Professor, Chemical, Biochemical, and Environmental Engineering

Title: Biomimetic surfaces for mammalian cell culture

In this project, an extracellular matrix environment is engineered composed of collagen and heparin using the layer-by-layer technique in order to develop microenvironments that control cell behavior for applications in cell therapy and tissue regeneration. We prepare surface coatings containing both heparin and collagen and culture several human mammalian cells including mesenchymal stromal cells (hMSCs) and Schwann cells. An extensive characterization is performed to assess cell adhesion, proliferation, protein secretion, migration, immunomodulation, and differentiation. Additionally, these engineered microenvironments are evaluated for their capacity to enhance cell response to soluble cytokines and growth factors.

Dr. Weihong Lin – Professor, Biological Sciences

Title: Determining the health effects of e-cigarette exposure on the olfactory system and the brain.

Olfactory detection of flavor perception critically influences nutrition intake and daily product liking. E-cigarettes are marketed with appealing flavors, significantly promoting the use and sale of these products among youth. Vaping increases their risk of nicotine addiction and associated cardiopulmonary diseases and brain disorders. The olfactory system detects volatile flavorants, increasing product attraction. The system is also exposed to neurotoxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, acrolein and heavy metals in the e-cig aerosol. However, we know little about the impact of vaping on the system and its consequences. We hypothesize that e-cigarette exposure alters olfactory sensitivity to flavorants due to desensitization and cumulative toxic effects. We will expose mice acutely and sub-chronically to flavored e-cig aerosol and assess the impact using behavioral, live-cell functional imaging and immunohistological methods. The PRELS Scholar under our guidance will learn how to conduct the animal study and perform olfactory-guided behavior assays, such as olfactory threshold and odor choice tests. The scholar will also learn to examine histological and functional changes in the olfactory system and brain including neurodegeneration. In addition, the scholar will also gain knowledge of other research approaches in the lab and a deeper understanding of a chemical sensory system and brain disorders through other lab activities and scientific literature reading. We expect the outcome of this research to demonstrate the health toxic impact of e-cigarette exposure on neuronal functions in the olfactory system and the brain.

Dr. Deepa Madan – Assistant Professor, Mechanical Engineering

Title: Understanding and overcoming the challenges of gel electrolyte used for flexible rechargeable Zn-based batteries

The findings in our previous research work (Flexible, safe, cost-effective, and highly reversible Zinc (Zn)-Manganese dioxide (MnO2) alkaline battery) indicated the prepared flexible cell to be a suitable electrochemical energy storage device candidate for wearables. However, capacity decay observed during galvanostatic charge-discharge (GCD) tests. As a step toward enabling long lasting flexible RZBs, the objective of this proposal is to conduct research to overcome challenges associated with electrolytes and electrolyte-electrode interfaces using materials and methods. Task: Effect of additives on the electrical, mechanical, physical, and electrochemical properties of the chitosan electrolyte layer:  A vast variety of synthetic polymers have been explored with varying additives for different chemistries. Synthetic polymers are known to induce crystallinity, thus affecting the flexibility of the complete cell. Another associated issue of synthetic polymers is limited flexibility of the gel-electrolyte due to polymer’s crystalline nature, high interfacial resistance due to poor solubility of salts, and poor adhesion between electrolytes and electrodes.

Dr. Patti Ordòñez – Associate Professor, Information Systems

Dr. Ordòñez’s research interests are in applying machine learning, data mining, and visualization to multivariate time series analysis, specifically to large repositories of clinical and biological data (now known as Clinical Informatics and Biomedical Data Science), creating a voice programming language (assistive technology), and advocating and working towards high-quality computer and data science education for all.  There are so many techniques that have been applied to financial and marketing data that can make a significant impact to improve the way medicine is practiced today. Through collaboration among computational scientists, medical professionals, and others, tools can be developed to create clinical decision support systems so that medical providers make better diagnoses and treatment plans by learning from the experience of previous providers who have had similar patients.


Dr. Achuth Padmanabhan – Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

Title: Determine novel factors that enable metastatic ovarian cancer cells to overcome hypoxic microenvironment. 

Ovarian cancer is the most lethal gynecologic malignancy and the fifth leading cause for cancer-related deaths among women in the United States. Due to the absence of reliable early diagnostic markers, the majority of patients continue to be diagnosed with metastatic disease. Unfortunately, both existing chemotherapeutics as well as immunotherapy are ineffective in patients with metastatic ovarian cancer. Consequently, the 5-year survival rate for these patients is extremely poor (<30%). This disappointing clinical reality underscores the urgent need to address existing knowledge gaps in our understanding of factors that drives ovarian cancer metastasis and drug resistance. Doing so will enable us to identify new therapeutic targets with potential to overcome the limitations of extant strategies. Ovarian cancer metastasis occurs primarily via the peritoneal cavity instead of hematogenous metastasis. For successful metastasis, these cells need to detach from the primary ovarian tumors, adapt to the hypoxic and nutrient starved conditions in the peritoneal cavity, form multi-cellular clusters, attach and invade the mesothelial layers covering the peritoneal wall, and establish metastatic lesions. The factors that enable these metastatic ovarian cancer cells survive the hostile hypoxic microenvironment in the peritoneal space remains poorly understood. We hypothesize that upregulation of the protein N-MYC downregulated gene 1 (NDRG1) is an important mechanism that enables metastatic ovarian cancer cells survive the hypoxic peritoneal microenvironment. The Post-bacc student will test this hypothesis using engineered ovarian cancer cell lines and clinically relevant in vitro as well as in vivo models.

Dr. Paris von Lockette – Professor, Mechanical Engineering

My work lies in the topical area of electromagnetically sensitive polymer composites and their applications, tying macroscale performance to its basis in fabrication / processing methods and solid-state physics. Succinctly put, my work lies at the intersection of classical electromechanics and the nonlinear mechanics of active materials. My long-term goal is to uncover and exploit multiscale mechanisms of transduction between elastic strain energy and electromagnetic energy for an array of applications. Given the increased usage of electromagnetic fields as the mechanisms that drive and power engineering solutions, these applications have ranged from cardiac assist devices and integrated structural health monitoring; to soft-robotic actuators and magnetic separation techniques that support next generation cancer therapies.  To these ends, the work of my group in the Magneto-Active Composites and Structures (MACS) Laboratory, has been equal parts applications- and science-driven experimentation; polymer processing, fabrication, and analytical characterization; classical electromechanics and nonlinear solid mechanics theories; and computational multiphyiscs simulation and nonlinear optimization.

Dr. Fernando Vonhoff – Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

Title: The role of the Amyloid Precursor Protein-Like (APPL) during development and aging of the flight motor network in adult flies.

This project studies the role of the Amyloid Precursor Protein-Like (APPL) during development and aging of the flight motor network in adult flies by combining anatomical, live-imaging, and behavioral experiments. Genetic, physiological, and pharmacological, approaches will also be tested to ameliorate degeneration in aging flies.

Dr. Nykia Walker – Research Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

Title: To elucidate whether TD-EVs interaction with RBCs contribute to lymphocyte immune modulation.

Exosomes, small membrane-bound vesicles released by various cell types, play a pivotal role in intercellular communication by transferring genetic information between cells. Our research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of exosomal uptake from mesenchymal stem cells, breast cancer cells, and macrophages within the bone microenvironment where dormant breast cancer cells reside. This process, essential for both healthy and pathological cellular activities, influences cellular behavior and is implicated in functions such as cell growth, immune response, and tissue repair.

As a post-baccalaureate Scholar, you will delve into the intricacies of exosome uptake using in-vitro assays. Your research will explore whether exosomal uptake is pH dependent or independent of fusion with stromal cells and the subsequent release of their content. You will employ green fluorescent protein labeled stromal cells to visualize exosome uptake, with a shift to red fluorescence indicating successful internalization. You will learn how to transfect cells with specific fluorescent tags and to maintain those cell lines. Through live cell imaging and cellular markers, you will investigate the localization of exosomes within stromal cells and assess exosome release through cellular acidification. Additionally, you will utilize qRT-PCR to measure gene expression changes in stromal cells upon exosome uptake.

Your project will utilize classical biochemistry techniques, including qualitative and quantitative fluorescence microscopy imaging, to track fluorescent-tagged exosomes and evaluate the efficiency of their uptake and cargo transfer to stromal cells from the bone marrow.

Dr. Roberto Yus – Assistant Professor, Computer Science and Electrical Engineering

Title: Exploring the use of neuro-symbolic AI to automatically assess implications to individual’s privacy of IoT-powered smart spaces.

The Internet of Things (IoT) enables connected devices to exchange data and automate tasks, leading to increased efficiency and convenience in many aspects of daily life. However, this constant data exchange can present a problem to individuals’ privacy, as it is based on the collection and analysis of a massive amount of data, if no proper safeguards are in place. The goal of this project is to design a framework that, given information about a smart space and IoT sensors / smart devices deployed in it, understands what inferences could be made about an individual located there. To this end, the framework will use neuro-symbolic Artificial Intelligence techniques to combine the analysis of: 1) Technical capabilities of the devices/sensors (formally represented using ontologies and logic); with 2) Observations and raw data collected by the devices/sensors (after processing through different machine learning models). The inferences generated by the framework will be used to, among others, inform users about potential privacy issues in their smart homes/offices/cities/etc and suggest mechanisms to address such issues.

Dr. Akua Asa-Awuku – Professor, Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering; Associate Dean for Diversity and Equity

Title: Particle measurement in complex indoor and outdoor environmental systems.

It is well known that atmospheric aerosol size and composition impact air quality, climate, and health.  The aerosol composition is typically a mixture and consists of a wide range of organic and inorganic particles that interact with each other and form mixtures. Furthermore, water-vapor is ubiquitous in the atmosphere, indoor air, and within the human body’s respiratory system and the presence of water can alter the aerosol morphology and physical state. In this project, the fellow will collect aerosol from a diverse range of sources.  The Scholar will then measure surface tension and contact angle properties of the aerosols that can influence droplet formation and subsequent transport in humid indoor and outdoor conditions.

Dr. Yanne Chembo – Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering; Director, Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics

Dr. Chembo’s Lab

Dr. Chembo’s research activities are mainly focused on the science and technology of photonic systems such as high-Q whispering-gallery mode resonators, time-delayed optoelectronic oscillators, and optical fiber architectures. The targeted applications include aerospace systems, optical and wireless communications, machine learning, quantum networks, time-frequency metrology, and fiber sensors.

Dr. Peter Kofinas – Professor and Chair, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Title: Low Temperature Electrolytes for Silicon-Containing Lithium-ion Batteries

Modern lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) with liquid organic electrolytes have a typical operating temperature range between -20 and +50 °C where a significant fraction of the rated capacity can be delivered. When temperatures become colder than -20 °C, electrolyte kinetics and phase transitions, such as electrolyte crystallization, cause significant decreases in conductivity and charge transfer resistance between electrolytes and electrodes. The result is a significant decrease in both energy capacity output and cell potential, meaning that either the battery will fail to deliver sufficient capacity at a high enough potential, or the battery must be substantially overdesigned to account for capacity loss at temperatures lower than -20 °C. Additionally, sluggish ion transport kinetics at low temperatures can cause plating of lithium metal on the anode surface, resulting in rapid cell failure and raising the danger of a battery fire. Low-temperature applications for LIBs are significant and include batteries for aviation, artic exploration, orbiting satellites, consumer applications, and planetary exploration.  We propose to investigate new electrolytes for graphite and graphite/silicon composite anodes and high-Ni content cathodes to support improved LIB energy delivery at temperatures ≤ -40 °C. The project would use low-temperature electrolytes as a starting point to develop low-temperature electrolytes for LIBs with silicon-containing anodes and high-Ni cathodes. Efforts would focus on fluorinated solvent components that would support low freezing temperatures, sufficient Li+ mobility, and ability to effectively passivate the mixed graphite/silicon anode surface and retain compatibility with a variety of cathode materials.

Dr. Tracy Bell – Associate Professor, Natural Sciences-Biology

Title: The signaling mechanisms that link insulin to an increase in proximal tubule-specific sodium proton exchanger 3 activity.

Epithelial cells that line the renal proximal tubule reabsorb a significant fraction of filtered sodium and water, and therefore, play a key role in regulating body fluid osmotic homeostasis.  The sodium proton exchanger 3 (NHE3) is expressed in the proximal tubule and accounts for the majority of total Na+ and water epithelial transport.  Any changes in NHE3 activity can greatly impact body fluid osmotic homeostasis and alter cellular functions.  Thus, NHE3 is a tightly regulated transport protein. Similar to NHE3, insulin receptors are expressed along the renal tubule of the mammalian kidney with a higher density in the proximal tubule.  Importantly, insulin was shown to stimulate Na+and water epithelial transport in this segment via increased NHE3 activity.  However, despite extensive research efforts, little is known about how insulin activates NHE3. Dr. Bell’s laboratory uses the zebrafish as a model organism to study the signaling mechanisms that link insulin to an increase in proximal tubule-specific sodium proton exchanger 3 activity.

Dr. Johnathan Cumming – Chair and Professor, Natural Sciences-Biology

Title: Investigating drought tolerance, soil microbial communities, and the contribution of poplar trees to soil carbon sequestration as a means of mitigating climate change.

Plants exhibit a wide degree of variation in their ability to function under environmentally stressful conditions, such as nutrient deficiencies, drought, and toxins in soils. This variation reflects genetic pathways conferring stress resistance, including morphological and metabolic adjustments that overcome stress. Plant roots additionally cooperate with soil microbes in many ways, bringing new capabilities to the host plant. These symbioses involve mycorrhizal fungi and a vast variety of bacteria that improve access to soil resources, overcome limitations of saline and metalliferous soils, and broadly improve root metabolic function. We are currently growing various lines of poplar (Populus spp.) that have been selected for stress resistance, investigating drought tolerance, soil microbial communities, and the contribution of poplar trees and microbes to soil carbon sequestration as a means of mitigating climate change.

Dr. Kausiksankar Das – Assistant Professor, Natural Sciences-Physics

Title: Synthesizing biodegradable scalable radiative cooling materials

We are deeply interested in interdisciplinary curiosity driven research that involves observation, physical and biological experiments, computation and minimal qualitative theories. In recent times we have discovered a new type of light activated memristors, developed a method to achieve mixing in low Reynolds number microfluidic flow, demonstrated electricity generation by electrogenic bacteria in a microbial fuel cell (MFC), generated plasma using a kitchen microwave and characterized it, analyzed nanoscale fluid transport, created nano inductors by laser scribed graphene etc. Current research projects include synthesizing biodegradable scalable radiative cooling materials, understanding heat transfer and evaporative properties of solar steam generators, biotarbation, investigating fluid flow, clogging and branching properties in porous media flow, designing novel biosensors etc.

Dr. Sadanand Dhekney – Associate Professor, Agriculture, Food, and Resource Sciences-Genetics

Title: Identifying biotic stress-related inducible elements to understand their role in regulation of disease incidence

The UMES grape breeding program specializes in wine and table grape improvement. The program utilizes techniques in pseudo-backcrossing, ovule culture and embryo rescue to introduce traits such as disease resistance and seedlessness in wine and table grape cultivars. The grape biotechnology program is focused on identifying biotic stress-related inducible elements to understand their role in regulation of disease incidence. This involves the identification of genes involved in the host-pathogen recognition process. Functional genomics for disease resistance is carried out by generating dominant and recessive mutants with CRISPR/Cas9. Current studies are targeted towards studying the above aspects in powdery mildew infection. Additionally, we are also conducting research for improving quality traits in grapevine using CRISPR/Cas-9 mediated genome editing.

Dr. Daniela Chavez – APAA Fellow and Research Assistant Professor, Biology

Title: Improving assisted reproduction for use in endangered felines: The role of NPM1 during oocyte meiosis

We study egg cell development in domestic cats to improve assisted reproduction for endangered felines. Female mammals are born with a large pool of oocytes that temporarily pause their development during meiosis and must resume it to be fertilized.  Our research aims to clearly understand the molecular requirements for meiotic resumption that result in healthy, fertilizable egg cells. Through this, we hope to improve in vitro meiotic maturation, a technique that can benefit endangered felid species struggling to reproduce in the wild, or in captivity, and increase the genetic diversity of highly inbred felid populations.  Using protein inhibition, we previously demonstrated that nuclophosmin 1 (NPM1) is important for meiotic resumption in domestic cat oocytes. However, the underlying molecular function of NPM1 in oocytes has yet to be understood in any species. NPM1 has been shown to play a role in chromatin remodeling in other cell types, and thus, we hypothesize that NPM1 is associated with chromatin during meiotic maturation.  To test our hypothesis, the post-bac will isolate antral oocytes from ovaries obtained from sexually mature female domestic cats at a local spay and neuter clinic. They will induce meiotic maturation in vitro and use fluorescent immunostaining to visualize chromatin and NPM1 protein during meiotic maturation. They will also conduct western blot analysis of NPM1 protein levels during meiosis to determine if NPM1 levels are changing during maturation.  This study offers an opportunity for the student to learn advanced laboratory molecular techniques and gain a broad understanding of gamete biology, embryology, and the concepts of using assisted reproduction for saving endangered species.

Dr. Mary Devadas – Associate Professor, Chemistry

Title: Quantum-sized bi-metallic gold clusters for magneto-optical applications.

The aim of this research is to alter the electronic structure of superatom bi-icosahedral Au25 (bi-Au25) with increased photoluminescence in the near-IR and induced magnetization using Fe, Co for the first time. Fe and Co, with known high bulk magnetization values are being exploited to induce superparamagnetic behavior and increase luminescence in the presence of the dopant in the core or staple locations in bi-Au25. Increased photoluminescence (PL) is necessary for multi-photon imaging or sensing applications in the nearIR. Doping with Fe and Co will help the community at large to understand and improve the catalytic, imaging, and data storage capabilities afforded by doping magnetic atoms into gold clusters.  In our work, we will study the mechanism responsible for this PL changes by measuring the direction of electron or energy transfer using electrochemistry and fluorescence spectroscopy and devise robust protocols to produced superatom alloys with controlled dopant ratios via co-precipitation and galvanic exchange methods. The charge flow will be determined as a function of geometry, basicity of the ligand, the composition of the metal core and semi-ring states and percent loading of the chromophore ligands. In addition, we will report brightness values (molar extinction coefficient (ε) × quantum yield (Φ)) and magnetic moment of these clusters for the first time by varying the composition of the dopant (Fe/Co) from 0 to 100% in each case. This will enable us to understand the metal mixing behavior on the quantum scale with 3d and 5d metals in the bi-icosahedral geometry for the first time.

Dr. Alexei Kolesnikov – Professor, Mathematics, Director, Office of Undergraduate Research

Title: Connecting model theory to machine learning algorithms capable of PAC learning with differential privacy.

The goal of this project is to discover new and interesting machine learning algorithms and to establish new bounds on the efficiency of learning algorithms. Exciting recent research connects the results from a branch of mathematical logic called model theory to the existence of machine learning algorithms capable of private learning (i.e., the type of learning that produces output which does not compromise the privacy of individual records in a certain precise sense). One of the results, for example, established that it is impossible to privately learn (the technical name is: PAC-learn with differential privacy) a class of concepts that has thresholds, or linear comparisons. In the language of model theory, this means that the class of concepts must be “stable”. The class of stable structures is well-studied in model theory; there are many examples of structures that are known to be stable. Establishing efficient private learning algorithms for the examples will help resolve the open question on sample complexity of the algorithms. The work will build on the results of recent undergraduate students. The project will not require background in model theory or machine learning theory and will be suitable for a recently graduated mathematics major.

Dr. Vonnie Shields – Professor, Biological Sciences, Associate Dean

Title: Testing Effective Repellents to Repel Spotted-Wing Drosophila: Seeking New Natural-Product-Based Sustainable Integrated Pest Management Approaches

Chemosensory cues, such as odor and taste stimuli, play pivotal roles for insects in selecting food sources, mates, and oviposition sites. Consequently, using insects as model systems has implications for chemosensory research on species in diverse animal phyla and allow us to gain insights into the fundamental processing of sensory information in the brain. Spotted-wing drosophila (SWD), Drosophila suzukii, is an invasive pest favoring soft-skinned fruits. SWD destroy hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses worldwide. SWD management heavily relies on the synthetic pesticide application, which, unfortunately can harm the environment, humans, and animals. A reduction in conventional synthetic pesticide usage and a natural-product-based sustainable integrated pest management approach is urgently needed. A naturally occurring chemical found in many plants and FDA-approved food additives, methyl benzoate, was found to be an effective repellent to SWD in laboratory tests. Recent published results stemming from this project demonstrated that methyl benzoate as a spatial repellent/oviposition deterrent can be deployed in blueberry fields to reduce the damage caused by SWD, although this repellent is not sufficient to act as a control strategy alone. Continued research on this project will focus on investigating other repellents to provide adequate protection to fruit growers and allow us to have a deeper understanding of how information about these plant-associated volatiles are processed by the olfactory system.