Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

MML/NCNR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program (SURF)

The Material Measurement Laboratory (MML) and the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR) encourage undergraduate STEM majors to participate in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program at the NIST laboratories in Gaithersburg, MD. The MML/NCNR program is specifically designed to provide hands-on research experience in three topic areas.  These are 

  • Chemical/Biochemical Sciences,
  • Materials Science, and
  • Computational Materials Science.

Projects change every year according to MML/NCNR research needs. See below for examples of past SURF student project titles from recent years.

2019 NIST MML/NCNR SURF participants
2019 NIST MML/NCNR SURF participants

Chemical/Biochemical Sciences, Materials Science, or Computational Materials Science

Students applying to the MML/NCNR SURF program are offered three programmatic choices: Chemical/Biochemical Sciences, or Materials Science (which includes projects at the NCNR), and Computational Materials Science.

Chemical/Biochemical Sciences:  This concentration addresses the nation's needs for measurements, standards, technology development, and reference data in the areas broadly encompassed by chemistry, biotechnology, and chemical engineering.

Examples of past projects: 

Developing Oral Sensors Based on Glucose and pH Levels

Project Description: In this project, we tested electrochemical sensors to be used in saliva or dental pulp tissues. Our goal was to measure the concentration of relevant biomarkers in order to provide more accurate and timely diagnosis of disease. The student worked with their mentor to prepare electrode sensors, test them in in physiologically-relevant relevant media, and then analyze the data, comparing results with calibration curves to determine parameters such as pH and concentration of protein biomarkers. The objective was to learn how to prepare and chemically modify electrodes as well as collect and analyze electrochemical data. (see page 63 of the 2019 student abstract book for results of this project).

Measuring Cell Viability in Collagen Scaffolds

Project Description: The student contributed to this project by assessing cell viability in scaffolds used for tissue engineering applications. They fabricated scaffolds, cultured cells in scaffolds, and conducted biochemical assays to assess cell viability in the scaffolds. The student worked with NIST scientists to design experiments and developed strategies for validating viability measurements. They prepared hydrogels, used microscopes, used plate readers, ran biochemical assays, analyzed data, generated plots, conducted statistical tests, and summarized findings. (see page 67 of the 2019 student abstract book for results of this project).

Combining LC-MS and ELISA for Quantification of Allergenic Milk Protein in Food

Project Description: To support an emerging program in food allergen measurements at NIST, the SURF student developed methods to quantify protein allergens in existing NIST food reference materials using antibody-based assays (ELISAs) and measurements using mass spectrometry (MS). The method development focused on using commercial antibody-based assays for milk proteins. Following immunoassay, mass spectrometry will be used to analyze the milk proteins, allowing for a direct comparison of measurement methods. The methods developed for milk protein allergens were then applied to measurements on existing NIST SRMs such a whole milk powder, infant formula, protein drink mix, and a food composite. (see page 75 of the 2019 student abstract book for results of this project).

Characterizing the Cooperative Motion in Condensed Fluids using Machine Learning

Project Description: This project focused on developing and generalizing the metrology for characterizing cooperative rearrangements emerged universally in many condensed fluids, including glass-forming polymers of various architectures (linear, branched, star, and ring polymers), interfacial dynamics of crystals, internal dynamics of proteins, lipid membranes, superionic, driven granular fluids and colloidal hard sphere fluids. The objective was to learn the fundamentals of molecular dynamics simulations, glass-forming polymer and machine learning, and be involved in developing python codes to extract spatially correlated motion from molecular dynamics simulations of polymers in particular. (see page 60 of the 2019 student abstract book for results of this project).

Materials Science:  This concentration focuses on synthesis, measurements, and theory of innovative materials and devices.  Note:  This concentration includes projects from the NCNR.  Additionally, a limited number of projects are available at the NCNR for students with interest in nuclear engineering and/or reactor operations.

Examples of past projects: 

Determining Optimal 3-D Configuration of Porous CO2 Reduction Catalysts

Project Description: The student’s responsibility included the preparation and evaluation of electrochemically deposited Cu catalysts for In-situ Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy/CO2 electroreduction experiments. This entails the preparation of electrolyte solutions, assembling electrochemical cells, and applying constant potential or current through gas-diffusion layers, which serve as the plating substrate. (see page 68 of the 2019 student abstract book for results of this project).

Assessment of Elemental Homogeneity in Modern Glass µXRF for Forensics

Project Description: The elemental characterization of glass evidence is an important tool in forensic science that allows practitioners to associate or discriminate a known and questioned glass sample. The micro-heterogeneity of glass is important when considering sampling and analysis strategies, since the analysis of small areas of a glass specimen should be representative of the bulk composition. This project focused on the elemental analysis of glass specimens to evaluate the micro-heterogeneity of the samples and ultimately assess the risk of false exclusions. (see page 70 of the 2019 student abstract book for results of this project).

Chemical Weathering and Additives in Plastic Marine Debris in the Hawaiian Islands

Project Description: Marine plastic pollution is a growing issue, and researchers need the best methods for quantifying and characterizing plastic in complex environmental samples. The student analyzed Fourier transform infrared (FT-IR) spectra of plastic marine debris collected from Hawaiian beaches. The FT-IR spectra of over 3000 items contain a wealth of information that can help understand how old the debris is (when it was littered) and how toxic it might be to animals that eat it (additives). The existing spectra were examined for a carbonyl index to validate our visual weathering codes and for brominated flame retardant additives that are known to be toxic to the thyroid system. In addition to this project, the student also assisted four on-going plastic marine debris projects. (see page 69 of the 2019 student abstract book for results of this project).

Neutron Tomography and Simulation of Compton Imaging

Project Description: The Neutron and X-ray Tomography (NeXT) system provides the ability to produce simultaneous, dual-modality, tomography datasets. The Neutron Imaging Team has created a MATLAB based tool that allows users to draw polygons around regions of interest in the 2D bivariate histogram to isolate phases (materials) of interest. The tool will process an entire volume and produce individual binary volumes for each polygon drawn on the histogram. While this tool provides a convenient way to begin the segmentation process, it lacks the ability to distinguish individual peaks that would indicate a region of interest. For this project the student expanded on this segmentation tool through the exploration of methods to improve the identification of peaks and points of inflection. (see page 77 of the 2019 student abstract book for results of this project).

Computational Materials Science:  This concentration includes the application of modeling, simulation, and computational methods to enhance our understanding of innovative materials and devices.  Note:  This concentration includes projects within the Materials Genome Initiative. 

Examples of past projects:

Interatomic Potentials for Calculating Diffusion Behavior

Project description: The student learned to use the LAMMPS molecular dynamics simulation software and help develop Python scripts for testing interatomic models. The developed calculation methods then served as standard tests for evaluating and comparing the different models. (see page 66 of the 2019 student abstract book for results of this project).

SURF Program in Brief

The NIST SURF Program will have options for either in-person or remote for Summer 2023. Application packages will be submitted directly by the students through USAJOBS (Announcement #: Gaithersburg: SURF-2023, Boulder: SURF-2023). To apply for opportunities on USAJOBS, all applicants are required to have a profile (account creation details). When applying, students should indicate their first- and second-choice programs from among the possible choices. Applications may be considered by any of the programs, with preference given to the student's indicated first choice.

Complete information about the program and application process is available on the NIST/SURF home page.

Other NIST laboratories also participate in the SURF program so be sure to check out their web pages. MML also offers SURF opportunities at the Boulder NIST campus, so check out the NIST SURF Program at the Boulder campus as well.

Application Deadline: February 1, 2023 (11:59 PM (ET)) 

Program Dates: May 22, 2023 - August 3, 2023

Student Eligibility Criteria

  • Students must be an undergraduate as of the application deadline.
  • Successful students typically have a GPA of 3.0 (on a 4.0 scale) or better (recommended) and are considering pursuing a scientific graduate degree (MS or PhD)
  • Students must be U. S. citizens or U.S. Permanent Resident
  • Students will need two letters of recommendation into the program (e.g. professor/department chair/undergraduate research advisor), a student transcript, and a letter of intent/personal statement.

SURF Student Expectations

  • SURFers work directly with NIST Research Advisors in ongoing research activities
  • SURFers attend a SURF seminar series and participate in extramural group activities intended to enrich the fellowship experience
  • SURFers present their research results at the NIST SURF Colloquium during the last week of the program.

General Overviews of MML & NCNR

Material Measurement Laboratory

MML serves as the national reference laboratory for measurement research, standards, and data in the chemical, biological and material sciences. MML research supports areas of national importance such as:

  • Advanced Materials (from nanomaterials to structural steels to complex fluids)

  • Electronics (from semiconductors to organic electronics)

  • Energy (from characterization and performance of fossil and alternative fuels to next-generation renewable sources of energy)

  • The Environment (from the measurement of automotive exhaust emissions and other pollutants to assessment of climate change and the health and safety aspects of man-made nanomaterials)

  • Food Safety and Nutrition (from contaminant monitoring to ensuring the accuracy of nutritional labels)

  • Health Care (from clinical diagnostics to tissue engineering and more efficient manufacturing of biologic drugs)

  • Physical Infrastructure (from assessing the country's aging bridges and pipelines to the quality of our drinking water)

  • Manufacturing (from lightweight alloys for fuel-efficient automobiles to biomanufacturing and data for chemical manufacturing)

  • Safety, Security and Forensics (from gunshot and explosive residue detection, to ensuring the performance of body armor materials, to DNA-based human identity testing)

The MML conducts research in analytical chemistry, biochemical science, ceramics, chemical and biochemical reference data, materials reliability, metallurgy, polymers, surface and microanalysis science, and thermophysical properties of materials.

Back to top of the page

NIST Center for Neutron Research

The NCNR is a major national user facility and resource for industry, universities, and government agencies with merit-based access made available to the entire U.S. technological community. Neutrons are powerful probes of the structure and dynamics of materials ranging from molecules inserted into membranes mimicking cell walls to protons migrating through fuel cells. The unique properties of neutrons can be exploited by a variety of measurement techniques to provide information not available by other means. They are particularly well suited to investigate all forms of magnetic materials such as those used in computer memory storage and retrieval. Atomic motion, especially that of hydrogen, can be measured and monitored, like that of water during the setting of cement. Residual stresses such as those inside stamped steel automobile parts can be mapped. Neutron-based research covers a broad spectrum of disciplines, including engineering, biology, materials science, chemistry, physics, and computer science. Current experimental and theoretical research is focused on materials such as polymers, metals, ceramics, magnetic materials, porous media, fluids and gels, and biological molecules.

Back to top of the page



Related Links:

Back to top of the page

Created September 27, 2010, Updated December 22, 2022