IMS Research Focus Areas

  • Nanobiology & Nanomedicine: biomaterials, drug delivery, tissue engineering, biomedical imaging materials, stimuli-response systems
  • Theory, Modeling and Simulation: computational economics, computational nanoscience, artificial intelligence: scientific computing, modeling and simulation of physical processes and biological systems
  • Optics: biomedical photonics, biomedical optics, ultrafast spectroscopy
  • Energy: supercapacitors, batteries, energy storage materials synthesis, silicon science, solar energy conversion, nanocrystal-sensitized solar cells
  • Semiconductors: silicon functionalization, device design, biosensing, micronscale energy transport in semiconductor devices designed for energy conversion
  • Materials Research: structure-property-processing relationship (metals, ceramics, polymers, composites and electronic materials
  • Materials for Robotics: novel materials for actuation, sensing, and structural design, including elastomers, polymers, super-elastic alloys, meta-materials, magnetic materials

Nanobiology & Nanomedicine

High impact solutions to important problems in medicine and biology have been achieved by interdisciplinary teams utilizing advanced material science and engineering. IMS at VU advances this successful approach toward the discovery and translation of materials that interface with, and are inspired by, living systems. Research teams are building stimuli-responsive biomaterials that self-assemble from modular molecular building blocks.  These, and other biocompatible organic materials, are solving the next generation of challenges in drug delivery, cancer, and immunology.

Biological systems inspire the design of novel materials for energy harvesting and to mimic the complex geometry of cardiovascular networks. Inorganic material science is used to create a wide range of biosensors, some of which are optically active, and remarkable new technologies for biomolecular separations. Optically active biosensors can characterize mechanisms in neuroscience and be utilized for disease detection. Unique biomaterial scaffolds support stem cell differentiation, tissue engineering and the repair of injuries to bone and soft tissues.

Research projects are often designed to solve problems identified through collaboration with clinicians and scientists in the world-class Vanderbilt University Medical Center that is co-located with IMS faculty on our compact campus. This robust environment amplifies interdisciplinary opportunities and promotes the development of new biomaterial technologies with translational impact.

Theory, Modeling, and Simulation

Modeling and simulation are indispensable tools in nanoscale science and engineering and a major focus area in the materials program at Vanderbilt. Using a hierarchy of simulations for electrons and atoms to structures and devices, researchers find links between the electronic, optical, mechanical, and magnetic properties and the size, shape, topology, and composition of nanostructures to further the impact of nanoscale research on technology and society and how these properties are modified as structures transition towards the atomic scale. For example, consider the vast design space for exotic thermoelectric materials, which span the range of semiconductors, then add the complexity of tuning the transport properties by nanostructuring these materials as superlattices, nanocrystalline composites, and skutterudites. Atomistic and quantum simulations help down-select promising materials based on fundamental physical quantities, and complex designs can be analyzed and optimized to help guide experimental investigations. Results of these types of studies have led to orders of magnitude improvement in performance, which promises to revolutionize how society collects, processes, and utilizes energy. Research at Vanderbilt also focuses on detailed studies of hybrid organic-inorganic monolayers used to lubricate nanostructures, transport in quantum dots used for solid-state lighting, self-assembly of lipid bilayers used to understand cell transport properties, design of active cellulases used to increase the efficiency of bio-fuel processing, the interactions of radiation with electronic materials, and much more. In addition, the properties of electronic devices are analyzed based on the underlying physics of materials (down to the atomic level) using a multi-scale approach that includes calculation of defect energy levels, thermalization of ion-generated electron-hole pairs, transport of energetic carriers in heterostructures and devices, compact modeling, and systems analysis. This approach allows improvement of the reliability of materials and devices operating in demanding environments, such as space.


Students and faculty in the optics group seek to understand how light interacts with matter, including how such interactions are modified at nano- to atomic-scales. The goal of this group is to discover and characterize novel materials and structures and exploit those novel optical properties for advanced device concepts. Research in the group is primarily focused on nanoscale materials in which reduced dimensionality offers new freedom to control light-matter interactions. Some of the areas of concentration include: nanoporous materials for chem-bio sensing, hybrid silicon components for on-chip optical signal modulation, ultrafast spectroscopy, phase-change materials, polaritonics and metamaterials, energy conversion (Valentine), infrared spectroscopy, two-dimensional materials, and control of optical forces and optical trapping concepts for biosensing. Given overlapping interests and complementary capabilities, collaborations both within and outside of the group are common, offering students a chance to work with faculty and fellow students from multiple disciplines. Members of the group frequently use the facilities of VINSE and the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, gaining valuable hands-on experience designing, fabricating, and characterizing nanoscale materials. The optics group provides students with research opportunities at the forefront of nanoscale optics, developing the next generation of materials and devices for controlling and harnessing the flow of light.


Energy is the most pressing challenge facing America's prosperity and security in the coming century. Energy is also a global issue impacting everything from our health and security, and home-life. However, the tremendous impact of the ever-growing levels of global energy consumption and its impacts upon climate change demand solutions for clean energy be found as growing economies expand and developing countries seek to improve their quality of life. Work at Vanderbilt focuses on a broad range of topics in this space, from fundamental research to understand energy transport mechanisms, as well as application-driven work on solar energy conversion, energy storage, and improving energy efficiency. Examples of research being conducted include novel approaches to fuel cells, the implementation of biological photosystems in biohybrid solar cells, hot-electron-based energy conversion, waste-heat harvesting for power, graphene as a novel electrode material in solar cells, nanocrystal-sensitized solar cells, white-light emitting nanocrystals for energy efficient solid-state lighting, and optical metamaterials for enhancing efficiency in solar cells.


Semiconductor science and technology are ubiquitous in modern civilization. It is also clear that developments in the semiconductor area are required to continue to drive the global economy. Researchers at Vanderbilt are working at the forefront of this vibrant field involving materials and device fabrication, characterization, and understanding the influence of radiation upon performance. Areas of emphasis include fundamental studies of semiconducting nanocrystals, novel materials that may be tuned for efficient light harvesting in photovoltaic devices, improving our understanding of carriers and phonons at surfaces and interfaces via ultrafast spectroscopy, nanoscale thin film and surface-interface science of semiconductor nanostructures and probing the role of defects upon the bulk material properties. However, these efforts also extend towards application-specific research, such as developing solar to fuel technologies, devices for more efficient lighting, atomic-scale graphene-based devices, and understanding the effects of ionizing radiation on microelectronic devices and materials.

Materials Research

Materials research involves constructing structure-property- processing relationships to develop emerging materials and optimize the performance of existing materials. These structure-property-processing relationships apply to all material classes including metals, ceramics, polymers, composites, and electronic materials and become increasingly important for materials at the nano- to atomic-scales. The Vanderbilt IMS faculty represents a diverse group of scientists with expertise in colloidal nanocrystal synthesis, theory and simulations, ultrafast probing of non-equilibrium dynamics , infrared characterization of novel materials and interfacial dynamics, growth of van der Waals materials, innovative development of new nanoscale materials systems and the fabrication of advanced membranes for water treatment and desalination. Specifically, there is an emphasis on two-dimensional materials ranging from graphene, hexagonal boron nitride and transition metal chalcogenides and new, non-toxic fluorescent nanocrystals. Most IMS faculty members have strong, fruitful collaborations with each other and with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) that provide access to some of the fastest computing systems in the world, sub-angstrom resolution aberration-corrected electron microscopy facilities, and world-class staff scientists. Vanderbilt offers graduate students outstanding opportunities to perform cutting edge research using state-of-the-art facilities by combining the resources at Vanderbilt with opportunities to perform research at ORNL that include the Center for Nanophase Materials Science.