Research Topics

Below is a list of research topics supported by the AFRL. You may apply for an internship at more than one location: Kirtland/AMOS, Eglin/Hurlbert or Other Locations. You are required to complete an application for each location. You may apply for up to three (3) topics for a location on an application.

Use the filters and keyword search below to find research topics of interest.




Scholars are encouraged to contact any mentors whose projects they find of interest. To contact the mentor, use the link included at the conclusion of each project description.

Airmen Stress Scenario Simulation using Cultured Cells: Mitochondrial Health & Organ-Level Effects
Mentor: Saber Hussain, Human Effectiveness
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D., Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

Airmen constantly endure an evolving spectrum of operational stress scenarios that are vital to the continued success and achievement of the Air Force mission directives. These stress scenarios can include extreme physical exertion, extreme temperatures, excessive G-Force, pressure changes, low oxygen environments, or exposure to space radiation, chemical or particle contaminants. Further, various stress factors induce changes in physiological or psychological attributes that affect performance through metabolic mediators that cause structural and functional recalibrations of mitochondria. Mitochondria are always in constant flux by changing their morphology and energy production in response to the energy (ATP) needs of the cell. The dynamic nature of the mitochondria allows for rapid detection of physical or cognitive impairment by characterizing the structure and the function of the mitochondria. The structure of the mitochondria is directly related to energy production efficiency, which allows recent advances in the field of microscopy (i.e. 3D electron microscopy, flow cytometry & high content live cell imaging) to capture minute changes in mitochondrial morphology that are characteristic to a certain injury state. Furthermore, cutting-edge molecular biology techniques such as extracellular flux analysis compliment microscopic data to bridge cellular mitochondrial health to metabolic health and ultimately Airmen organ-level effects. The information from both microscopic and molecular biology analysis provides a strong correlation that can be fed into in silico simulations which utilize artificial intelligence to rapidly extrapolate Airmen performance outcomes from early stage mitochondrial changes due to operational stress responses.


Automation & Autonomy for Space-Based Manufacturing
Mentor: Jennifer Martin, Materials and Manufacturing
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D., Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

Space dominance is critical to maintain superiority during conflict, yet the scientific principles and standard approaches utilized during ground-based operations are often challenged during orbit. For example, manufacturing in space has the potential to improve product performance by taking advantage of properties that cannot be duplicated on earth, enhance launch efficiency and power generation by on-orbit assembly, and reduce service time and costs by developing custom components on-site. On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) encompasses the rapidly growing field of manufacturing in space, providing next-generation solutions for structural assembly, fabrication, and refuel/repair in orbit. An important component of OSAM is the use of novel approaches for robust, autonomous robotics to accomplish critical manufacturing tasks in high-risk environments. This opportunity focuses on the investigation and development of algorithmic approaches for OSAM using robotics, with potential areas of interest including: autonomous path planning, sensor integration for robust control, human-robot and robot-robot teaming, and autonomy in austere environments. Research in this area will enable new approaches for manufacturing in space, advancing the state-of-the-art in autonomous robotics.


Composite Performance Imaged Based Characterization and Modeling
Mentor: Craig Przybyla, Materials and Manufacturing
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: High School

Will develop algorithms and frameworks to automate the quantification and characterization of continuous fiber reinforced composites. Algorithms will incorporate state-of-the-art image processing tools and new artificial intelligence and machine learning based approached for feature extraction of pertinent microstructural features, tracking features in three-dimensions and quantification of the features using a variety of topological and/or statistical descriptors. In addition, will assist with data collection using a verity of imaging tools such as optical or electron microscopy and x-ray computed tomography. Work will be documented through presentations and reports and regularly reviewed by the other members of the research team.


Effects of Inhaled Particles on Lung Surfactant Function: Impact on Airmen Readiness Engaged in High-demand, High-impact Mission Tasks
Mentor: Saber Hussain, Human Effectiveness
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D., Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

Airmen constantly endure an evolving spectrum of operational stress scenarios that are vital to the continued success and achievement of the Air Force mission directives. Exposure to extreme conditions in space missions (e.g. temperature, gravity, radiation, pressure) is linked to critical medical attributes that impact the Airmen readiness engaged in high-demand, high-impact mission tasks. Lung surfactant (LS), also called pulmonary surfactant, is a phospholipid-protein complex secreted by the type II alveolar epithelial cells that combines with water in the lungs to create a film at the air-liquid interface. LS serves as a protective barrier to prevent absorption of harmful particles into the bloodstream while simultaneously reducing surface tension to near zero. This reduction in surface tension stabilizes alveoli against collapse by reducing the amount of effort required to inflate the lungs during breathing. Additionally, reduced surface tension increases breathing efficiency by reducing alveolar pressure and maximizing surface area for gas exchange. Diminishment of LS function contribute to the onset of collapsed alveoli, acute respiratory distress syndrome, tissue damage, and reduced Airmen readiness & performance. The goal of this project is to implement a novel method that simulates diminished lung surfactant function and assesses respiratory health effects of particles through biophysical (cell-free) and biochemical (in vitro) endpoints.


Electronic-grade dielectric integration for high-power, high frequency electronic devices
Mentor: Ahmad Ehteshamul Islam, Sensors
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D., Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

Successful integration of dielectrics into a transistor process flow with negligible defect density has historically been the key for wide scale application of electronic devices in aerospace applications. Dielectrics are needed not only as gate insulators, they are also needed for passivation. The presence of defects either in the bulk or in the interface of these dielectrics critically affects the performance of transistors. Additional defects are formed either during operation of the device and/or due to exposure to radiation.

The semiconducting channel in transistors studied for aerospace applications are generally made with III-V (like GaAs, GaN, AlGaN) or III-O (like Ga2O3, AlGaO) materials. These materials do not have a native dielectric as Si has in the form of SiO2; and therefore, have an unoptimized dielectric/semiconductor interface even after 40 years of their introduction into RF electronics. In addition, formation of novel dielectrics on these materials poses additional challenges in terms of bulk and interface defects, radiation damage, and carrier injection into dielectric, which leads to instability in device operation. Significant research opportunities therefore exist in integrating classical and novel dielectric in III-V and III-O based semiconductors.

This research topic targets integration of dielectrics in high-power III-N and III-O based transistors. This will require optimization of a wide range of process parameters during device fabrication in AFRL/RY’s class 100 (ISO-5) cleanroom. Resultant devices will go through extensive electrical (impedance spectroscopy, DC/RF testing, transient, noise analysis), optical (different forms of spectroscopy and microscopy) and materials characterization for confirming the effect of different process parameters on device performance. AFRL has excellent characterization capability that will be useful for such characterization. The goal of this project is to generate critical and novel knowledge that will enable application of III-N and III-O materials by satisfying the unique requirements of the United States Air Force and Space Force.


Fabrication of Mid- and Long-Wavelength Infrared Detectors and Focal Plane Arrays
Mentor: Gamini Ariyawansa, Sensors
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Ph.D.

Our research interests include development of Infrared (IR) Materials, Detectors, and Focal Plane Arrays (FPAs) utilizing group III‐V materials, mainly Sb-based type II strained layer superlattices (SLSs), and novel detector architectures such as unipolar barrier detectors. Through design, material growth, and device fabrication, we are developing FPAs to cover the mid wave infrared (MWIR) and long wave infrared (LWIR) spectral bands for passive imaging. There has been significant progress recently in MBE growth of these SLS materials, opening up the possibility of new device architectures that were not possible before. However, the device performance could still be limited by the surface current if the detector pixels are fully reticulated. In this project, the focus will be on new fabrication processes, including mesa geometries and surface passivation techniques as a way to produce devices with improved performance and mitigate surface leakage current. Novel concepts and solutions amenable to commercial‐scale FPA manufacturing are encouraged.


Investigation of Biophotonic Cellular Communication to Understand Mechanisms of Performance
Mentor: Saber Hussain, Human Effectiveness
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D., Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

Cell-to-cell communication is important for the proper function of biological systems. Different molecules are traditionally seen as information carriers activating pathways and eliciting cellular responses but there is emerging evidence of cellular communication by light as a form of non-molecular information transfer in many organisms. Almost all life spontaneously emits weak photon emissions as part of chemical reactions taking place inside each cell during normal or stressed conditions, known as ultra-weak photon emission (UPE) or biophoton emission. Despite a century of research, little is known about the specific mechanisms of biophoton generation and reception as well as the information encoded in biophoton signaling. Therefore, the goal of this research is to understand the relationship between cellular signaling and intracellular photonic emission. Compared to chemical and electrical forms of cell communication, our knowledge of cellular signaling through cell-based photons is primitive. The significance, mechanisms for photon generation and detection, and quantification of spectra, intensity, and spatial and temporal distribution are important features of this phenomenon that require further investigation. Beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, the level of radiation in space pose a significant risk to human health and performance. The effect of this radiation on biophoton emission is of great interest to determine the physiological effects of space missions.


Nanoscale Vacuum Field Emission Devices
Mentor: Harris Joseph Hall, Sensors
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D.

This research topic seeks to extend the state of the art in achieving robust 2-terminal (diodes) and 3-terminal (transistors) nanoscale vacuum field emission devices, that are suitable for low power digital, RF amplification, and high power switching circuits intended to operate in austere and space environments and/or exceed performance of existing solid state technologies. Predictable device operation over long time scales and elevated temperatures is a key metric to enable technology transition. We are interested in concepts that span both traditional and non-traditional materials but are largely amenable to leveraging existing wafer-scale microfabrication technologies. Modelling and simulation based design, fabrication, and experimental characterization of fundamental emission mechanisms, devices, and fundamental circuits is all within the scope of this topic.


Nanoscale Vacuum Field Emission Devices
Mentor: Harris Joseph Hall, Sensors
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D., Upper-level Undergraduate

This research topic seeks to extend the state of the art in achieving robust 2-terminal (diodes) and 3-terminal (transistors) nanoscale vacuum field emission devices, that are suitable for low power digital, RF amplification, and high power switching circuits intended to operate in austere and space environments and/or exceed performance of existing solid state technologies. Predictable device operation over long time scales and elevated temperatures is a key metric to enable technology transition. We are interested in concepts that span both traditional and non-traditional materials but are largely amenable to leveraging existing wafer-scale microfabrication technologies. Modelling and simulation based design, fabrication, and experimental characterization of fundamental emission mechanisms, devices, and fundamental circuits is all within the scope of this topic.


Personalized Chatbot with Natural Communication
Mentor: Emily Conway, Human Effectiveness
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: High School, Masters, Ph.D., Lower-level Undergraduate, Upper-level Undergraduate

The Mission of the Warfighter’s Division is to develop technologies to aid the Warfighter in their mission. In particular, we focus on the Warfighters wellbeing and ensuring the Warfighters’ trust in any technologies we develop. Building trust between human and machine is no easy task. Often times the solution is to develop an elaborate user interface to model each mechanism of the machine or the solution is to have the human repeatedly train with the machine to eventually gain trust in its accuracy. Both of these solutions take time. We propose a strategy based on how humans quickly build trust with other humans—communication.
We can use a text-to-text dialogue agent to not only build trust between human and machine, but also help personnel recognize and address moments of stress and burnout within themselves. To achieve this goal requires capabilities that have not yet been developed. Such capabilities are the ability to identify stress from conversational text in a work place setting, the ability to identify the best remedy for different types of stress, and the ability to identify and adapt written communication style to the style best received and understood by the user.


Profiling Cold Tolerance in Human Subjects through Circulating Molecular Biomarkers
Mentor: Reilly Clark, Human Effectiveness
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: High School, Lower-level Undergraduate

As U.S. Arctic military activity increases, it is vital that warfighters are trained and acclimatized to the extreme cold environment to ensure optimal cognitive and physical performance. Currently, it is difficult to tailor training regimens and acclimatization protocols, as each individual has a different level of cold tolerance. This study will profile human subjects exposed to cold environments through circulating molecular biomarkers. Whole blood has been collected from human subjects participating in a Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (NAMRL) cold exposure study. In this project, we will be processing the human blood samples and utilizing next generation sequencing to analyze whole transcriptomes and small RNAs from the cold-exposed subjects. Emphasis will be on wet lab work with forays into data analysis to assess quality of sequencing runs.


Topological Correlation Tracking to Inform the Design of Reactive Materials
Mentor: Kelsea K Miller, Materials and Manufacturing
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D., Upper-level Undergraduate

Reactive materials (RM) are heterogeneous multifunctional materials that exploit the complexity of extreme dynamic environments to enhance effects from the interplay of the RM with existing explosive formulations. This has downstream effects on dynamic phenomena such as fragmentation and shock-induced reactivity – all of which originate within the microstructure of the RM. However, current processing technologies make no attempt at microstructural optimization of RM formulations. An organized, structured approach to designing smart, optimized RM for use in next generation munitions is needed rather than exhaustively attempting new RM formulations by trial alone.
The heterogeneity that exists within multiphase materials, specifically RM, generates unique topological features that can affect downstream shock wave propagation in extreme environments. These topological features can modify the shock wave and therefore modify the inherent bulk thermodynamic state achieved by the processing of the RM. Thermomechanical processing (e.g. isostatic pressing, swaging, extrusion, ball milling) allows a degree of control to tailor topological and morphological features during RM consolidation. These consolidation methods generate unique microstructures specific to the respective processing route, and we seek to understand how the microstructures evolve during processing and how topology/morphology can influence energetic performance.
Compacted materials generated by thermomechanical processing and synthetically generated microstructures serve as inputs to hydrocode simulations, and by using microstructural characterization functions such as two-point statistics, we can measure the evolution of the topology that the features of interest have during a shock compression event (i.e. hot spot density, high-pressure zones, shock wave percolation). We aim to establish linkages between topology, material properties, and energetic performance and define the relationships between metrics in a multidimensional design space. We seek to define “good” and “bad” microstructures, and iterate designs in the multidimensional design space to optimize the selection and production of RM to design smart munitions.


Topological Correlation Tracking to Inform the Design of Reactive Materials
Mentor: Kelsea K Miller, Materials and Manufacturing
Location: Wright-Patterson
Academic Level: Masters, Ph.D., Upper-level Undergraduate

Reactive materials (RM) are heterogeneous multifunctional materials that exploit the complexity of extreme dynamic environments to enhance effects from the interplay of the RM with existing explosive formulations. This has downstream effects on dynamic phenomena such as fragmentation and shock-induced reactivity – all of which originate within the microstructure of the RM. However, current processing technologies make no attempt at microstructural optimization of RM formulations. An organized, structured approach to designing smart, optimized RM for use in next generation munitions is needed rather than exhaustively attempting new RM formulations by trial alone.
The heterogeneity that exists within multiphase materials, specifically RM, generates unique topological features that can affect downstream shock wave propagation in extreme environments. These topological features can modify the shock wave and therefore modify the inherent bulk thermodynamic state achieved by the processing of the RM. Thermomechanical processing (e.g. isostatic pressing, swaging, extrusion, ball milling) allows a degree of control to tailor topological and morphological features during RM consolidation. These consolidation methods generate unique microstructures specific to the respective processing route, and we seek to understand how the microstructures evolve during processing and how topology/morphology can influence energetic performance.
Compacted materials generated by thermomechanical processing and synthetically generated microstructures serve as inputs to hydrocode simulations, and by using microstructural characterization functions such as two-point statistics, we can measure the evolution of the topology that the features of interest have during a shock compression event (i.e. hot spot density, high-pressure zones, shock wave percolation). We aim to establish linkages between topology, material properties, and energetic performance and define the relationships between metrics in a multidimensional design space. We seek to define “good” and “bad” microstructures, and iterate designs in the multidimensional design space to optimize the selection and production of RM to design smart munitions.