CU Boulder researchers across all STEM disciplines offer summer projects for SMART students.  In your Statement of Purpose, be sure to describe research areas/topics you’re interested in; this will help us identify research labs on our campus that align with your interests.  Here are some examples of the wide variety of projects available in summer 2024.

Genome Wide Association Studies of alcohol behaviors found a “risk allele” associated with higher levels of human alcohol consumption (a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in the gene for the glucokinase regulatory protein). Our lab developed a mouse with this risk allele using CRISPR. We showed that female mice carrying this allele consume more alcohol than controls.  Summer SMART students will do behavioral testing of these mice (such as performance on a balance beam) to study their sensitivity and tolerance to alcohol. Experiments will involve injecting mice with alcohol, having them perform the behavioral tasks, and recording the data. Blood is taken and is analyzed for blood ethanol content, and the mice will be genotyped using polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Students will learn how to handle mice, perform behavioral testing and blood ethanol assays, and determine genotypes; and how to collect, record, analyze, and interpret the data.

Integrative Physiology, Neuroscience, Behavioral Genetics

Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) of tobacco smokers have identified several genes associated with smoking behaviors. To better understand how these genes work, we use a cell culture model for behavioral testing. We transfect cultured mouse astrocytes with CRISPR DNA plasmids to study the effects of several genes, then assess the cells for dendritic branching using fluorescence microscopy. Once we find genes that affect the astrocytic response to nicotine, we plan to develop a mouse model. For example, astrocytes from mice lacking the Akt2 gene and exposed to chronic nicotine showed morphology consistent with intermediate astrogliosis. Astrocytes from wild type (WT) mice showed the opposite trend. With the mouse model we will perform behavioral testing including conditioned place preference, conditioned taste aversion, and prepulse inhibition.  SMART interns will assist with handling mice; perform behavioral testing, fluorescence staining, cell culture, and genotyping; and learn proper data collection and analysis.

Integrative Physiology, Behavioral Genetics

Our laboratory uses a wide range of methods to study the molecular genetics, epigenetics and behavioral genetics of nicotine addiction and psychiatric conditions that often co-occur with nicotine use. The lab uses molecular methods, including CRISPR, to study how specific changes in the DNA of specific genes of interest affect gene function and expression in cultured cells. In addition, mouse models in which specific genes have been deleted or altered are studied to assess the role of the gene in various behavioral responses to nicotine and nicotine withdrawal. Also, we study the consequences of nicotine consumption by pregnant mice on the risk of behavioral disorders and alterations in brain biochemistry in the offspring and grand offspring of the nicotine consuming mother.

Integrative Physiology, Life Science Research

Statistical and computational analyses of large, biobank-scale datasets of complex human traits, including depression, anxiety, and substance use. The goal is to understand the genetic bases of these traits, and how they overlap and influence each other. Specifics could include one of several projects linking genetic, epigenetic, gene expression, and trait data. Examples of past summer projects include (SMART Student first author), (summer undergraduate), and ongoing work to characterize genetic regulation of gene expression.

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Behavioral Genetics, Statistics and Computation Analysis

Studies of the mechanisms by which small RNAs and/or protein/nucleic acid interactions control human gene expression. The lab uses a combination of cell-based, genome-wide approaches, biochemical experiments, and single molecule fluorescence to understand how transcription factors and microRNAs control the transcription of genes and translation of mRNAs. The exact project to be undertaken will depend on the student's interest and experiments ongoing at the beginning of the summer.

Biochemistry, Gene Expression

The ocean plays a crucial role in the global carbon cycle by sequestering atmospheric CO2. Using computational approaches, we study the interactions between carbonate chemistry and upper ocean physical dynamics on a global scale.  We can gain an idea of the strength of interactions between chemical and physical dynamics by looking at the Damköhler number (Da), a nondimensional parameter describing the ratio between the characteristic chemical and advective time scales. In this project, a SMART student will use a clustering method such as K-means (in MATLAB or Python) to study the structure of the global Da field. The student will first look at the time scales separately, then determine how other components that affect the time scales (e.g. wind speed, sea surface temperature, heat flux) are involved. This work could give us more insight into which regions and variables lead to strong interactions between the physical dynamics and carbonate chemistry in the oceanic mixed layer.

The student in this role will conduct an analysis of observational or model-produced data related to ocean biogeochemistry and climate change.

Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

The project involves installing air quality monitors and HEPA air filters in Colorado school classrooms statewide. These commonly available air purifiers can effectively filter out air pollutants—such as particulate matter from vehicle exhaust and wildfire smoke—that can trigger negative respiratory reactions and remove airborne pathogens like the coronavirus. The team will compare student absenteeism rates in classrooms with air purifiers with those without.

Civil & Environmental Engineering, and Architectural Engineering; microbiology

Applicant will aid research dissecting the circuits, signaling, and necessity of dopamine neuron subtypes related to reward and aversion processing in mice.


This project will focus on food production in urban community gardens and how insect communities affect crop yield through pollination services and herbivore pest damage. We will be examining whether or not there is a relationship between socioeconomic factors and the quality of insect biodiversity-mediated ecosystem services at community garden sites in Denver. We will collect data on insect community composition, floral resources in the neighborhoods surrounding garden sites, and fruit size in experimental cucumber plants. A SMART intern would have the opportunity to do fieldwork in Denver, insect identification lab work at CU, and plant care and data collection at the CU greenhouses. 

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

We have multiple ongoing projects in which the SMART intern can participate (e.g., peripheral circadian rhythms in humans, the pathophysiology of delayed sleep-wake phase disorder).  SMART interns will learn the fundamentals of sleep and circadian science from biological specimen collection, sleep, circadian, thermoregulatory, and cardiovascular physiology, and cognitive function. SMART interns will also learn data analysis and graphing by working on a specific data project with the topic determined by the SMART intern's area of interest in sleep and circadian science.

Integrative Physiology, Sleep & Chronobiology

The opioid epidemic continues to be a national crisis in the US and throughout the world.  Little is known about the genetic mechanisms contributing to risk for developing opioid use disorder. This project uses an inbred rat model to identify genetic contributions to several behavioral phenotypes associated with opioid use disorder. Our lab utilizes a longitudinal behavioral model to assess several phenotypes including oxycodone-induced analgesia, oxycodone self-administration, and tolerance to oxycodone. At the conclusion of the longitudinal behavioral study, tissue will be collected to assess the impact of oxycodone exposure on gene transcription. Summer SMART students will learn how to handle the rats, perform the surgical procedures, conduct behavioral testing, collect blood, and brain tissue. Students will also learn how to collect, record, analyze, and interpret the data.

Integrative Physiology, Neuroscience

Modular robots have proven valuable for STEM education. However, modular robot kits are often expensive, which makes them limited in accessibility. This research focuses on using paper and approachable technologies to create modular robots. The paper modular robot kit design involves three core technologies: paper circuits, sensation feedback mechanisms, and 3D geometry. The goal is to integrate these technologies to design and build functional paper modular robots. The kit will include various modules for inputs, outputs, and other functions. This research will address the considerations and technologies for paper as an interactive material, providing a guideline for future research and development of paper-based interaction.

ATLAS Institute, Geometry, Robotics, Computation

We will create a Digital Twin that is distributed, owned, and run by the community. Community members contribute data through personal smart devices like mobile phones and IoT devices, and incorporate external data feeds, providing a real-time glimpse of the world around us created by the nodes in that moment. All inputs are aggregated and visualized in real time. We will research how to present the Digital Twin information on different devices, considering the spatio-temporal nature of the contributed data. We will research how Machine Learning can play a role in sensing and presenting Digital Twin information. We will research how to offer community members control over what is sensed and what is contributed to the Digital Twin, considering privacy. 

ATLAS Institute, Geometry, Robotics, Computation, Coding

Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) models have risen to prominence due to their unparalleled ability to craft and generate digital assets, encompassing text, images, audio, video, and 3D models. Leveraging the capabilities of diffusion models, such as Stable Diffusion and Instruct pix2pix, users can guide AI with specific prompts, streamlining the creative journey for graphic designers. However, the primary application of these models has been to graphic content within desktop interfaces, prompting professionals in interior and architectural design to seek more tailored solutions for their daily operations. To bridge this gap, Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) technologies offer a promising solution, transforming traditional 2D artworks into engaging 3D interactive realms. We are working on ”Dream Mesh,” an MR application MR tool that combines a Speechto-3D generative workflow based on the Dream-Fusion model without relying on pre-existing 3D content libraries. This innovative system empowers users to express 3D content needs through natural language input, promising transformative potential in real-time 3D content creation and an enhanced MR user experience.

ATLAS Institute, Geometry, Robotics, Computation, Coding

The AR Time Vault is designed as an indispensable companion for frontline workers in various industries, empowering them to effortlessly recall past events. It not only comprehends the intricacies of your activities but also meticulously captures and archives essential details, turning every moment into a treasure trove of knowledge. Harnessing the power of natural language, users can effortlessly retrieve a wealth of insights and recordings from the past in augmented reality.

ATLAS Institute, Computation, Coding

Current remote communication tools partially address each of these aspects. Video calls convey real user representations but without spatial interactions. Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) experiences are immersive and spatial but often use virtual environments and characters instead of real-life representations. Bridging these gaps, we are working on DualStream, a system for synchronous mobile AR remote communication that captures, streams, and displays spatial representations of users and their surroundings. DualStream supports transitions between user and environment representations with different levels of visuospatial fidelity, as well as the creation of persistent shared spaces using environment snapshots. DualStream can enable spatial communication in real-world contexts, and support the creation of blended spaces for collaboration. We discuss new opportunities for designing more widely accessible spatial communication tools, centered around the mobile phone.

ATLAS Institute, Spatial Reasoning, Coding

The potential research areas include virus generation, mechanisms of cardiac hypertrophy regression, or genetic heart disease.  The student would work alongside another member in the lab on one of these projects.  Some research techniques that will be used include mammalian cell culture, bacterial cell culture, qPCR, western blots, DNA/RNA isolation & purification, and microscopy.  

Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, BioFrontiers Institute

Sweating makes us humans. It provides an efficient way to regulate body temperatures, which may have been a necessary condition for the development of a host of unique human traits like bipedalism and big brains. The research proposed here will investigate the stable isotopic consequences of sweating, either from a theoretical or experimental point of view, depending on the background and interests of the SMART intern.

Geological Sciences

The student will use engineering and biology tools to study how cells regulate bone material properties in a study of bones from mice flown on the International Space Station. When bone material properties decline, the bones are weak and poorly resist fracture. Depending on the interests and areas of specialization that the student brings, we will focus this project on engineering mechanics, materials science, or microbiology assessment of bone tissues and cells, or a combination of these approaches. The ultimate goal of this work is to better describe how bone cells respond to the loss of weightbearing in spaceflight and contribute to poor bone properties and increased fracture risk.

Material Science & Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology