his year’s winners are from left to right: Mehdi Razavi, Sharma Thankachan, Brian Kim, Kawai Kwok and in the lower level: Tengfei Jiang, Thomas Wahl, Eric Jung and Fei Liu.

Another Record Year for UCF — 8 NSF CAREER Award Winners

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

The U.S. National Science Foundation has named eight UCF professors 2022 NSF CAREER award recipients.

All of the recipients are engineers by training who are working on interdisciplinary projects that aim to improve health or to develop new technology that promises to improve our lives. The awardees represent the most promising junior researchers in the nation with the potential to lead in their respective fields, according to criteria outlined by NSF. This brings UCF’s total NSF CAREER winners to date to 85.

UCF has seen a rise in winners for the past few years. In 2019, the Office of Research launched a program to help junior faculty prepare their applications. The results — a record 12 winners in 2020. There were five winners in 2021, above the norm for UCF in the past decade. This year’s results continue the positive upward trend.

The winners all share three common traits. They are experts in their respective areas. They are curious about the world, and they believe their students are invaluable to their success.

They are:

  • Fei Liu, associate professor of computer science
  • Tengfei Jiang, assistant professor of material science and engineering
  • YeonWoong Jung, assistant professor of material science and engineering with an appointment to the Nanoscience Technology Center
  • Brian Kim, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering
  • Kawai Kwok, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering
  • Mehdi Razavi, assistant professor of medicine, materials science, and engineering, and a member of the Biionix Cluster
  • Sharma Thankachan, assistant professor of computer science
  • Thomas Wahl, assistant professor of civil engineering and member of UCF Coastal
Teaching Computers to Understand Human Language

Fei Liu
College of Engineering and Computer Science
Grant: $494,348

The shift to remote learning and working experience during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic clarified the problem of information overload. School children who had to learn remotely were especially hit hard because they had so much digital information to sort through.

Assistant professor Liu is at the forefront of developing ways to reduce information overload by teaching computers to better understand the human language. She leads the Natural Language Processing Group at UCF. An algorithm she and her team developed helps computers identify important details in large batches of data to produce summaries that help reduce information overload.

Unlike humans who can interpret intended meanings behind typos, spelling errors, abbreviations and most slang, computers must learn to do it. That computer-generated voice you hear when listening to directions from your smart phone or car sometimes mispronounce words or make mistakes because they haven’t perfected human language. The worst thing that can happen in these applications is a wrong turn. However, getting it right when dealing with telemedicine or financial data is critical.

That’s where Liu’s CAREER grant comes in. It will help her and her team develop a unified methodological framework for automatic transcript summarization. Automatic transcript summarization enables the production of textual summaries from transcripts of audio and video recordings. It holds promise for numerous industries that have large collections of transcripts, ranging from telehealth and telemedicine, financial services, video conferencing, to podcast and livestream service providers. Liu and her team expect to harness the power of deep neural networks and linguistic structure prediction to induce document structure on transcripts and enable the production of comprehensive summaries, according to her proposal to NSF.

Liu joined UCF’s computer science department in 2015 after working at Carnegie Melon University and Bosch Research in California. Bosch is one of the largest German companies building intelligent car systems and home appliances.

Liu also is a member of the national collaboration of natural processing language group Noah’s Ark. She has multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in computer science. She has published more than 60 academic papers and is funded by several groups including the NSF, Amazon and Adobe among others.

Creating New Microelectronics

Tengfei Jiang
College of Engineering and Computer Science
Advanced Materials Processing and Analysis Center
Grant: $500,000

The pandemic triggered supply chain issues including a shortage of semiconductor chips which has impacted more than 160 American industries from computer makers, vehicle companies and even dishwasher makers.

Assistant professor Jiang hopes to help give American more options by unlocking the power of materials used in semiconductor chips. Her research looks at materials and their manipulation to advance high performance computing. Traditional microelectronics follow Moore’s Law of scaling. Simply put, transistors are made smaller and smaller to increase device density and improve performance. However, at a certain point the benefits of miniaturizing diminishes and cost increases. At the same time there is a growing demand for higher performance computing from individual users that tap into their smart home systems to companies using big data and the cloud for daily business operations.

So how do we improve output and power? Jiang says one promising solution could be three-dimensional integrated circuits (3D IC). This is a new approach that allows for interconnected stacked electronic circuits. Copper is a potential material to use in building the structure, but it has limitations and reliability issues within a device. This is where Jiang comes in. She’s looking to find ways to make this technology more efficient and solve the reliability issues.

“The CAREER award will let me focus on addressing the fundamental reliability challenge of 3D interconnect to fill important knowledge gaps,” she says. “This research will pave the way for high density 3D heterogeneous integration that can enable a broad range of critical applications such as high-performance computing, autonomous vehicles, mobile connectivity and aerospace and defense applications.”

She credits her Ph.D. advisor at the University of Texas at Austin, Paul S. Ho, with her passion and drive.

“He was encouraging of female students in his group, telling us that we could excel when we put our hearts to what we work on,” she says.

She also encourages her own students to pursue excellence and says that without them, her work wouldn’t be possible.

“Students are indispensable,” Jiang says. “They are the ones doing experiments in the lab and running models. Students generate results to make my research ideas possible. I also get inspired when I discuss with my students.”

Jiang joined UCF in 2015. She has published more than 21 papers in peer-reviewed publications and has funding from various corporations and funding agencies. She holds multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering.

Exploring Stretchy Laptops and Smartphones

YeonWoong “Eric” Jung
College of Engineering and Computer Science
Nanoscience Technology Center
Grant: $562,713

Imagine a smart phone that bends or stretches and can withstand the extremes of the Mariana Trench on Earth or the cold valleys of the moon.

Assistant professor Jung is studying materials and nanotech that could one day make this possible.

“When the size of materials becomes extremely small — down to the nanoscale (smaller than 1/1,000,000 times of a human hair thickness) they start exhibiting unusually exciting and superior properties which cannot be obtained in any traditional materials,” Jung says. “The 2D materials that I’m researching can be stretched more than 10 times compared to silicon (the major driver for modern electronics) while still preserving excellent electrical conductivity and semiconducting properties, which are essential for digital electronics. This research enables us to project creating extremely stretchable electronic devices based on the 2D materials. Think laptops or cell phones that can be twisted, folded, and stretched in all dimensions.”

That means potentially packing more computing or optical power and flexibility for use in a broad array of environments.

Jung’s curiosity for creating new materials and search for excellence drives his work and why he loves working with his students in the lab.

“[Students] are pivotal in all aspects of my research,” he says. “Without them, none of what I have accomplished at UCF would be possible … I’m very proud of them. My graduate students have received more than 30 awards for their research excellence inside and outside UCF. They have also found great jobs in places such as Apple, Intel and Yale University. Seeing how they are growing professionally is always quite rewarding and inspiring for me, and it continuously help me keep my momentum in doing what I’m doing.”

Jung joined UCF in 2015 and has published more than 100 journal papers. He has funding from federal agencies including the U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and from corporations including Samsung. His work led to two patents. Jung holds multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in material sciences and engineering. Before arriving at UCF he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Yale University. In 2022 Jung was named a UCF Reach for the Stars awardee.

New Tech to Help Doctors Understand Neurological Diseases

Brian Kim
College of Engineering and Computer Science
Grant: $500,000

When assistant professor Kim was in middle school, he got his first set of prescription glasses because he was nearsighted. The improvement in his vision launched a lifetime desire to create technology that can improve our health and lifestyle.

Fast-forward several decades and Kim is working on new imaging tech that will capture a brain’s chemical activity in precise detail, which will help doctors better understand neural circuits in relation to emotions, learning, thinking, remembering and decision making. The in-depth data will also provide more clues about neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. As if that wasn’t enough, the technology holds the promise of informing scientists and engineers who are figuring out how to create neuroprosthetics, which could repair motor control needed for the better use of artificial limbs or sensor functions, such as hearing or vision.

“I became interested in technologies, even in sci-fi movies and animations, that can not only repair human functions but also improve them beyond our limits,” he says. “For now, our ability or lack of to interface with the brain is the most significant limitation on introducing effective neuroprosthetics.”

Like the other NSF CAREER awardees, Kim says his students are invaluable to his work. His Bioelectronics Laboratory currently includes one postdoctoral scholar, two graduate students and two undergrads, and he has openings for more.

Before joining UCF Kim held positions at University of California at Berkely and as a senior electrical engineer at Stratos Genomics, now Roche Diagnostics. Kim joined UCF in 2016. He has published more than 16 research articles and many more conference papers. His lab is funded by a variety of agencies including the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. He holds multiple degrees including Ph.D. in biophysics.

Shape Changing Structures for Space Travel and Beyond

Kawai Kwok
College of Engineering and Computer Science
Grant: $500,486

You can learn a lot from observing nature. It’s the inspiration for much of assistant professor Kwok’s work, which focuses on developing shape-changing structures. These kinds of structures can be used on space missions, for drone work and for solar sails and blades among other applications.

“I was fascinated by how some insects fold their wings around their bodies when crawling through tiny spaces,” Kwok says. “The ability to transform their wings allows them to quickly switch between flying and crawling, making them among the most agile species in the animal kingdom. … What’s more rewarding is that once we understand these principles, we can use them to create new and extraordinary engineering devices that can change our lives.”

Among Kwok’s ongoing research is the use of thin-ply composites to support satellite payloads, such as solar sails for solar-powered space travel, or to serve as supports for large spacecraft. For the NSF CAREER award he will focus on harnessing snapping instabilities for shape shifting reconfigurable structures.

He says students are an integral part his lab, which is why Kwok is using part of his funding to give students more resources.

“They carry out much of the hard work, from building computational models, creating prototypes, running experiments to curating the results,” he says. “Working with students is truly a joyful experience. They ask hard questions, bring ingenuity, and come up with great ideas. I have learned a lot from these young minds.”

Kwok’s lab has conducted research that indicates that mechanical testing machines can be produced at low cost using off the shelf components. His goal is to set up a process where he can provide them more broadly to students.

“Very often undergraduates only get to see videos or demos about mechanical testing due to the lack of available tests,” he says. “The grant money will allow us to look into scaling up production. Eventually we want to hand these machines to students in undergraduate classes to enhance hands-on learning.”

Kwok joined UCF in 2017. Prior to UCF he worked as a researcher at the Department of Energy Conversion and Storage at the Technical University of Denmark. He holds multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in aeronautics. In addition to his CAREER award, he has been recognized with the NASA Robert H. Goddard Exceptional Achievement for Engineering award. He has published more than 27 articles and is funded by several agencies including NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the U.S. Office of Naval Research. He also serves as a reviewer for NSF and NASA, which means he helps select faculty and student awards in certain areas.

Developing Implants of the Future

Mehdi Razavi
College of Medicine and College of Engineering
Biionix Cluster
Grant: $606,413

Assistant professor Razavi’s goal is to reduce the pain many patients feel especially when suffer a fracture. Although he’s not a medical doctor, much of the work he and his team conduct focuses on using engineering to eventually help improve patient outcomes.

Bone injuries and degeneration caused by aging, cancer, accidents and even sport’s injuries often require metal implants to restore a patient’s mobility. But those implants often pose problems as the body rejects the foreign objects. One possible solution is the use of bioabsorbable magnesium implants. Currently these implants corrode too quickly, generating harmful hydrogen gas pockets. That’s a major challenge, which Razavi will work to overcome with the funding provided by his CAREER grant. The group will focus on improving the corrosion resistance to produce better magnesium-based bone implants.

“I remain optimistic that the basic science we all do today, will lead to new technologies to help patients in the future,” he says.

Razavi was deliberate in choosing UCF as his home. After completing postdoctoral work at Stanford University, which was on the heels of work at the Brunel Center for Advanced Solidification Technology — a world renowned casting center in the United Kingdom — he wanted to find a place that would support a collaboration among mechanical engineering, material science, medicine and nanotech. He saw the potential at UCF.

UCF was an ideal incubator of synergies. Home to the Advanced Materials Processing and Analysis Center, the NanoScience Technology Center, the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, the College of Medicine and the Biionix Cluster, it was a no brainer for Razavi.

“Together they provide a hub for biomedical innovation that is transforming Orlando into a globe destination for biomedical education, research and healthcare,” he says. “All these together create a top working environment which is hardly found at other universities.

Razavi like the other CAREER winners says that students are the heart of his research.

“They are like my second family,” he says. “All I have accomplished and will achieve is because of my students. These students work alongside me, and I can’t thank them enough for all the things they have done.”

Razavi holds multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in biomaterials. He has published more than 80 articles and his work has contributed to securing eight patents. His students are also successful, includine, most recently, Angela Shar was awarded a Goldwater Scholarship. He mentors several students graduate, undergraduate and high school students.

From Puzzle Solving to Algorithms Design

Sharma Thankachan
College of Engineering
Grant: $595,000

Assistant professor Thankachan is a huge fan of puzzles, especially math puzzles that model real-world problems. Some are easy — sorting a given set of numbers. Others are tougher — on a multi-city road trip, what order should you visit to reduce the number of miles traveled or how to reconstruct the genome sequence of a human from an extensive collection of small fragments of the same genome (known as the genome assembly problem)?

That’s where Thankachan comes in. He specializes in advanced algorithms for solving problems where the underlined data is in the form of strings or sequences.

“String algorithms form the backbone of many data processing tools across various applications, especially computational biology,” he says. “I love the math behind those algorithms, which is why this research area is so intriguing. I am grateful for the academic freedom I receive as an assistant professor that allows me to pursue such research.”

With this CAREER award Thankachan aims to design advanced techniques for indexing/querying compressed string data, which is highly repetitive (a feature prevalent in many modern data sets) and complex graphs (derived from biological sequences, known as pan-genome graphs). The award will also fund several Ph.D. students for multiple years and create opportunities for master’s and undergraduate students to get involved in his lab. He is also planning on conducting research workshops open to students from within and outside UCF who want to jump-start their research.

“I am lucky to get the opportunity to work with some of the best students at UCF,” he says. “They brought several prestigious awards to UCF, like the Goldwater scholarship. Two of my Ph.D. graduates are now tenure-track assistant professors. These students played a significant role in my research.”

He says he cares about what happens to students after graduation. This is reflected in his selection for the College of Engineering and Computer Science Excellence in Faculty Advising Award in 2021.

Thankachan received has several degrees including a Ph.D. in computer science from Louisiana State University. He worked as a postdoctoral researcher and research scientist at the University of Waterloo and the Georgia Institute of Technology before joining UCF in 2017. He has authored or co-authored more than 100 research papers and is a frequent speaker at conferences.

Helping Protect Coastlines

Thomas Wahl
College of Engineering
Sustainable Coastal Cluster
UCF Coastal
Grant: $550,000

When sssistant professor Wahl was studying civil engineering in college, he had no idea he could apply his knowledge to help protect the world’s coastlines.

“I didn’t even know that coastal engineering was an actual field of study,” Wahl says.

It was his Ph.D. advisor who turned him onto the field, and he’s never looked back.

“My research is at the interface of coastal engineering and physical oceanography,” he says. “Much of our work is applied and we collaborate closely with stakeholders from federal or state agencies helping them to improve the ways that coastal risk assessments are performed or how coastal structures are designed, especially in the face of climate change.”

He’s a national expert, contributing to reports presented to the United Nations and speaking to businesses and government agencies throughout Florida. He has completed several studies that have gained national and international attention for their findings about storm surge and sea level rise. Nowadays, his biggest motivation is more personal.

“Having two young children really changed my perspective on the work that I do on understanding and mitigating the impacts of climate change to our coastlines and society,” he says. “I want them to be able to enjoy the beautiful beaches and costal communities around the globe the same way I have.”

The CAREER award will not only allow Wahl to continue his research, but it also gives him an opportunity to broaden his impact in the community, which starts with his students.

“Without the students and postdocs in my group, there would not be much research,” he says.

Those students also will be involved in two new initiatives that will be funded with the CAREER award.

“We will be initiating a collaboration with the Orlando Science Center to develop new content for the Science on a Sphereexhibition, and we will also actively participate in an international program which brings students from developing countries to Florida every year to receive special training on water related issues.”

Wahl joined UCF in 2017. He has written more than 40 articles since arriving at UCF and his work is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, NASA, the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Transportation, among others.

The International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Ocean recognized Wahl with the Early Career Scientist Medal in 2021, the same year UCF selected him for the Reach for the Stars award. He has also penned several book chapters and presentations for national and international conferences. As an expert in his field, he sits on various journal review boards. And he mentors four postdoctoral scholars, five graduate students, and one undergraduate.

“They are the pillars of my research and advising them and seeing them succeed is the most rewarding aspect of my job,” he says.

For more information about the NSF CAREER prep program and others offered to help faculty with proposals contact the Research Development Office or Professor Saiful Khondaker (Saiful@ucf.edu), who helped established the program.

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