2021 Reach for the Stars recipient are (left to right) Helen Huang, Adrienne Dove, Mel Stanfill, Thomas Wahl and Amber Southwell.

Reach for the Stars Honorees Pushing the Boundaries of Earth and Space

By: Robert H. Wells on

This year’s Reach for the Stars honorees really lives up to the award name. They are tackling some huge problems and are conducting research that betters society and improves the possibilities of the human race.

The five honorees are: making space travel safer to expand our species’ reach into the galaxy; figuring out how to combat sea rise on Earth to keep our coastal communities resilient; studying fan culture and its very real impact on societal behavior; developing an understanding of the mechanics of walking to prevent falls and extend mobility into the golden years; and finding a cure for Huntington’s disease, a brain disorder that 200,000 Americans are at-risk of inheriting.

Recipients are named during Founders’ Day. The award recognizes early-career professionals with highly successful research and creative activity with a national or international impact. Aside from working on some huge challenges, this year’s awardees generated more than $8 million in sponsored research in the past five years from organizations such as NASA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health. Common characteristics of the honorees are a deep-seated passion for their work, commitment to their students, and a willingness to share their research in ways their peers and the general public can understand.

Adrienne Dove

  • Assistant professor of physics and member of UCF’s Planetary Sciences research group
  • Ph.D. in astrophysics and planetary science from the University of Colorado at Boulder
  • Bachelor’s degree in physics  from the University of Colorado at Boulder

Adrienne Dove studies the planetary surfaces of the moon, asteroids and other small objects in space, including how they behave and interact with the surrounding electric fields and charged particles from the sun.

This research is important because it not only informs the understanding of how Earth formed and evolved but it also makes space exploration safer, as scientists can use the research results to predict how spacecraft and humans will interact with planetary surfaces.

“Dust is a significant hazard for future exploration, as it can get everywhere and cause issues in both mechanical and electrical systems, as well as to human health,” Dove says. “Fundamental research here can lead to better preparation or ways to mitigate and avoid dangerous situations.”

Dove has been interested in space and astronomy since she was a child and enjoys working on projects that are contributing to scientific understanding and space exploration.

Since coming to UCF, Dove has had her research projects fly on payloads to space aboard Blue Origin New Shepard and Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicles and housed on the International Space Station. She also led the development of the SurfSat CubeSat, which was UCF’s first spacecraft. It launched into Earth orbit in 2018 to study how spacecraft surfaces electrically charge while in orbit. Dove has received multiple grants from NASA and has secured nearly $3 million for her research since joining UCF.

Her already significant contributions to space research were recognized in 2017 with the prestigious NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute Susan Mahan Niebur Early Career Award, and she was recognized, with fellow UCF planetary scientists Josh Colwell and Julie Brisset, for a UCF Luminary Award in 2018. She is also a co-host of a successful space podcast, Walkabout the Galaxy.

Dove says she’s especially proud of seeing her undergraduate students develop academically and of the success of her graduate students who have received NASA fellowships and positions at NASA and research centers.

She chose to work as a faculty member at UCF because of the excellent research occurring and the close connection UCF has with Kennedy Space Center, NASA and the aerospace industry.

The ultimate goal for her research is to help improve the safety of long-term lunar surface exploration and perhaps one day go to the moon herself.

“Just like any other extreme environment, we need to understand those places in space before we go there so we can know how to deal with them,” she says.

Helen J. Huang

In the few short years that Helen J. Huang has been at UCF, she has soared in her role as an assistant professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Not only has she received a prestigious $1.5 million research project, or R01, grant from the National Institutes of Health, but she is also a recipient of a recent National Science Foundation CAREER award. She established her BRaIN Lab, developed and taught some of the first UCF biomedical engineering graduate courses, recruited and mentored successful undergraduate and graduate students, and became highly engaged in her college, including serving on the College of Engineering and Computer Science Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Task Force.

As a UCF researcher, Huang focuses her studies on the neuromechanics of human locomotion and adaptation, or how the brain and muscles work together so people are able to walk and keep from falling.

She got interested in the field because she loves sports, especially ultimate frisbee, soccer and ping-pong.

“I enjoy being able to move about, explore the world, and play sports,” Huang says. “So, I think as a scientist and engineer, it’s natural to want to study and understand how the brain, muscles, and body work to make those fun activities happen.”

Her goals include finding new approaches to predict falls before they happen, identifying the types of people more likely to fall, and creating personalized programs to improve people’s walking ability and balance.

To do this, she uses methods such as electroencephalography, or EEG, to record brain signals and track their changes during activities such as walking, slips, and people’s attempts to regain balance. She also studies the potential of alternative exercises, such as recumbent stepping, for helping those who have difficulties walking.

This research is particularly important for the elderly, as more than 2.8 million older Americans visit emergency rooms for fall-related injuries each year.

“My ultimate goal is to help others preserve or regain their mobility, which in turn improves their quality of life,” Huang says.

Amber L. Southwell

Advances in scientific and medical research means that people are living longer. With a longer lifespan comes debilitating diseases that occur as we age.

“So, we have this increasing mean population age with a larger and growing proportion of people afflicted with intractable and debilitating diseases,” says neurosciences researcher Amber Southwell. “The societal burden, both financially, and in terms of human suffering is enormous.”

Southwell, who joined UCF in January 2017, has dedicated most of her career to fighting Huntington disease. It is a rare, inherited disease that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. In particular, her research focuses on developing drugs to lower mutant huntingtin, the protein that causes Huntington disease.

“I chose to study Huntington disease because it is the most common inherited neurodegenerative disease,” Southwell says. “With genetic testing, we can predict who will get HD decades in advance. This means that preventative therapies are possible.”

Southwell has worked on multiple such therapies aimed at either reducing the mutant protein or preventing its production. With many of these therapies now in, or rapidly approaching clinical trials, her studies into huntingtin lowering drugs are now primarily aimed at refining their use as well as investigating the long-term consequences of reducing huntingtin.

Her lab is also looking at other factors that may affect disease onset like age since persons who have the mutated gene typically don’t get sick until mid-life.

“If we understood why, we could potentially delay disease, extending the healthy phase of life,” she explains. “So, in an effort to identify age-related modifiers of HD that we could potentially regulate, we are investigating changes that occur during normal aging, such as accumulated damage to DNA and increased susceptibility to stress.”

Southwell’s research has been supported with $2 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health as well as several research grants from other funding agencies. She has published some 40 scholarly articles, including studies in the Journal of Neurosciences and the Journal of Huntington’s Disease. She has also received numerous awards including the 2020 Top Huntington’s Disease Researcher in the State of Florida, given by the Huntington’s Disease Society of America.

“I’ve always loved science,” Southwell says. “I come from a long line of geeks, from my physicist grandmother and chemist grandfather to my mathematician mother and my toxicologist father, who is still helping me with my homework to this day.”

And while there are still many unanswered questions and challenges ahead, Southwell says she remains dedicated to saving lives through her research.

“I don’t expect that we will ever identify a magic bullet for neurodegenerative diseases,” Southwell says. “I think we’re most likely to eventually be able to manage these disorders through combination therapy. Targeted therapies that counter the cause of disease, such as huntingtin lowering drugs, and generally neuroprotective drugs that promote brain health and recovery are obvious choices.”

Mel Stanfill

  • Assistant professor of English, and program coordinator of Texts and Technology Ph.D.
  • Ph.D. in communications and media from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
  • Master’s degree in media and cultural studies from California State University, East Bay

Mel Stanfill leads novel research into the study of fan culture, which can range from people who put on costumes at Star Trek conventions to political fans who storm the capitol.

“These really intense emotional investments fans have in mediated objects — whether it’s a fictional TV show or a real politician — have huge impacts on our society,” Stanfill says. “And we can’t understand them, or our contemporary moment in history, if we don’t take fans seriously.”

Stanfill’s studies have led to two published books, multiple journal articles, and conference presentations. The National Endowment for the Humanities also recently awarded Stanfill and a co-principal investigator a grant to study digital culture.

Stanfill’s areas of study include analyzing race, gender, and sexuality in fandom; cultural and social aspects of media law; and how people make sense of and use technology. The researcher also explores political fandom, sports fandom, and how fan participation has been a business strategy for media industries and media personalities.

Stanfill is currently working on a new book project about reactionary politics in fan cultures, which are politics that seek to roll back the postwar social change to an imagined better past.

The ultimate goal for Stanfill’s research is to improve society’s understanding of everyday practices fans have in relation to media, as these often can be tied to broader questions about identity, inequality, and how society is maintained.

The researcher chose to work at UCF because of the opportunity to work in the Texts and Technology Ph.D. program in UCF’s College of Arts and Humanities.

“Texts and Technology is an interdisciplinary program operating at the intersection of digital technology and the humanities,” Stanfill says. “Getting to work with students studying everything from Ted Cruz memes in the 2018 Senate election to adoption and cataloging of LGBTQ+ books in elementary school libraries to how white racial identity is constructed in tweets from Mexico and Argentina has been a profoundly rewarding experience.”

Thomas Wahl

Thomas Wahl’s research focuses on coastal systems, and in particular sea-level rise, tidal changes, storm surges, waves, and river discharge and how these forces interact to cause problems such as coastal erosion or flooding.

This research is important since 40% of the U.S. population resides in coastal counties. These counties are at increasing risk to feel the negative impacts of climate change, such as flooding, which can be minor and happen on a regular basis or be very extreme.

“Understanding how climate change is affecting sea level and hydrometeorological extreme events is crucial in order to adapt to these changes and mitigate the negative impacts we would otherwise feel,” Wahl says.

Wahl says he became interested in coastal research because he’s always been a fan of the coast and beach, even though he grew up far away from it.

In Germany, where Wahl was born, most of the coastline is heavily protected by tall dikes or dunes, and there is not really such a thing as a beach-front view but rather a dike-front view, he says.

“So, when I came to the U.S., I quickly realized how different the situation is here and how vulnerable many coastal communities and ecosystems are, even today without additional changes,” Wahl says.

Since coming to UCF four years ago, Wahl has secured funding from major federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has led to more than $2 million in funding for his research group.

Wahl’s research has been published in top journals, including Nature CommunicationsNature Climate Change and Reviews of Geophysics. He also contributed to the 6th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations. He says his greatest accomplishments though are seeing his students and postdocs thrive and make great strides in their academic careers.

Wahl says the ultimate goal for his research is to continue to push coastal science forward and also work with stakeholders to help transfer his research to something useful for them on the ground.

“Being a part of UCF Coastal has really opened new opportunities and in a sense reshaped how I see my own research and where I want it to go moving forward, as it is clear that no individual discipline will be able to address the wicked problems we are dealing with and an integrated approach is needed,” Wahl says.

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