From left to right, top row: Perla Latorre-Suarez, Pavlo Kravchuk, Balaashwin Babu, and Rachel Hytovick. Bottom row: Christopher Rehberg, Cory Kinney, Jose Zapata. Not pictured: Charles Clark, Michael Tonarely, and Jose Bobren-Diaz.

Ten UCF Graduate Students Awarded Florida Space Grant Consortium Fellowships

By: Kissimmee Crum on

Ten UCF graduate students have been awarded NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium (FSGC) fellowships. The students represent various colleges and disciplines, studying a range of topics in nanotechnology and mechanical and aerospace engineering that have the potential to advance space exploration.

The NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium awards two different types of fellowships in areas of space science and engineering. One award is a Dissertation and Thesis Improvement fellowship, which provides partial support of a student’s thesis and doctoral dissertation beyond the existing project. The maximum award for the Dissertation and Thesis Improvement fellowship is $5,000 for projects with a duration of no longer than a year. The other award is a one-year master’s fellowship, which includes a stipend of $10,000 for those pursuing a full-time master’s degree.

The Dissertation and Thesis Improvement Fellowship recipients are:

Nanotechnology

  • Pavlo Kravchuk; Mentor: Assistant Professor Ellen Kang
  • Balaashwin Babu ’20; Mentor: Professor Sudipta Seal

College of Engineering and Computer Science

  • Corey Kinney; Mentor: Professor Subith Vasu
  • Jose Bobren-Diaz; Mentor: Professor Subith Vasu
  • Michael Tonarely ’20; Mentor: Associate Professor Kareem Ahmed
  • Charles Clark ’19; Mentor: Associate Professor Kareem Ahmed

The Dissertation and Thesis Improvement fellowship is offered in an effort to support students by providing supplemental funds that are not readily obtainable. These awards can be used to help sponsor travel to specialized facilities, laboratory supplies, software licenses, and other necessary research materials for the duration of the fellowship program.

Balaashwin Babu ’20, who earned a bachelor’s in biomedical sciences from UCF, says the award will help him continue his work centered on reducing oxidative stress in order to better treat space-related bone loss among astronauts.

“The amount of information and knowledge from our experiences in outer space can enhance our lives here on Earth,” Babu says. “I focused my proposal on astronauts, but bone loss is something quite prevalent even here on Earth. What we learn will likely help us here too.”

In order to apply for the fellowships, students must also have mentors and they were thrilled at this year’s results.

“It is a testament to the high-quality students we have at UCF, who are working on NASA-relevant research; these new awards would make a total of 15 students who received the FSGC fellowships from my group,” says Professor Subith Vasu, who mentors awardees Cory Kinney and Jose Bobren-Diaz.

Assistant Professor Ellen Kang says she was excited to see what her student Pavlo Kravchuk would accomplish next.

“I am very grateful to see how my student pushes his boundaries for achieving challenging goals. I look forward to seeing what he accomplishes with this FSGC fellowship,” Kang says.

Master’s Fellowship recipients are:

Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

  • Christopher Rehberg ’20; Mentor: Professor Kawai Kwok
  • Jose Zapata ’21; Mentor: Professor Jihua Gou
  • Perla Latorre-Suarez ’21; Mentor: Professor Seetha Raghavan
  • Rachel Hytovick ’20; Mentor: Professor Kareem Ahmed

The FSGC Master’s fellowship is awarded to the best and brightest students, offering aid in their pursuit of a master’s degree in space-related disciplines. Working closely with NASA and the applicant’s university, this fellowship fosters collaborations between the government, private laboratories, faculty, and students. Applicants submit proposals based on research they are actively working on to be considered for a $10,000 stipend.

Jose Zapata, who transferred into UCF to study mechanical engineering in 2018, says the award will help him pursue his passion — making space operations safer for astronauts and eventually everyday people.

His research focuses on adding a health monitoring system to wind turbines. This system could ideally identify hazards before they become critical.

“Waiting for something bad to happen isn’t a good idea,” he says. “It’d be really vital if we could inspect the whole shuttle or rocket and easily protect areas that are damaged, instead of working on an entire system from scratch.”

Engineering Professor Seetha Raghavan says all the recipients are working on research that will impact space-related technology. The money will help talented students finish their advanced degrees, which will also serve as an inspiration for others.

Raghavan’s mentee, for example, Perla Latorre-Suarez ’21, is looking to develop a 3D-printing method to manufacture sensors in space environments that will monitor the structural integrity of the machinery and vehicles used. Latorre-Suarez hopes to implement these sensors in future lunar explorations, such as the Artemis Mission.

“Perla is highly active in outreach, so I know that this opportunity is one that will have a positive impact on all the undergraduates and K-12 STEM students that she mentors as well,” Raghavan says.

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