Six University of Central Florida faculty members recently received highly competitive National Science Foundation CAREER awards, and three are in the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

All six recipients are early-career scientists and engineers with high potential of leading major advances in their respective fields and who will serve as academic role models. Their research covers everything from quantum physics to machine learning, keeping teens safe online, and new ways to examine nanoscaled chemical structures.

Competition is stiff for CAREER awards, granted by NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development program. The number of applicants varies but can have up to a couple of hundred depending on the discipline. Researchers at universities, nonprofit research groups and government agencies are eligible, and winners receive a minimum of $500,000 for five years.

“This is an exceptional year for some of our junior scientists and the number of NSF CAREER awards reflect that,” says Debra Reinhart, associate vice president for the UCF Office of Research. “At UCF, we encourage early career faculty to join us, with the expectation that they will be doing the kind of innovative work that attracts this kind of recognition.”

College of Engineering and Computer Science Recipients

Tania Roy, Assistant Professor, UCF Department of Materials Science and Engineering, UCF NanoScience Technology Center

Roy’s work is expected to revolutionize the field of machine learning. It involves developing artificial neurons and synapses on the same materials platform to enhance machine learning hardware. Devices where the machine-learning hardware is close to the sensor will give rise to systems that are currently impossible to create: systems that can emulate the capacity and speed of the human brain for pattern matching.

Fast-pattern recognition abilities through these deep neural networks will enhance speech recognition in portable electronics, improve traffic analysis and control systems, improve autonomous driving, space vehicles, smart wearables and more.

Roy explains what it could mean for society. “Imagine a wearable device that can not only monitor your health conditions like Apple Watch, but also can provide diagnosis without connecting to the internet.”

Current portable devices must connect to enormous data servers located remotely for all pattern recognition tasks, such as health monitoring, which consumes high amounts of energy.

“Our work will enable energy-efficient circuits that are light and small enough to be contained in portable, wearable devices. This can truly revolutionize the way we interact with the world. Artificial intelligence will be on our fingertips,” Roy said.

Roy also will collaborate with local STEM organizations to provide hands-on research opportunities to underrepresented K-12 and community college students. Research highlights will be displayed at the Orlando Science Center for general public awareness. The work could lead to increased electronics industry investment in Florida.

Roy joined UCF in 2016 and holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Vanderbilt University.

CAREER Award Summary: Scalable monolithic integration of Graphene/MoS2/Graphene artificial neurons and synapses for accelerated machine learning

Laurene Tetard, Assistant Professor, UCF Department of Physics and NanoScience Technology Center, and Joint Appointment in UCF Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Tetard and her students are studying important molecular structures of living systems at the nanoscale. Using polarized infrared light and plasmonics to enhance a method known as Atomic Force Microscopy, the researchers can observe the chemical and structural properties of single molecules and their assemblies.

The new approach will enable deeper understanding of important fundamental processes in chemistry, food science, catalysis, environmental science, forensics, and biology.

“The ability to probe small assemblies to study how their secondary structures impact their functions will deepen our understanding of natural phenomena.”

The team is also contributing to nanoscale science education by generating educational materials to communicate the concepts and relevance of its research through a series of workshops that offer hands-on and project-based activities in the U.S. and internationally, and will be made available to teaching laboratories.

Tetard also hopes to influence the next generation STEM students. “The interactive activities will help us attract a more diverse group of students. I am eager to see our UCF students share their knowledge with other students abroad. I hope this will be a very enriching experience for them.”

Tetard joined UCF in 2013 and holds a Ph.D. from University of Tennessee Knoxville.

CAREER Award Summary: Instrument Development of Plasmonic-Assisted Nanomechanical Detection for Polarized Spectroscopy and Imaging

Pamela Wisniewski, Assistant Professor, Department of Computer Science

Wisniewski’s research will close a critical gap in adolescent online safety technologies by integrating adolescent developmental psychology with interaction design and computer science to create new knowledge, theoretical frameworks, reusable design patterns, and technologies that will keep teens safe in the Digital Age.

She emphasized the importance of empowering teens to protect themselves. “We cannot rely solely on parental control technologies to keep teens safe online,” said Wisniewski. “Teens, such as foster youth, who are most vulnerable to serious online risks like sexual predation, often lack parental supervision. Therefore, online platforms need to incorporate safety features by design, so that teens can navigate online risks and benefit from what the internet has to offer.”

Her research will explore how teens experience and cope with online risks and experiences, and develop appropriate interventions which will include working directly with teens to co-design solutions. These evidence-based interventions will be disseminated to designers and developers of online platforms that cater to teens.

The ambitious program intertwines research and education to engage teens, college students, experts in adolescent psychology, experts in participatory design and research methods, community partners, and industry stakeholders in a community-based effort to build the village needed to protect youth from online risks.

Wisniewski joined UCF in 2015 and holds a Ph.D. from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is also the first computer scientist to become a William T. Grant Early Career Scholar for her work in reducing digital inequalities among marginalized youth.

CAREER Award Summary: Safety by Design: Protecting Adolescents from Online Risks

Three Additional NSF CAREER Awardees at UCF

Zhongzhou Chen, UCF College of Sciences, a physics expert building an online learning for mastery system that creates a student-centered STEM-learning environment; Madhab Neupane, UCF College of Sciences, a physics expert studying the electronic and spin properties of new quantum materials; and Xiaoming Yu, UCF College of Optics and Photonics, who is researching ultrafast lasers for advanced manufacturing.

– UCF –