A record-breaking 16 UCF students and alumni — eight from the College of Engineering and Computer Science — were named National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellows this year. An additional seven singled out for honorable mentions.

Started in 1952, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is the oldest graduate research program of its kind and recognizes graduating seniors and first-year graduate students studying in STEM disciplines. Awardees receive an annual stipend of $34,000 for three years as well as $12,000 that can be used toward tuition and fees. As part of the five-year fellowship, recipients also have opportunities for international research and professional development and the freedom to conduct their own research. Past fellows include Nobel Prize winners, former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Google founder Sergey Brin and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

“I’m so proud of the Knights who received NSF Graduate Research Fellowships and those who were named honorable mentions,” says UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “This is truly a momentous accomplishment in their research careers and is indicative of the tremendous potential they have in their respective fields. UCF continues to break its own records in the number of recipients of these prestigious awards and recognitions each year. We also acknowledge the commitment and hard work of our amazing faculty who mentor our undergraduate and graduate researchers and enable them to participate in path-breaking innovation while studying here at UCF.”

For the 2021 competition, NSF received more than 13,000 applications and offered only 2,074 awards.

Meet the eight fellows from CECS:

Lianne Brito ’19

Major: Civil Engineering

University involvement: McNair Scholar, LEARN student and peer mentor, UCF STEM Ambassador, Florida Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Scholar, Graduate School Prep Advisor for Academic Advancement Programs, and member of the Student Undergraduate Research Council

Currently: Pursuing a PhD in civil engineering at the University of Colorado – Boulder

Research: During earthquakes, soil can change from a solid to acting like a liquid, as a result of a combination of excess water and ground shaking. This phenomenon is known as liquefaction, and can cause significant damage to buildings and other structures. For example, during the 2010 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, liquefaction caused damage to nearly 60,000 residential buildings and properties and cost an estimated $17.5 to $21 billion. Brito’s research is focused on using a centrifugal acceleration in a transparent box to gain a better understanding of how seismic deformation happens in layered and stratified soils. “The creation of knowledge and tools that better evaluate the risk and consequences of earthquake-induced soil liquefaction in realistically variable sites will directly contribute to the safer design of sites and structures in such soil conditions, contributing directly to the resilience of our cities in the U.S. and globally,” she says.

What’s Next: After earning her doctorate, Brito hopes to work in industry for a few years and then become a university professor.

Jake Carter ’19

Major: Mechanical Engineering

University involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar

Currently: Pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of California – Berkeley

Research: According to the American Transplant Foundation, an average of 20 people die every day due to a lack of available organs for transplant and liver and kidney disease alone kill more than 120,000 people every year. Carter’s research is working to create technology to prolong how long organs can survive while in transit using isochoric cryopreservation. “My overall goal is to extend the viability of transplantable organs so that they are no longer wasted,” he says.

Up Next: After earning his doctorate, Carter hopes to continue research in biomedical engineering and to become a professor to help others pursue their scientific interests and develop devices that have a positive impact on society.

Brendon Cavainolo

Major: Aerospace Engineering

University Involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, President’s Leadership Council, and member of the COMPASS and EXCEL programs as well as UCF’s chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space

Currently: Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and a minor in computer science at UCF, completing an undergraduate research assistant apprenticeship, and working part-time as an undergraduate teaching assistant

His Research: Water can prove deadly for pilots. Tiny droplets may seem unproblematic on land, but up in the air, they can freeze gears and equipment, potentially impacting an aircraft’s performance and controllability. Cavainolo’s research is focused on using inexpensive simulation models to determine how to remove those droplets before they freeze, making it easier to design safe aircraft. His research also has applications in stopping the spread of airborne diseases, such as coronavirus. “One specific research goal I was particularly proud of achieving was applying adaptive meshing techniques to the water droplet simulations,” he says. “This drastically reduces the cost of full 3D simulations without sacrificing much accuracy. Full 3D simulations are key because droplet breakup dynamics are often asymmetric.”

Up Next: Has applied to graduate programs at UCF, University of Florida, Penn State University and North Carolina State University and is waiting to hear back.

Robert Greene ’20

Major: Aerospace Engineering

Currently: Pursuing a PhD in aerospace engineering at UCF and recently finished a collaboration with researchers at MIT for the U.S. Department of Energy, focused on investigating new alternative fuel replacements for traditional fossil fuels.

Research: Combustion engines continue to play a big role in transportation — from cars to planes to rockets. But they continue to be among the top producers of greenhouse gas emissions. Greene’s research is focused on developing new diagnostic techniques that provide better insight into the fundamental chemistry and physics of propulsion devices, such as rocket motors and car and jet engines. “Understanding these phenomena will enable better and more efficient design of systems that can increase fuel efficiency and combat greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.

Up Next: After earning his doctorate, Greene hopes to become a university professor.

Erica Lindbeck ’20

Major: Mathematics and Electrical Engineering

University involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, National Merit Scholar, undergraduate research student in the Communications and Wireless Networks Lab

Currently: Pursuing a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Florida and working part-time as a graduate research assistant

Research: Assessing the structural health of or damage to infrastructure can be challenging and expensive. It’s not so simple to examine a foundation with a multiple story building sitting atop it or inspect a bridge that could cause major disruptions to commutes. Lindbeck is working on using acoustics, which can detect even the smallest of fractures, to provide structural health monitoring. “Acoustic waves allow us to identify problems in structures like buildings, bridges, and airplane wings,” she says. “This makes current infrastructure safer and helps us design more reliable infrastructure in future.”

Up Next: After earning her doctorate, Lindbeck hopes to either join a national lab or become a professor.

Latifah Maasarani ’19

Major: Photonic Science and Engineering

University involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar and Astronaut Scholar

Currently: Pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at Duke University

Research: Building on traditional microscopes, digital microscopes use optics and digital cameras to output images to a monitor. Working with the team at Duke, Maasarani is working on developing a digital microscope that uses deep learning and edge computing to capture images of birefringent materials — which refract light, making them difficult to capture using traditional methods. “This work would provide a system to digitally deduce the necessary polarization information from a birefringent sample without the need for a pathologist to personally scan a slide under a microscope,” she says. “This could ultimately decrease the time and cost for polarization-sensitive diagnoses.”

Up Next: Pursuing a doctorate in biomedical engineering at Texas A&M. Afterward, she plans to leverage her optical and biomedical engineering background to lead a biomedical startup company focused on improving the accuracy of patients’ diagnoses to create better medical treatment plans.

Bryan Medina

Major: Computer Science

University involvement: McNair Scholar, Order of Pegasus recipient, EXCEL tutor, graduate prep advisor, teaching assistant at the Summer Institute @ UCF, STEM ambassador, vice president and co-founder of the Cognitive Sciences Club at UCF, and vice president of UCF’s chapter of SACNAS
Currently: Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science at UCF and conducting research at MIT as a visiting student

Research: Advances in machine learning have led to deep artificial neural networks (DNNs) capable of performing complex perceptual tasks — such as distinguishing between odors or musical pitches and identifying multiple objects in a busy visual scene — in realistic environments. Those functions are similar to the ones used by humans and other species, and DNNs can offer new lines of study into how they operate. Working with researchers at MIT, Medina is applying advances in the networks to develop a standard baseline for how humans are capable of differentiating between everyday sounds, such as cars revving, birds chirping and people speaking. “The expansion of this system into several different languages (such as tonal languages) could pave the way towards improving intercultural communication,” he says. “Machine systems that can better perceive pitch could also aid in inferring emotional states from recorded audio in medical scenarios such as therapy sessions. And the computational models optimized on natural hearing conditions may inform the design of cochlear implants that are functionally like a healthy ear in natural settings.”

Up Next: Has been accepted to doctoral programs in neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, MIT, NYU, Princeton and UC Berkeley. He is currently deciding which program to attend.

Kelsey Perez

Major: Civil Engineering

University Involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, McNair Scholar, LEARN student, volunteer for UCF Animal Awareness Committee, and member of American Society of Civil Engineers, Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honors Society and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers

Currently: Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at UCF and serving as a drainage design intern at BCC Engineering

Research: Climate change has led to stronger storms and sea-level rise, both of which are leading to coastal erosion around the globe. As part of her honors undergraduate thesis, Perez is analyzing the effects of Hurricane Ivan on Dauphin Island in Alabama to better understand the risk to and response needed for barrier islands during high category hurricanes. She has also done research on the potential of wave energy converters to extract wave power and mitigate coastal erosion. “WECs have shown the potential to decrease the effects of erosion on the coast by up to 30%,” she says. “Therefore, inserting WECs on the coast could prevent further erosion and provide renewable energy to local communities.”

Up Next: Has been accepted to the geotechnical and structural engineering master’s program at UCF and the doctoral program in civil engineering at Georgia Tech. She is currently deciding which program to attend.

Story by Laura J. Cole, UCF Today