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3 UCF Students Participate in Prestigious Department of Defense Fellowship

The fellowship is granted to STEM majors and graduate students who intend to pursue a doctoral degree and can complete a research project relevant to the DoD’s interests.
By: Marisa Ramiccio | November 2, 2023
UCF students Daniel Dyson, Andrew DeRusha and Alphonse Marra have received National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate fellowships from the U.S. Department of Defense.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has selected three UCF students for the 2023 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) fellowship. The award is granted to STEM majors and graduate students who intend to pursue a doctoral degree and can complete a research project relevant to the DoD’s interests.

This year, 165 students from 68 U.S. institutions were selected for this fellowship, which lasts for three years and covers tuition and fees for any doctoral program in the country. Participants also receive a monthly stipend and are paired with a research mentor who will guide them through their chosen project. At the end of the fellowship, students have the chance to present their research at the annual NDSEG Conference.

Since the program’s inception in 1989, more than 4,500 fellowships have been awarded to college students. This year’s UCF awardees are:

  • Andrew DeRusha ’22, aerospace engineering
  • Daniel Dyson ’21 ’22MS, aerospace engineering
  • Alphonse Marra, physics
Andrew DeRusha ’22

DeRusha may not have his career path solidified yet, but he’s already following in his father’s footsteps. His dad worked as an engineer while DeRusha was growing up and introduced him to the ultimate space saga, Star Wars. His interest in the franchise, paired with the influence of his father’s career, led him to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering.

DeRusha walked across the UCF stage in Spring 2022 and has already completed the first year of his aerospace engineering doctoral degree. He says the NDSEG fellowship will help him explore his interests and entertain future engineering and research possibilities.

“The fellowship is the perfect opportunity to help me find out what I want to do,” DeRusha says. “All I know is that I love engineering and am passionate about research. I hope that whatever my career ends up being, I can continue to work in a research role.”

DeRusha will flex his research skills as he develops a multi-species laser-absorption sensor, used in diagnostics for combustion systems. He’ll also continue to work in the Vasu Lab, led by Professor of Aerospace Engineering Subith Vasu, an experience that led him to the NDSEG fellowship.

“I am incredibly excited and honored to have been selected for the fellowship,” DeRusha says. “It’s incredibly satisfying to receive recognition, but it also reminds me to be thankful for all the people who helped me on the path to being given this award.”

Daniel Dyson ’21 ’22MS

Like many aerospace engineering students, Dyson was drawn to the field of astronautics through the space shuttle program and the burning questions it posed in his young mind: How does a rocket function? How can it carry a payload from Earth to space?

His career path was set after attending the Florida Space Grant Consortium Engineering Academy, which allowed him to tour the UCF engineering labs, design and test model rockets, build popsicle-stick bridges, and code in Java.

“These projects and my mentors from this program encouraged me to pursue a degree in engineering and really kickstarted my development as an engineer and a researcher,” Dyson says.

After earning two degrees in aerospace engineering, interning at Northrop Grumman and working on research projects with Vasu, Dyson is now a full-fledged engineer and researcher. He’ll use the skills he’s honed at UCF to complete his NDSEG research project, which aims to reveal new insights regarding combustion and explosion dynamics.

Dyson will specifically study the combustion of burning fuel droplets that contain nitrogen and their effects post-detonation as well as the combustion process of nitromethane. But perhaps his most compelling discovery will come from the experience itself. Dyson says he looks forward to future mentorship from scientists and engineers and learning more about careers in research.

At UCF, the two-time alum will still be mentored by Vasu as he completes his doctoral degree in aerospace engineering. Dyson says he chose to attend UCF not only for its location and tuition support, but its reputation as SpaceU.

“Most importantly, I recognized UCF’s reputation as a leader in providing the Space Coast with new engineers ready to tackle the biggest challenges in industry,” Dyson says. “Remembering that it was outer space that initially encouraged me to pursue engineering in the first place, it seemed like I was destined to pursue engineering in Central Florida and become a Knight.”

Alphonse Marra

Physics doctoral student Marra’s research began with ultrafast physics during his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He became fascinated with the use of lasers to study phenomena at very short timescales.

“To me, physics is all about pushing the limits of our knowledge of the physical universe,” Marra says.

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Marra began working at UCF on a new project to build a laser alongside a well-respected group with a history of success. Marra’s focus on physics is attosecond science, and he works with Pegasus Professor Zenghu Chang. The next step in their research is to focus on generating few-cycle pulses capable of driving single-isolated attosecond pulses.

The NDSEG fellowship he’s received will give him greater flexibility with his research and allow him to travel to conferences like a seminar at the Air Force Institute of Technology, where he is presenting this fall.

“I’m grateful for the staff members in the Department of Physics and the sense of community in the department, Marra says. “I have a lot of people from UCF to thank, from machinists to fellow students to professors and many others. I especially am grateful to my PI (principal investigator), professor Chang, for his dedication to our research.”

Story from 3 UCF Students Participate in Prestigious Department of Defense Fellowship in UCF Today by Marisa Ramiccio and Morgan Lemmen