A record-breaking 16 UCF students and alumni were named National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellows this year — with an additional seven singled out for honorable mentions.

“This is truly a momentous accomplishment in their research careers and is indicative of the tremendous potential they have in their respective fields.”
— President Alexander N. Cartwright

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 this year’s fellows:

Zoe Barbeau ’20

Major: Mathematics
University involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, RAMP Scholar, women’s crew, vice president of TriKnights at UCF, and member of Fencing Knights and the American Ceramic Society President’s Council of Student Advisors
Currently: Pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford University and serving as a high energy density physics intern at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Research: In order for gasoline to fuel a combustible engine, such as the ones found in most cars, it first must be broken down into a mist (known as being atomized), mixed with air and turned into a vapor. Among the biggest challenges for this process is ensuring fuel isn’t wasted during the process, reducing emissions and improving performance — all of which become even more complicated when that process is happening in space. Barbeau’s research is focused on testing and developing a way to code the atomization process for large-scale simulations, particularly for space flight applications. “We’re focused on improving our ability to predict the reliability of rocket propellant during in-space ignition,” she says.
Up Next: After earning her doctorate, Barbeau hopes to work at a national laboratory.

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.

Stephanie Castelin ’19

Major: Psychology
University involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, McNair Scholar, member of Volunteer UCF, vice president of the Multicultural Psychological Student Association, webmaster for the Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology, and guest services associate at the Student Union
Currently: Pursuing a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Cincinnati and serving as a graduate research assistant at the UC Partnerships for Improvement and Treatment in Community Health Lab
Research: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 has adversely impacted people of color more than their white counterparts, with Black individuals dying at nearly twice the rate of white individuals and being hospitalized nearly three times as much. To better understand the impact this has had on the Black community, Castelin is part of a team conducting a needs assessment that will be shared with policy makers to help reduce health disparities. She is also a research mentor on a National Institutes of Health-funded grant aimed to engage high school students on drug use in their communities. “My honors thesis at UCF most clearly determined my desired career path and research interests in examining the socio-ecological determinants of mental health within the Black community.”
Up Next: After earning her doctorate, Castelin plans to engage in research and clinical work with the ultimate goal of developing mental health interventions for communities of color.

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.

Chiu Lok Poon

Graduate Program: Biology
University Involvement: Member of the UCF badminton club
Currently: Pursuing a master’s degree in biology at UCF and serving as a graduate student assistant and graduate teaching associate.
Research: Electric knifefish, such as the electric eel, prefer to hunt in the cover of night. Poon is working with Associate Professor of Biology William Crampton to learn more about how the phases of the moon impact these fishes’ electric pulse rate, which slows down during a full moon, likely to avoid detection by predators. “We think that fish take more risk in foraging under bright nights, as the trade-off between predation risk and foraging opportunity shifts,” he says. “Using a new system, we are studying this fundamental trade off in organism between predation risk and foraging because predation risk (moon brightness) and foraging activity (electric pulse rate) can be quantified.”
Up Next: Pursuing a doctorate in biology at UCF.

Brittany Robaina-Caicedo ’20

Majors: Biomedical Sciences and Latin-American Studies
University Involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, LEAD Scholar, McNair Scholar, LEARN student, iACE peer mentor, and member of Chi Upsilon Sigma
Currently: Serving as a PREP Scholar at The Scripps Research Institute.
Research: MDR1 (multi-drug resistance 1) is a gene that helps protects cells from toxic substances. While they mitigate the harsh effects of the drugs used during chemotherapy, they can also become a barrier against effective treatment, which has led to using MDR1 inhibitors in conjunction with chemotherapy. Robaina-Caicedo’s research is focused on using a fluorescent protein to determine the subcellular location of MDR1 in T cells, which play a critical role in helping the body fight off and build immunity to foreign substances. “We hope to use this information to guide us towards understanding MDR1’s function in T cell biology,” she says. “Better understanding the role of MDR1 will provide us with insight to develop better treatment strategies against diseases implicated by mutations in MDR1 and will also provide new information about the rationale use of MDR1 inhibitors.”
Up Next: Has been accepted to the National Institutes of Health Oxford-Cambridge Scholars program, a doctoral program in immunology at the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctoral program in immunology and microbial pathogenesis at Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently deciding which program to attend.

Ashley Santana

Majors: Biotechnology and biomedical sciences
University Involvement: McNair Scholar, member of the Student Undergraduate Research Council, transfer student peer mentor for the Office of Undergraduate Research, former vice president for the Eureka Research Society, and a former undergraduate researcher in the Soft Functional Materials and Sensors Lab
Currently: Pursuing a double major in biotechnology and biomedical sciences at UCF
Research: BAF chromatin remodeling complexes are what are known as epigenetic regulators, meaning they play significant roles in activating or suppressing certain cellular functions. Their failure to operate properly is linked to human disease, most commonly cancer. When it comes to all types of cancer, BAF chromatin remodeling complexes play a significant role in the suppression of tumors with roughly 20% of all cancer deaths showing defects, making them among the most common when it comes to malignant diagnoses. Santana’s research is comparing the protein composition found in these complexes both in cancerous and healthy tissues. “Understanding the unique protein compositions of cancerous chromatin remodeling complexes can advance the creation of cancer therapeutics with specificity in inhibiting tumor growth,” she says.
Up Next: After graduating, Santana plans to pursue a graduate degree in biomedical sciences with the ultimate goal of becoming a biotechnologist and contributing to the development of therapeutics for human disease.

Katie Stahlhut

Katie Stahlhut ’20

Major: Biology
University Involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, Goldwater Scholar and National Merit Scholar
Up Next: Pursuing a doctorate in biology at the University of Miami in Ohio.

Natalie Verdiguel

Major: Psychology
University Involvement: Burnett Honors Scholar, McNair Scholar, LEAD Scholar, LEARN student and peer mentor, member of the Student Undergraduate Research Council, peer mentor and student assistant in the Office of Undergraduate Research,
Currently: Pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at UCF and serving as a research intern at Cornell University
Research: Spending time in nature has long been touted as a way to help heal what ails you. But did you know that even views of nature while staying in the hospital have been proven to help with a faster and smoother recovery after surgery? While not all hospitals can provide stunning views to patients, Verdiguel is working with researchers at Cornell University and the University of Arkansas to examine whether images of nature can prove equally effective and if a particular season or color scheme is more beneficial than another. “Our study’s results could contribute to a better understanding of subjective experiences of nature imagery and establish easy-to-adopt guidelines for interior design choices for patient rooms in hospitals and other areas in need of restorative design elements, such as schools and workplaces,” she says.
Up Next: Pursuing a master’s degree in human-environment relations at Cornell University.

Ali Younis ’19

Major: Chemistry
University Involvement: McNair Scholar and STEM Ambassador
Currently: Pursuing a doctorate in chemistry at University of California – Irvine

Honorable mentions went to: mechanical engineering doctoral student Jessica Baker ’20, aerospace engineering doctoral student Jacklyn Higgs, computer science undergraduate student Gary Hoppenworth, physics undergraduate student Samuel Rincon, chemistry doctoral student Lorianne Shultz ’19, aerospace engineering grad Zachary Stein ’20 and mechanical engineering undergraduate student Zachary Whitacre.

Students interested in applying for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship or other major national awards should contact Morgan Bauer in the Office of Prestigious Awards at opa@ucf.edu.