Thomas Bryer empowers neighborhoods. Debopam Chakrabarti battles malaria. And Damla Turgut promotes smart technology that improves lives.

UCF’s 2024 Pegasus Professors represent different disciplines and colleges. But they are more alike than not. All are global influences in their fields and deeply passionate about advancing student success, making valuable discoveries and elevating their university’s reputation for excellence and impact.

Each will also receive $5,000 in earning UCF’s most prestigious faculty honor.

The campus community is invited to celebrate them and other exceptional faculty for their remarkable teaching, research and service at Wednesday’s Founders’ Day Faculty Honors Celebration from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Pegasus Ballroom of the Student Union.

Meet the 2024 Pegasus Professors.

Thomas Bryer

Thomas Bryer

College of Community Innovation and Education, School of Public Administration

Fun fact: He enjoys acting in community theater. His first role was Bobby Brady in a theatrical adaptation of The Brady Bunch.

Thomas Bryer champions civic engagement and partnership as an antidote for political dysfunction and discord.

Bryer’s timely research on teaching and conveying democratic principles and how communities, government, business and organizations can collaborate for better results has made him a global authority on civic engagement. He says his best insights come from rolling up his shirt sleeves and delving into communities, gleaning from their realities and challenges what residents and local organizations can do together to brighten the future.

“Broadly speaking, my work focuses on institutional design to create more civically healthy communities,” says Bryer, who arrived at UCF in 2007, fresh from earning his doctorate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “How do we help develop active, ethical citizens? How do we restructure institutions — including governments, nonprofit organizations and universities — to adapt to the changing environments around us and to better empower folks in a democracy? That’s what I try to do.”

His prolific work is resonating. His 10 books address democracy’s great challenges, including teaching the next generation about democratic ideals and overcoming civic apathy and paralysis to improve neighborhoods and communities. His latest book, Integrating Community Engagement in Public Affairs Education: Solutions for Professors Working in Divisive Environments, was just released, and a future book is under contract. Publishing, however, is one aspect of Bryer’s impact at UCF.

For instance, in league with Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania, he developed a first-of-its-kind international undergraduate dual-degree program in public administration and nonprofit management. It offers civic insights not found elsewhere to students here and abroad. His work helped earn him the Global Lithuanian Leader Award for Scientific Contribution.

At the UCF Downtown campus, where he is based, Bryer serves as director of community-engaged scholarship. He focuses on ways students, faculty, staff and surrounding community stakeholders can engage for positive results. He says UCF Downtown is becoming what he expected when it opened in 2019, “which is a campus to empower not only faculty, staff and students but also the neighbors, the neighborhoods and the residents of the Orlando area.”

What Bryer enjoys most about UCF is interacting with students. He’s supervised 14 Ph.D. students, with three more to help hood on stage during May commencement.

“As a young university, we have an entrepreneurial spirit, which is critical for the success of the work I do and the kinds of big-vision ideas I try to put forward.” —  Thomas Bryer, Pegasus Professor

“Being able to mentor students is the most special thing for me,” he says. “Their passion is infectious.”

Bryer’s next research adventure, funded by the National Park Service, starts in May. Bryer, his wife, Andrea, and 4-year-old son, Edward, will spend more than a year in a 20-foot travel camper at selected national parks as Bryer chronicles the contributions and impact of park volunteers. He’s writing a blog about a journey expected to yield three books, including one that might be offered at park service gift shops and a children’s book he’ll co-author with his son.

At a university that surpasses boundaries, Bryer is on the leading edge in his field — just as he had hoped to be when UCF’s opportunities, innovation and potential attracted him years ago.

“As a young university, we have an entrepreneurial spirit, which is critical for the success of the work I do and the kinds of big-vision ideas I try to put forward,” Bryer says.

Debopam Chakrabarti

Debopam Chakrabarti

College of Medicine, Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, head of the Division of Molecular Microbiology

Fun fact: Close friends know him as a “foodie” who grows gorgeous English roses.

UCF infectious disease specialist Debopam Chakrabarti fights malaria, the world’s deadliest mosquito-borne illness. And he’s landing significant punches.

Chakrabarti is a pioneering leader in his field who pursues novel approaches with other expert researchers for conquering a disease that in 2022 inflicted nearly 250 million people and killed 600,000 around the globe, hitting sub-Saharan Africa especially hard. The researchers’ efforts include enlisting cancer drugs, repurposing other approved medicines and identifying promising natural product-derived antimalarials from sources such as fungi, bacteria and coral and sponges from the ocean.

It’s painstaking work in a race to save lives. Current drugs are losing traction in preventing and curing malaria cases. The disease is getting tougher to treat as parasites become more resistant. Led by Chakrabarti, UCF is at the forefront of finding and accelerating fresh alternatives.

“My anti-malaria drug discovery program started at UCF,” said Chakrabarti, who joined UCF in 1995. “It’s a UCF-grown program that is finding the cure for malaria.”

His early research on malaria produced a major breakthrough by initiating gene fragment sequencing used to better understand and target parasites. Chakrabarti was also among the first to explore repurposing cancer drugs for malaria therapy. Now, a 5-year, $3.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health partners UCF researchers with scientists at Stanford University and the University of California San Diego to test cancer drugs for malaria-thwarting properties. Their study was published recently in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

Through a second $3.8 million NIH grant, Chakrabarti’s team partners with a University of Oklahoma chemist to examine how fungus-derived compounds kill the malaria parasite, with insights detailed last month in Cell Chemical Biology.

Chakrabarti’s prominence in malaria research developed after he left the University of Florida as the scientific director of molecular biology services for a new research opportunity at a smaller school of 25,000 students near Orlando. He wasn’t sold initially on leaving Gainesville.

UCF was known for optics, lasers and engineering, yet the university had done little research in the biomedical sciences and lacked a doctoral program in the discipline.

“Once I got the offer, I had to think about whether it would be a wise decision to join when there was nothing there almost,” he says.

But Chakrabarti saw a bold future for UCF and Orlando, already a fast-growing major metropolitan area with potential for attracting a medical school and more health-related research. His vision proved to be spot on over time, and Chakrabarti has thrived as an impactful force for progress.

“UCF is a young institution. Its growth is creating new opportunities and directions, and that’s very gratifying.” — Debopam Chakrabarti, Pegasus Professor

He was deeply involved in the expansion of UCF’s biomedical research programs, which eventually led to the development of the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. Chakrabarti was part of the team that created a doctoral program in biomedical sciences and a bachelor’s degree program in biotechnology. He also fashioned a biotechnology laboratory course that gained international attention.

In the mid-1990s, Chakrabarti was among UCF’s first faculty members to attain a NIH grant, starting a funding streak with the federal agency that continues. His work has resulted in four patents for innovative antimalarial programs and four more applications are pending.

He also takes pride in training the next generation of scientists, preparing UCF students for successful careers and fostering interest among high school students in biomedical studies. A professed around-the-clock scientist, Chakrabarti has no plans to wind down.

“UCF is a young institution. Its growth is creating new opportunities and directions, and that’s very gratifying,” he says.

Damla Turgut

Damla Turgut

College of Engineering and Computer Science, chair of the Department of Computer Science 

Fun fact: She likes swimming: “I don’t get to swim a lot, but every year I promise myself I should swim more,” she says.

Damla Turgut’s packed days at UCF leave little room for the pool. But she’s OK with it. She’s jazzed by her work, the growth of her students and faculty colleagues — and future possibilities.

“When people say ‘Your work is your life,’ I think I’m probably a good example of that. I don’t think I really associate with 8 to 5 or 8 to 8. There’s no timeline for me,’’ says Turgut, who is known to answer emails late at night and before sunrise. “There’s never a dull moment in computer science.”

Turgut joined UCF in 2002 when it had half of today’s 69,000 enrollment. Having just earned her doctoral degree in computer science and engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington, she faced an intriguing career decision: Start at a prominent university with grand old buildings and set ways or take a chance on a promising young school with an entrepreneurial spirit.

“I think the reason I ended up at UCF is because it was an institution that was trying to become something more. It had all this ambition and ideas, and they were inviting me to be part of it,” she says. “UCF is never satisfied with the status quo. We’re always looking for ways to improve ourselves.”

As UCF developed into a remarkable success story, so did Turgut.

She became an internationally known researcher in emerging technologies such as wireless communication networks, mobile computing and sensor networks. She’s had visiting researcher roles at the University of Rome, the Imperial College London and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, and she engages with other top thought leaders in her field through professional service roles. For instance, she’s the editor-in-chief of Computer Communications, an international journal for the computer and telecommunications industry.

“I think the reason I ended up at UCF is because it was an institution that was trying to become something more. It had all this ambition and ideas, and they were inviting me to be part of it.” — Damla Turgut, Pegasus Professor

In 2022, Turgut became chair of her college’s largest division, the Department of Computer Science. She enjoys promoting faculty growth and helping shape programs to advance student success and meet industry needs. She’s especially passionate about teaching and mentoring students.

“I think the best thing about being a faculty member is to just see your students grow,” Turgut says. “I try to encourage those students who did not have the same opportunity as me or the same encouragement that I had growing up.”

Turgut grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. Her father was an architect, and her mother and aunt were teachers and her role models. Turgut wanted to teach as they did, and she still tears up when she speaks of being hooded as a doctoral graduate.

Now she’s a role model. Eight of every 10 computer science students tend to be male, and Turgut recalls being far outnumbered in college where computer science hooked her right away. She never felt out of place, however.

“Professors were so nice and never made us feel like ‘you are not a man, and we don’t expect the same,’ ” Turgut says. “I don’t want people to treat me differently because I’m a woman. I want to be here because of my merit. I’m here because I can do this.”

Turgut sees an exciting future for the college’s teaching and research in areas such as computer vision, artificial intelligence and digital twin technology. She’s proud of the journey she shares with UCF and its ascent as Florida’s premier school for engineering and technology.

Gone are the days when she meets conference goers who haven’t heard of her university.

“Now they say ‘Oh, we heard you guys are doing this’ or they will know about a program,” Turgut says. “You feel like you contributed to that growth, and that’s a really good feeling.”