Four UCF professors have been named this year’s Pegasus Professors, UCF’s highest faculty designation.
Pegasus Professors are selected by the president and provost and are recognized for excellence in the teaching, research and service. This year’s honorees include innovative researchers who have not only made a difference at UCF, but nationally and internationally.
Stephen Fiore’s classrooms and cognitive science gatherings have birthed hundreds of ideas for dissertations, publications, research projects and even apps, in settings he calls “anti-disciplinarian.”
Jane Gibson is a medical geneticist and molecular pathologist who uses genomic technology to improve patient diagnostics and treatment, and shares a career of knowledge with the next generation of medical professionals.
Jennifer Kent-Walsh built a center from the ground up at UCF to help people of all ages who live with barriers caused by communication disorders.
Marianna Pensky opened new doors 28 years ago as the first woman faculty in UCF’s Department of Mathematics, and has influenced the field through research and mentorship.
The four professors will be recognized Wednesday during the Founders’ Day Faculty Honors Celebration from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Student Union Pegasus Ballroom.
Few people know: He spent so much time working in restaurants during college that he once considered a career in the restaurant business.
Stephen Fiore arrives 30 minutes early to move the furniture for the classes he leads. A handwritten note sometimes greets him. “Please put the chairs where you found them when you’re finished.”
Fiore is half-tempted to ask, “Why?”
The circular format he employs has proven to open the gates to some of the most constructive conversations about some of the strangest questions you can imagine. Do dogs think about the future? What does a tick experience when landing on a person’s flesh?
If the topics sound odd, that’s perfect.
“The best ideas across every discipline start with a little mind wandering,” Fiore says. “Then we move from wandering to actual ideas. The best discussions lead to the most important phase: how to do something with the idea.”
His students have done plenty with their off-the-wall questions over the years. They’ve pursued research projects, published papers and written dissertations. Two students recently joined Fiore’s Cognitive Science Lab, helping work on grants studying social cognition in human-robot interaction and how AI affects teamwork.
The common denominator is the questions that no one would dare ask out loud anywhere other than Fiore’s group settings. He calls his classes “gatherings.” He says they are “anti-disciplinary.” He never lectures.
“My role is to create the right environment for conversation,” he says, “and then I shut up and listen.”
The computer scientist learns perspectives from the anthropologist. The sociology graduate listens to the biology graduate. Together, they dig deeper than they could ever dig within their own colleges or own heads.
Does the ocean have a memory? The question could, and has, led to ideas to study beach erosion. How about ants … does the shape of their nests alter social behavior? This one has spawned theories about architecture.
“When we’re specialists in a field, we might not see the big picture, what I call ‘disciplinary myopia,’” Fiore says. “Or we might look down on ideas from other fields, what I call ‘disciplinary disdain.’ I try to help others avoid these see me practicing what I preach.”
Fiore’s methods are so intriguing that he’s been invited to give more than 120 presentations around the world and co-authored more than 200 peer-reviewed papers. He’s played a role in securing more than $30 million in grants. One question, however, causes him to stumble when it comes up: “How did he get here?”
“That’s not so easy to answer,” he says.
To summarize, Fiore attended junior college out of high school “for the heck of it.” He realized he enjoyed learning and studied at the University of Maryland before moving to the beach with two degrees and a craving for fun.
“I experienced the retirement life at 21 years old,” he says, “and got tired of it pretty quickly. It was time to find a real job.”
Fiore happened to pick up a brochure describing a seminar on the brain. A little more research led him to a field called “cognitive psychology.” He quit his job and went back to school to study how people think, remember, and solve problems. He also volunteered in labs where he worked with researchers from all fields of expertise.
“That’s where I learned how productive we can be when we work across disciplines,” Fiore says, “because no one is afraid to ask the ‘out there’ questions.”
Like, what new knowledge can be created from the collisions of ideas from people with vastly different perspectives?
“You know the saying, ‘Many hands lighten the load?’ It works with minds, too. We need to invite more of it.”
Few people know: She was a candidate for the astronaut program in the 1990s before realizing claustrophobia “probably wouldn’t bode well in a spaceship.”
As one of the foremost researchers and clinicians in medical genomics and genetics, Gibson knows the literal definition of “groundbreaking.” In fact, 15 years ago she could have taken her expertise anywhere in the country. She’d already set up the genetics program for Orlando Health and directed another for Ameripath (before it became Quest Diagnostics). But in 2008 she chose to take all her expertise to an empty field in Lake Nona.
“There was nothing but dirt, bulldozers and cows,” Gibson says of the site that would become UCF’s College of Medicine. “We didn’t even have running water. But that’s what excited us: we had a blank slate to create something extraordinary.”
Gibson’s mother always encouraged her to “shoot for the stars,” to look beyond what is and see what could be. Instead of seeing a field of cows and the shell of a building, Gibson and half a dozen other doctors envisioned the home of a world-class medical center. There would be a hospital, labs and freedom to extend the boundaries of medical science. Most important, there would be students with equally big dreams.
“It comes down to this: We want to expose them to the latest discoveries and technologies of a precision medicine and genomics era and then send them into the world to make lives better,” Gibson says.
She doesn’t simply talk about discoveries in genomics and precision medicine. She makes them. Her dad did the same thing as a plant geneticist. Gibson would watch him crossbreed vegetables to find more resilient varieties in his greenhouses. Early in her career, Gibson attended a conference in Colorado and happened to sit around a campfire with Mary-Claire King, who said she’d been researching how breast cancer and ovarian cancer ran in families. Her groundbreaking research is now legendary: A mutation of the gene called BRCA1, which causes hereditary breast cancer and is now tested along with other genes as a standard of patient care
“The genetic cause of cancer was mostly unproven at the time,” Gibson says. “But right after that, the field just exploded. Now we use the genomic testing every day in patient care. I’m blessed to have been on the leading edge of it.”
It all fits her decision to choose a pasture over an established institution 15 years ago. “To whom much is given, much is expected,” she says, quoting a verse that directs her life. Gibson and her colleagues consider the College of Medicine a gift to the Orlando community. From it, more than 1,000 graduates have gone out to advance research and to care for patients who need something more tangible than a ray of hope: they need smart practitioners.
A week before learning she had been selected as a 2023 Pegasus Professor, Gibson went to a doctor’s appointment — this time as a patient. In the office, she saw a reminder of why she chose this path: a former student, now a doctor, making lives better in our community.
“That’s what we envisioned when we entered uncharted waters,” Gibson says, “and it still inspires me every day.”
Professor, communication sciences and disorders
Founder and director, FAAST Atlantic Region Assistive Technology Demonstration Center
School of Communication Sciences and Disorders
Associate dean of Research, College of Health Professions and Sciences
Few people know: She was a Highland dancer and traveled across Canada and to Scotland to compete and perform in festivals representing her Scottish heritage.
Before she dove into speech-language pathology as her calling and before she developed the FAAST Assistive Technology Center at UCF from scratch, Jennifer Kent-Walsh learned to pay attention. She grew up in communities on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, where people expected an honest answer when asked, “How are you?” And they’d listen.
“People looked out for one another,” Kent-Walsh says.
Her father was a minister, and her mother was a teacher and vice principal. Not surprisingly, Kent-Walsh started her career in classrooms, teaching in England and Canada. Something kept grabbing her attention.
“The students,” she says. “Some had communication disorders that created barriers to the power of education. In math, for example, the numbers weren’t necessarily the problem. It was often the words and understanding the language that caused students challenges.”
Her interest shifted to speech-language pathology for her graduate education. During a clinical placement, she met a young woman who completely lost the ability to speak due to complications during a routine surgery. Kent-Walsh saw it as another example of the profound impact communication disorders can have on patients and their families.
“When a person is unable to effectively communicate, it affects everything in life. I realized that I wanted to be involved in research so I could help find meaningful solutions to provide every person with effective ways of communicating, whether or not they have functional speech.”
Turns out, Kent-Walsh would build a place to do just that at UCF, where she was offered the opportunity to create an advanced research and educational center focused on assistive technology.
“The university had an openness to innovating and developing new curriculum and clinical experiences for students. For me, it was exciting and intimidating at the same time,” she says.
With encouragement from the department chair, Jane Lieberman, Kent-Walsh wrote the first research and service-delivery grants to get things started. She pulled together clinical faculty, academic faculty, students and community stakeholders, and together they began to work with clients and families to help break communication barriers experienced by adults and children with significant speech impairments. Along with her primary research collaborator at the University of New Mexico, Cathy Binger, the UCF team paired language therapy with augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) technologies to support clients, their loved ones, and service providers. Since then, Kent-Walsh and her team have secured millions of dollars in funding from local, state and federal sources to advance their research and service-delivery missions.
“We’ve been intentional about leveraging the power of AAC technologies by employing both direct language interventions with clients and indirect interventions with the other significant people in their lives from day one,” Kent-Walsh says. “Parents of the children who participate in our research often tell us their kids are speaking more and they’re excited to use technology as one of many modes of communication — whether it’s a high-tech device like an iPad with a speech output application, picture symbols in a communication book, or gestures.”
Twenty years ago, Kent-Walsh had to convince others, one by one, to give these ideas a chance. Today, professionals from around the world access the published findings and contact her team of collaborators to learn how to apply them and to report the positive outcomes they have seen from implementing the AAC interventions developed at UCF. Thousands of undergraduate and graduate students have taken what they’ve learned into their own work. Some of them have returned to UCF after practicing clinically to join Kent-Walsh and her team to advance research.
“We’re light-years ahead of where we were, not because of me, but because so many people have invested themselves in this mission to ensure every person is able to communicate effectively. … And there is still much more work to be done to ensure every person enjoys the right to communicate and to achieve their full potential,” she says.
Few people know: She’s only had one job interview in her life — at UCF.
In 1995, Marianna Pensky, a single mother from Russia with two sons, interviewed at a university in Orlando she’d never heard of. Pensky was a good match for the Department of Mathematics since they needed redeveloping of the probability and statistics sequence for the newly approved mathematics Ph.D. program, and she was an expert. The job was hers if she wanted it. At the urging of her sons, Pensky accepted it.
“I had only four days to sign the offer commit to immigrating and be completely on my own with children. I was scared to death,” Pensky says. “But everything worked very well.”
Pensky’s hiring is a milestone in UCF history, as she’s the first woman faculty in the mathematics department.
“It is a huge mistake that many girls think that they have to choose between career and family, or that they cannot succeed in sciences,” she says. “Boys are not any better at sciences than girls.”
Pensky says UCF the culture at UCF helped her to explore and experiment with her research. She’s authored more than 100 publications, including a major work on reliability theory and journal articles about statistical inverse problems, Bayesian statistics, statistical genetics, wavelets and signal analysis. She’s also received uninterrupted U.S. National Science Foundation funding for more than 20 years.
Her work has paved the way for more women to join the math and statistics faculty. They serve as role models for female students to pursue careers in science and teaching.
Pensky has also influenced dozens of graduate students as an advisor and by serving on Ph.D. committees. She’s developed a variety of special topic graduate courses that covered novel areas of statistics. And through these course materials she’s impacted the research of computer science, engineering, physics and statistics students.
UCF’s mathematics department carries significance to Pensky’s personal life, too. It was there she met her husband. Their daughter arrived the same week as Pensky’s tenure letter. Now, she is a grandmother, and her family keeps growing.
When asked what makes her most proud of the Pegasus honor, Pensky stumbles over the word “proud.” She’d rather use “happy” because she values the feeling over pride and achievements.