UCF assistant professors Li Fang and Fan Yao have been named 2024 U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development program (CAREER) award winners. The recipients were awarded funding through five years for their submitted projects.

Fang, who is an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Physics within the College of Sciences, is using the CAREER award to study the precise movement of electrons induced by light and to help educate others in her field.

Yao is an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering within the College of Engineering and Computer Science and a member of the Cyber Security and Privacy faculty cluster. He’ll use his CAREER award to identify lapses in computer processing security at the micro level and find ways to defend against them.

The annual award supports an estimated 500 early-career STEM faculty from either institutes of higher education or academic nonprofit organizations who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Through their NSF CAREER awards, both Fang and Yao are continuing to build upon their research and contribute to key components of their respective fields.

Capturing Energy in a Fraction of a Second

Li Fang
Department of Physics
Title: Photo-induced Ultrafast Electron-nuclear Dynamics in Molecules
Award: $813,981 over five years

Li Fang is examining some of the smallest components of matter in some of the shortest amounts of time.

She studies how electrons move after their initial absorption of photo-energy as they attempt to interact, break or form a bond with other molecular components. The purpose of examining these molecular dynamics is crucial in better understanding physics and energy, Fang says.

“The dynamics of these charged particles will provide fundamental knowledge about energy absorption, dissipation and rearrangement in building blocks of materials and therefore is relevant to energy storage and harvest,” Fang says. “We implement spectroscopic tools to track the extremely fast motion of these charges. An electron’s motion is the first step in all chemical and photo reactions and ions are the subjects of chemical bonds that exist basically in all materials.”

Fang measures these movements in attoseconds and femtoseconds, which are one billion billionths of a second and one million billionths of a second, respectively.

Attoseconds are the natural time scale for electrons moving inside an atom while femtoseconds are the natural time scale for measuring nuclei moving within a molecule.

Fang’s NSF CAREER project will help her further uncover and measure how light can instigate changes at the molecular level and then share her research with the greater scientific community.

“The goal is to understand the ultrafast electron motion induced by intense laser beams and its correlation with the motion of the nuclei in a molecule,” she says. “An equally important part of my NSF CAREER award is the educational subproject, the goal of which is to introduce my research field ‘ultrafast science’ to a broader audience through media and local events and enhance diversity of workforce in science.”

Fang came to UCF in 2020 from the Ohio State University.

Since arriving, she has garnered significant funding and support for her projects. In 2020, Fang was one of 76 recipients – and the only recipient from Florida – to be awarded an early career research program grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

She also was instrumental in securing NSF funding of nearly $2 million for a powerful laser in 2021, aiming to build a user facility at UCF to continue studying electrons and molecular bonds using precise measurements in attoseconds.

Fang says it was extremely gratifying to earn her NSF CAREER award, and it represents a culmination of her previous scientific endeavors.

“It definitely fit into my career and will help me fulfill my goals as a researcher and an educator,” she says.

Fang is thankful for the assistance of her peers and collaborators in cultivating her studies and developing her NSF CAREER proposal.

“The NSF CAREER program at UCF organized by Saiful Khondaker is very helpful with improving the writing of the educational subproject, which is crucial to the NSF CAREER project,” she says.

UCF has provided Fang with the opportunity to excel in her research, and she anticipates many more impactful discoveries to come.

“I am looking forward to carrying out real scientific experiments and discovering new findings with the state-of-the-art lasers and the spectroscopy systems we have,” Fang says. “Getting a prestigious CAREER award is just the start.”

Fan Yao
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Title: Understanding and Ensuring Secure-by-design Microarchitecture in Modern Era of Computing
Award: $556,875

Effective computer system security requires searching high and low within its infrastructure to address vulnerabilities that could be overlooked and exploited.

Fan Yao has dedicated his research to thoroughly poring through potential weaknesses within the architectural and microarchitectural designs of computing and memory units to see how they can be safeguarded against malicious hacks and data breaches.

“In today’s interconnected digital landscape, we depend on computing devices to store and process our sensitive and personal data,” he says. “Given that hardware forms the foundational bedrock of all computing systems, its security is paramount. A computer with compromised hardware security is akin to a skyscraper built on shaky ground.”

Specifically, Yao is using his NSF CAREER project to examine computer processors and analyze side channel leakage, which is compromised access to information or infrastructure through indirect means.

“Through the automation of microarchitectural security analysis, we aim to uncover hidden hardware-level states prone to leakage, as well as to develop software-level patterns that can exploit these vulnerabilities to quantify their leakage potential,” he says. “Subsequently, the project will focus on designing robust defense strategies to prevent microarchitectural information leakage, thereby ensuring stronger protection for future generations of processors.”

The awarded funds will continue to catalyze Yao’s research and allow him to further challenge the limits of computer security. He is hopeful that the results will serve as an educational cornerstone to both aspiring students and his peers, he says.

“This grant allows us to explore innovative security solutions more deeply and to train the next generation of researchers in this critical field,” Yao says.  “This award fits perfectly into my career goals, as it enables me to establish a sustainable research program that can make meaningful contributions to both academia and industry.”

Yao arrived at UCF in the fall of 2018 after receiving his doctoral degree in computer engineering from the George Washington University.

The support and mentorship from UCF’s academic community and administration at UCF has been crucial to helping him achieve his research aspirations, he says.

“UCF has been extremely supportive in junior faculty career development,” Yao says. “Many of the preliminary results for this project were achieved through experiments facilitated by this support. I am also profoundly grateful for the comprehensive assistance received during the development of this proposal. This includes invaluable guidance from the UCF CAREER mentoring program and the insightful feedback on my proposal provided by senior faculty members in our department.”

Yao is proud to have been awarded an NSF CAREER grant, and says he is excited to further his research.

“Receiving the NSF CAREER grant is an incredible honor and a pivotal moment in my career,” he says. “It not only validates the importance and potential impact of our work on microarchitecture security, but also provides a substantial platform to expand our research efforts.”