Two University of Central Florida professors have been awarded Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grants from the National Science Foundation, one of the most highly sought grants among scientists early in their careers.

Mercedeh Khajavikhan, a professor in the College of Optics & Photonics, and Weiwei Deng, a professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, earned the awards for their innovative work.

The grants are given to teachers and scholars NSF believes are likely to become leaders in their fields. About $73 million has been given nationally this year. UCF’s recipients will each earn $500,000 during the next five years to continue their cutting-edge research under the program.

Khajavikhan is working on ways to use lasers in integrated photonic circuits, which could make the speed of fiber optic communications even faster. There are also potential applications in the medical field.

Deng is looking at ways to develop new solar cells that are less costly, more efficient and don’t rely on rare materials, as do most current models.

“This CAREER award is a signal of our belief in your great potential for pushing the frontiers of knowledge, creating powerful innovations, and educating the next generation of engineers,” said NSF assistant director Pramod Khargonekar in a letter to the winners. “I encourage and challenge you to reach for the stars in the next five years and beyond, and make the improbable possible.”

Khajavikhan is an assistant professor specializing in plasmonics and applied quantum optics. In 2012 she came to UCF from the University of California at San Diego. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and while still a postdoctoral researcher at UCSD published an article in the journal Nature, which gained attention for a new nanolaser she developed.

Deng joined UCF in 2010. He  is an assistant professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University. He has earned several other NSF grants in the past for his research in the area of printing-embedded sensors and solar-cell research.

Begun in 1995, the CAREER program provides promising junior faculty the opportunity to pursue outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research in their organizations.

Since 1996, 42 UCF faculty members have earned CAREER grants.