UCF’s newest Founders’ Day recognition honors early-career professors who have achieved noteworthy research or creative activities of national impact.

The Reach for the Stars Award winners are selected by President John C. Hitt. They must be assistant or associate professors who have completed four years at UCF. Those selected receive a $10,000 annual research grant for three years, which can be renewed.

UCF Foundation board member Suresh Gupta has committed to funding one of the Reach for the Stars awards for three years.

The inaugural winners of this award are professors Ayman Abouraddy, Optics and Photonics; Thomas Bryer, Public Administration; William Crampton, Biology; Enrique Del Barco, Physics; Stephen Fiore, Philosophy; Joseph LaViola and Kenneth Stanley, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and Eleazar Vasquez, Child, Family and Community Sciences.

Ayman Abouraddy began teaching at UCF in 2008 after completing his post-doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His interdisciplinary research has covered topics related to materials science and engineering, optical physics and nanotechnology. In 2013, Abouraddy earned grants from the National Science Foundation and Air Force Office of Scientific Research. In his nomination letter, colleague Demetrios Christodoulides called Abouraddy “one of the most brilliant young investigators I have seen in my career” and said his quantum mechanics course is one of CREOL’s most popular. MIT professor Yoel Fink described Abouraddy as “one of the most talented and accomplished individuals I have ever encountered.”

Thomas A. Bryer has become an internationally known scholar in citizen engagement and collaborative governance during his six years at UCF. His research has benefitted homeless children, foster children, school districts and faith-based organizations who partner to provide students with mentoring and tutoring support, and government agencies that learn new ways to engage with their citizens. Suzanne Richards of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that runs the AmeriCorps VISTA program, praised Bryer as a “champion of national service and someone who has provided exceptional research helping to demonstrate the impact of engaged citizenship and volunteerism in our communities.”

William Crampton has established a vibrant biodiversity research program that focuses on the ecology, behavior and evolutionary history of South American and Central American electric fishes and on species diversity in Amazonian freshwater fishes. His work is critical to conservation efforts in the region. During his seven years at UCF, he has earned two National Science Foundation grants totaling more than $1.3 million. He has been featured in two National Geographic Channel documentary films. Former UCF student Christine Bitzer-Jaffe wrote that “Crampton truly represents UCF very well, not only to his students, but to everyone – from the world’s top researchers to the average layperson enjoying an educational television program.”

Enrique Del Barco, who came to UCF in 2004, has earned $1.1 million in research grants and won the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award for promising young researchers while helping “to place UCF on the map in the area of nanomaterials,” Physics chair Talat Rahman wrote. He established UCF’s first milli-Kelvin laboratory for research at extremely low temperatures and spearheaded efforts to buy a helium liquefier to support many researchers. He works extensively with school teachers and children, particularly students from minority groups. Former student Patricia AuBuchon, now a graduate student at Stanford University, praises Del Barco as “the most academically brilliant and emotionally intelligent professor I have met.”

Stephen M. Fiore is “a world leader in the study of teams and has been a very significant influence in the area of team cognition, an interdisciplinary area of research that works to understand and improve team performance,” wrote Randy Shumaker, director of the Institute for Simulation and Training. Fiore, the director of UCF’s Cognitive Sciences Laboratory who holds a joint appointment with Philosophy, has earned grants from the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Office of Naval Research. Colleague Eduardo Salas describes Fiore as a “relentless and passionate advocate for team science” and said that in his 30 years in research, “I have never experienced such a collegial, respectful, bright, stimulating and nice collaborator.”

Joseph J. LaViola, who started at UCF in 2007, has earned more than $2.6 million in grants, mostly from the National Science Foundation, and he has won the NSF’s CAREER Award. He is the director of the Interactive Systems and User Experience Lab, where he focuses in areas such as 3-D user interfaces for games; virtual reality, pen- and touch-based interfaces for STEM education; and human robot guidance and teleportation. He has also made significant contributions to the EXCEL program, which is dedicated to increasing student success in their first two years of their college career in a STEM discipline. One dean described him as “an extremely strong asset to the UCF EXCEL program and an exemplary faculty member with outstanding contributions in research, teaching and service.”

Kenneth Stanley is a national expert on artificial intelligence with a special emphasis on neuro-evolutionary algorithms. He started at UCF in 2006 and has earned more than $1.6 million in grants from a variety of funding agencies including the National Science Foundation. He has garnered an excellent reputation for his innovative ideas in the development of the NEAT (NeuroEvolution in Augmenting Topologies) paradigm for machine learning. His evolutionary programming approaches have been adopted and adapted by researchers throughout the world, and have been greatly generalized by Stanley and his students’ research at UCF. He’s published more than 80 articles. Eleven of them have been cited by others more than 100 times each. One colleague noted, “With many more years ahead in his career, Ken’s impact and its consequential positive effects for UCF are likely to continue to rise.”

Eleazar Vasquez, joined UCF in 2008 as an instructor in the College of Education and Human Performance and has since then achieved assistant professor status. He also is the director of a project focused on preparing teachers for students with autism spectrum disorders. He is also a board certified behavior analyst. His research is focused on the evaluation of virtual learning environments on the academic and behavioral outcomes for students with disabilities. Vasquez has written dozens of journal articles and has earned more than $4 million in grants through the years from state and federal agencies as well as private foundations.  A former UCF professor said Vasquez’s contributions are one reason for the high national ranking of the exceptional-education program at the university. “His daily productivity and energy serves as a strong example and role model for the future scholars we are preparing,” said Wilfred D. Wienke, a UCF emeritus professor.