The 2024 University of Central Florida Reach for the Stars honorees share a dedication to advancing knowledge and addressing real-world challenges within their respective fields. Each researcher demonstrates a commitment to innovation, whether it’s in clean energy, healthcare, performing arts or manufacturing.

The Reach for the Stars awards highlight their contributions to academia and underscore UCF’s commitment to fostering groundbreaking research. The prestigious award for early-career faculty is second only to Pegasus Professor as UCF’s highest faculty honor. Awardees receive a $10,000 annual research grant for three years.

The UCF community is invited to congratulate the recipients and other faculty being recognized for teaching, research and service from 3 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3, in the Pegasus Ballroom of the Student Union as part of the annual Founders’ Day Faculty Honors Celebration.

This year’s Reach for the Stars honorees are:

Vasileios Anagnostopoulos

  • Assistant professor at UCF’s Department of Chemistry and director of UCF Nuclear Regulatory Commission Fellowships.
  • Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Patras.

Vasileios Anagnostopoulos’ research helps to fuel the future.

As a nuclear chemist, his research encompasses radioactive waste management, environmental radiochemistry and nuclear forensics as it pertains to clean nuclear energy and nuclear forensics for aiding national security.

“In my group we study containment technologies for safe radioactive waste management and the environmental impact in case of leakages or accidents, as well as the properties of nuclear materials in the context of nuclear security,” Anagnostopoulos says.

He aspires to make his vision of clean nuclear energy a reality by ensuring it is safer and more accessible.

“Clean nuclear energy requires in-depth research on safe waste management and assessment of the impact the process has in the environment,” Anagnostopoulos says.

In 2023, UCF’s radiochemistry program got a boost by leading one of the areas of a $25 million consortium funded by the National Nuclear Security Agency in addition to securing a grant from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Before he came to UCF, Anagnostopoulos’ interest in nuclear chemistry was ignited after taking a course in radiochemistry at the University of Patras in Greece. It solidified his desire to delve deeper, pursue his Ph.D. and continue his research at UCF.

“I was so pleasantly surprised by the positive spirit of the people, the warm welcome of fellow faculty in chemistry and the beautiful campus,” Anagnostopoulos says of his first impression of UCF. “As years passed by, I appreciated on a day-to-day basis the support of my colleagues and the diverse pool of talent among the student body.”

Anagnostopoulos’ scholarly pursuits are motivated by his desire to create safe and clean energy for all.

“My group’s research is directly contributing to societal well-being by supporting nuclear energy cycle’s back end, that of environmental radiochemistry,” he says. “Nuclear forensics is contributing to a safer future at a global level, where nuclear materials follow the established legal processes and uses.”

Positioning the United States as an authority on nuclear energy is a goal he hopes to achieve by advancing his research and collaborating with his government stakeholders.

“My research is effectively addressing the national demand for proficient nuclear chemists, which is a component critical to keep the U.S. in the forefront of global development in the field,” he says.

Being one of the honorees to receive a 2024 Reach for the Stars award is a testament to both Anagnostopoulos’ research and the academic UCF community supporting him.

“This recognition serves as a powerful motivator to push the boundaries of my research in nuclear chemistry,” he says. “I’m incredibly grateful to UCF for fostering a thriving research environment, encouraging thinking outside of the box and recognizing early-career scientists through awards like the Reach for the Stars. This award is a shared accomplishment, and I’d like to dedicate it to my research team — they are the future of this field.”

Achieving new breakthroughs in nuclear energy research is exciting for Anagnostopoulos, but knowing he’s inspiring and supporting the next generation of nuclear chemists is just as exciting.

“Witnessing the success of my students is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job,” he says. “My role as a mentor is to guide them through the research process, foster critical thinking skills and prepare them for future success. Seeing them thrive is truly gratifying.”

Anagnostopoulos is poised to continue discovering ways to better understand and refine clean nuclear energy while establishing nuclear safeguards.

“This has been a thriving environment that has allowed me to make an impact with my research and teaching,” he says. “Being part of UCF was clearly meant to be and it is one of the best decisions I have made.”

Lauren Bislick

Lauren Bislick Wilson

Through her compassionate research, Lauren Bislick Wilson helps people regain their speech and language abilities.

Bislick is a clinical speech-language pathologist and researcher who works with people who have suffered the loss of speech and/or language due to neurological injury.

She has dedicated her research efforts to diagnosing, treating and ultimately improving the quality of life of those living with communication disorders, such as aphasia and apraxia of speech.

“People with post-stroke aphasia and apraxia of speech can improve with behavioral intervention; however, rehabilitation of speech and language abilities is not like healing a broken limb; it takes a lot of time, repetition, and ongoing intensive practice,” Bislick says. “The speech and language impairments that result from neurological injury have a significant impact on the lives of survivors and the people who love them. It is life changing.”

The National Institutes of Health recently funded Bislick’s latest research to explore the efficacy of a home practice protocol for patients with apraxia of speech and aphasia. The data gained from this study will support future funding to extend the home-practice motor imagery protocol to even more patients with acquired communication impairments resulting from stroke and other neurological injury, she says.

The home-practice program is paired with an in-person, evidence-based behavioral treatment for apraxia of speech, called sound production treatment. The home-practice program presents the sounds and images of target words, prompting the patient to imagine speaking each word in their mind. In previous studies, motor imagery practice has shown to help rehabilitation by engaging neural networks that support motor execution — including those involved in speech — priming the brain for the physical act. The goal of this work is that the home-practice program, when paired with traditional speech-therapy, will bolster treatment outcomes.

There remains a large gap between what works in a sterilized and highly controlled lab setting and what can actually be carried out in clinical practice to support the rehabilitation of persons living with a neurogenic communication disorder, she says.

Bislick’s research is aimed at closing that gap.

“Many of the evidence-based treatment protocols we have available to us were created in a laboratory setting and are not as accessible in clinical practice,” she says “I aspire to develop effective treatment programs that will improve survivors speech and language abilities and are clinically implementable — my hope is that the development of the home-practice program will be something that both clinicians and their clients will utilize and find beneficial.”

Bislick’s NIH-funded research idea was created by a culmination of practices and remedies she had previously found to help patients improve their speech and language abilities, as well as psychosocial outcomes.

“I have examined variables that impact quality of life such as the benefits of mind-body practices like yoga on psychosocial outcomes and the development and maintenance of friendships post-stroke,” she says.

UCF has fostered an environment where she can continue her studies and help patients.

“UCF’s vision for growing and strengthening the research trajectory of the university was appealing,” Bislick says.

She even collaborated with a yoga therapist and other researchers resulting in a modified yoga program for patients with aphasia that has been implemented across the United States and in Bermuda. Bislick is working alongside rehabilitation professionals at Orlando Health to implement the program via their in-patient rehabilitation program.

She is also working with Brooks Rehabilitation Center to create a specialized motor speech center to provide specialized training to speech-language pathologists and help patients with apraxia of speech and other acquired motor speech disorders. An educational and research arm will be a crucial part of the center and will support the next generation of clinical speech-language pathologists.

Bislick’s track record for pioneering research and patient compassion earned her the position of currently leading the UCF Aphasia House. She works closely with instructors, staff and graduate students to help adults living with aphasia.

Although she’s already achieved much, the people living with aphasia and apraxia of speech remain on the forefront of her mind and Bislick knows her work is not yet done.

She hopes to continue her work and inspire the next generation of researchers along the way.

“I am grateful to my university for supporting me as an early career researcher, and I’m grateful to my colleagues, collaborators, students, patients and their families,” Bislick says. “I hope that my work and the work of my students and collaborators will help people with acquired aphasia, apraxia of speech, and their families live well with their communication differences.”

Chloe Rae Edmonson

Chloë Rae Spencer

  • Assistant professor of theater history and dramaturgy at UCF’s School of Performing Arts.
  • Ph.D. in theater and performance from the Graduate Center at the City of New York.

Dramaturg Chloë Rae Spencer perceives the world as a stage and the stage as a reflection of the world around us.

Her sustained interdisciplinary research bridges immersive theater, performance studies, American history and dramaturgy — the practice of analyzing and interpreting plays for effective theatrical representation and reception.

Spencer’s research focuses on how the pairing of alcohol and immersive storytelling combine to influence audience participation at key moments throughout American theater history.

The goal is to contextualize how consuming alcohol and theatrical performance have impacted each other, which illuminates deeper truths about the evolution of American cultural identities.

“Theater is often framed as an aesthetic thing to be consumed or critiqued, but my work on immersive performance challenges this paradigm by examining theater as a lived experience shared by communities, where audiences can co-create and actively shape their experience,” she says. “By investigating the historical and contemporary impact of drinking on performance, my work reveals broader cultural shifts and societal norms.”

Theatrical performance is tightly woven into the fabric of humanity, and this interconnection persists throughout history and into today, Spencer says.

For example, Prohibition-era venues may have endured regular police raids while others may have enjoyed lax enforcement from corrupt law enforcement, and that had a cultural impact on which performance practices were allowed to thrive.

“From the kitschy exotica of midcentury tiki bars to the performances of 19th-century concert saloon waitresses, I explore the fascinating interplay between people, libations and the art of performance,” Spencer says.

She became inspired early in her career after discovering that Dionysus, the Greek god of theater, also was the deity that represented wine and revelry. Since then, her interest continued to grow as it led her to UCF.

Her role at UCF as an instructor to aspiring artists and dramaturges is special, she says.

“The students at UCF are a major inspiration,” Spencer says. “Whether they’re theater majors dedicated to honing their craft or students from other disciplines who discover the power of storytelling and the immense effort that goes into creating live performances, UCF students motivate me to come to work every day.”

Spencer is particularly proud of the collaborative work she did with her mentor, Pegasus Professor Julia Listengarten, for UCF’s production of Metamorphoses in November 2023. The show adapts a selection of Ovid’s ancient myths, staging them in and around a large pool of water in the center of the stage. Her role as a co-dramaturg (alongside UCF graduate student Caroline Hull) was to contextualize the gods, legend  and historical events referenced in the text.

Spencer’s research and exposure led her to publish her findings in a book titled America Under the Influence. It combines archival research with firsthand accounts of immersive spaces while demonstrating how social drinking and performance can represent many different aspects of American culture.

Her continued involvement is propelling her to further explore the intricacies of performing arts and set the stage for her students.

“I am grateful that UCF recognizes the value of creative practice as research,” Spencer says. “Being awarded the Reach for the Stars award validates not just my efforts as a theater researcher but also the impactful research being done by my fellow theater artist-scholars, not just in our department here at UCF but across the broader field of the performing arts.”

Hung Nguyen

Hung Nguyen

  • Assistant professor at UCF’s College of Medicine and head of Hung Nguyen Lab at UCF’s Lake Nona Campus.
  • Ph.D. in biochemistry from Chungnam National University.

Understanding how to treat nefarious diseases and better treat patients is central to Hung Nguyen’s research.

His team at UCF’s Academic Health Sciences campus in Lake Nona specifically studies T-cells — a special type of white blood cell that is crucial in aiding the immune system — and how they interact and combat diseases such as cancer, autoimmune diseases and COVID-19.

Nguyen’s accomplishments include developing successful therapies for patients with blood cancers and extensive research studying the severity of COVID-19 and infection rates.

“Our research not only provides novel knowledge of immunology of cancer, autoimmune disease and COVID-19, but also novel therapies and diagnostic analyses for those diseases,” he says. “We want to generate more and more therapies for patients.”

Putting patients at the forefront is central to Nguyen’s research. His hope is to help those diagnosed with conditions that previously have had high mortality rates.

“We attempt to generate novel immunotherapies for saving patients’ lives,” he says.

Nguyen starkly recalls the complexities of studying COVID-19 during the onset of the pandemic. He and his immunology team at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences studied how metabolic changes in the body affected immune response, with the goal of better predicting who is more susceptible to severe cases of the virus. Nguyen says he’s thankful to have been surrounded by so many close advocates who helped guide him through the challenges of both researching and navigating COVID-19.

“I feel deeply grateful to my family who provided me with uncountable support, and motivated me, particularly during COVID-19,” he says. “I am thankful for the hard work of my lab members, and I appreciate the kind advice of my collaborators and mentors. I particularly would like to also thank Dr. [Timothy] Gilbertson, with whom I have been collaborating since I first stepped onto UCF’s campus.”

Earning recognition for outstanding research through the Reach for the Stars award is just as much his colleagues’ accomplishments as it is his, he says.

“It is not only for me,” Nguyen says. “It recognizes the effort of my entire team. I am proud of them for working hard to make the therapies we study come true.”

The resources and backing from UCF and his colleagues are crucial to Nguyen’s efforts to continue to study T-cells and develop life-saving therapies.

“UCF provides me with outstanding support to initiate and develop my scientific program in immunotherapy,” he says.

Dazhong Wu

Dazhong Wu

Dazhong Wu and his team are transforming the way manufacturers use artificial intelligence to increase productivity and reduce costs.

At his Additive Manufacturing and Intelligent Systems Lab at UCF, they work to develop real-time process monitoring solutions and machine learning models to prevent defects and errors as well as reveal complex process-structure-property relationships in additive manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing constructs 3D objects layer by layer. For example, 3D printing may be considered an additive manufacturing process.

Wu is working to study the convergence of additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence to make more intelligent and efficient systems that will ultimately make a difference in people’s lives.

“I hope to significantly improve efficiency, increase productivity, as well as reduce costs by integrating artificial intelligence, cloud computing and sensors with manufacturing machines and equipment,” he says.

Wu’s aspirations are even more expansive. He’s also looking to accelerate economic growth for the industry.

“Manufacturing is essential to the economy,” he says. “Every dollar spent on manufacturing adds $2.74 to the U.S. economy, which is the highest multiplier effect of any economic sector.”

Wu is particularly pleased of the great technical accomplishments he and his team have achieved. The integration of artificial intelligence into manufacturing processes and systems is an aspect of his manufacturing research that sets him apart from others in his field.

“I am very proud that my team developed novel data-driven predictive modeling techniques for predicting the complex mechanical behavior of additively manufactured materials such as composites and lattices,” he says. “We are also one of the first research groups that applied deep learning and physics-informed machine learning to solve quality control and process monitoring problems in the field of manufacturing,”

Since joining UCF in 2017, Wu has received great recognition in his emerging field. In 2021, he was honored as one of the 20 Most Influential Academics in Smart Manufacturing by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and in 2023 was recognized as one of the top 2% of the most cited scientists in his field, as identified by Stanford University.

Earning a 2024 Reach for the Stars award reminds Wu of the support UCF provides its promising young researchers.

“UCF is an academic leader in numerous fields such as mechanical and aerospace engineering,” he says. “I feel honored and privileged to be a recipient of the Reach for the Stars award. It’s also made me look back at what my team achieved, as well as reflect on how my research can make bigger societal impacts.”