This year’s five UCF National Science Foundation CAREER grant recipients are finding innovative and bold new ways to solve challenges that could be game changers in healthcare and engineering.

For example, one researcher is tracking down what triggers harmless microorganisms into going rogue and turning into deadly pathogens such as flesh-eating bacteria. Another faculty member is working to make artificial intelligence systems street smart, so they can make sound real-time decisions that could avert disasters such as a national blackout when the electrical grid system is overloaded.

The recipients will share about $3 million over five years. The awardees are:

  • Salvador Almagro-Moreno, College of Medicine
  • Samik Bhattacharya, College of Engineering and Computer Science
  • Yanjie Fu, College of Engineering and Computer Science
  • Lorraine Leon, College of Engineering and Computer Science
  • Robert Steward Jr., College of Engineering and Computer Science

NSF uses the awards to recognize early career professionals with promising research who have the potential to serve as academic role models and lead their respective fields. This year’s recipients bring the total of UCF awardees to more than 50 in the past 10 years. This year’s recipients share a relentless drive, infinite curiosity and a real desire to help students succeed. They all said they are eager to ensure the next generation of scientists and engineers are well equipped to confront challenges we haven’t even imagined yet.

Tracking down bacteria that go rogue

Assistant Professor Salvador Almagro-Moreno

Assistant Professor Almagro-Moreno grew up in the port city of Cadiz, on the southern coast of Spain. He says he remembers being fascinated by the sea around him even as a young boy, which is what sparked his curiosity about the microorganisms that live in the water. After earning multiple degrees from universities in Spain and Ireland with distinguished graduate fellowships, he moved to the United States to finish his doctoral degree at Dartmouth College. He also completed postdoctoral studies at Dartmouth as the Ernest Everett Just Postdoctoral Fellow.

His work focuses on identifying what are the genetic and environmental triggers that lead some seemingly harmless bacteria to go rogue and become infectious and often lethal to humans. He works with the agent of the severe diarrheal disease cholera as a model system and also conducts extensive studies on Vibrio vulnificus more commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria. Florida is the perfect place to study these bacteria because the warm weather creates ideal conditions for bacteria in water, which was a major driver on his decision to join UCF in 2017.

He’s been busy. Since his arrival at UCF he’s published dozens of papers and given many talks. Since 2020 he’s been an advisor to the FDA regarding the risks associated with flesh-eating bacteria.

Almagro-Moreno’s passion comes through in how he communicates about what he does. His expertise and easy-to-understand style can be seen in his TEDx talk from 2018. The only thing he cares about more than his research is his students. His lab includes a postdoctoral scholar, a doctoral candidate, a student pursuing a master’s degree, one lab technician and three undergraduates who are all working on their own projects. They all say he spends a considerable amount of time working with them to make sure they are learning and thinking about their next steps on their career paths.

“When I was at Dartmouth, I co-established a program to develop a pathway towards success for groups typically underrepresented in STEM fields” he says. “A lot of the time you just don’t know the path if you come from certain communities. When I was in graduate school, I spent a lot of time running around figuring things out. Unless you meet good mentors, you can miss out. That’s why I’m particularly thrilled to get this CAREER award. It will allow me to set up a similar program here for our students. Mentoring early and in a consistent manner throughout their career paths is how we diversify the field and make it more inclusive, because it is not just enough to talk the talk. You have to walk the walk.”

The award will help establish the inclusive Synergy Scholars program for students and help expand his research collaboration and bridge program with the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, he says.

“The recognition is nice,” he says. “But what really matters to me is that the award will allow me to expand my research program and, very importantly, give me an opportunity to work with students and help them identify paths towards success so they can continue to push forward and achieve their career goals.”

Sleek Manta Rays Inspire Engineer

Assistant Professor Samik Bhattacharya

Working in a corner of a warehouse on UCF’s main campus, Assistant Professor Bhattacharya taps instructions onto a computer keyboard, which sends a do-it-yourself contraption sailing through a translucent tank full of water. Suspended in the water is a piece of black material, which cuts through the turbulent water slightly bending as it moves.

“We can learn a lot from nature,” Bhattacharya says while students tweak a laser to better see what is going on in the water. “The morphing wings of a giant manta [ray] glide effortlessly through turbulent waters. We want to learn the mechanics behind how the manta and dolphin maneuver to apply them to underwater vehicles so they can be flexible and fast.”

If the mechanics can be cracked, unmanned water vehicles could be greatly improved. These vehicles are used by industry seeking out potential underwater gas and oil deposits, while some scientists use them to explore the deepest depths of the ocean floor. Militaries around the world also use these vehicles to detect and disarm or destroy underwater mines.

“They are used when it is too dangerous for people,” says Bhattacharya. “But their use is limited because they are not very flexible, and they fail in turbulent waters. We are trying to make them highly maneuverable, which would make them a lot more useful.”

That starts with understanding the mechanics behind highly flexible and pliable things in liquid, such as the fins and tails of stingrays and dolphins. His lab includes computers that model these and other creatures’ flexible wings and fins. But the center piece is the custom-made water tank system and laser that helps him see how his tweaks to materials work in water. The tank allows him to test the strips of material in calm and turbulent water, which his team controls from a computer station. His students run multiple tests in the tank and observe the bending dynamics on the computer screen. Sensors measure the forces and feed the data to the computer.

Hands-on experience and experimentation are key to advancing the understanding of fluid dynamics and helping future engineers be ready for anything, said Bhattacharya.

For Carlos Soto, who is pursuing a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, working in the lab is an opportunity to continue his love of math and robotics while getting involved. He helped build the DIY contraption that pulls sample materials through the water tank.

“Dr. Bhattacharya encourages you to ask hard questions,” he says. “He helps if you ask, but he really encourages you to get there yourself. And he is very patient.”

The CAREER grant means that Bhattacharya’s lab will be able to expand its work and continue to support the training of his promising students.

Teaching Artificial Intelligence Street Smarts

Assistant Professor Yanjie Fu

Fu is working on developing machine-learning techniques to equip machines with the intelligence needed to bridge the gap between understanding what will happen and solving how to change it in a dynamic system. Then the AI would have the ability to process how its decisions affect other actions and how that impacts a system overall, all in real time.

A good example of a dynamic system is the electrical grid system. It is carefully monitored and must be adjusted throughout the day as demands for energy go up and down in different parts of a city, state and region. If a big event occurs or a surge in demand happens, adjustments must be made to ensure energy delivery is uninterrupted. Those adjustments must be done quickly and carefully, with full knowledge of how each tweak can impact the rest of the grid system at any given time. Engineers working the grid apply book knowledge, but also develop street smarts based on experience. A few bad choices and a city or state can face massive blackouts. Keeping the system operating continuously and without interruptions is a high-pressure business.

Fu is looking for ways to make it possible for AI to do the job without fail across these kinds of networks. Other applications include air transportation networks to traffic signals in big cities that adjust to keep traffic moving at peak commute times.

“The award will help me to focus on the cutting-edge artificial intelligence research in the next five years and integrate my research into real systems and education,” Fu says.

For Fu, the work is exciting because he says AI is the future.

“Research represents the vision to drive human explorations towards the unknown,” he says. “Second, research is the most important means to discover new understandings of nature and science and derive fundamental mechanisms of information and systems.”

Before joining UCF in 2019, Fu worked at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center and the University of Missouri at Rolla. He holds several degrees including a doctorate in management information systems from Rutgers University.

Tapping into Molecule Builders to Design New Materials

Assistant Professor Lorraine Leon

College of Engineering and Computer Science

CAREER Grant: $550,000.

Assistant Professor Lorraine Leon is a chemical engineer who spends her time designing materials that mimic the properties of natural biomaterials. She does this by creating molecules based on peptides (small proteins) that are programmed to assemble into larger structures and adapt to different types of stimulation.

If successful, these new biomaterials could be useful in a variety of fields from medicine to energy. Leon and her team of five students are focused in two areas:

  • Designing carriers for potentially life-saving drugs and nucleic acids that can help patients battling diseases such as cancer and
  • Building new biomaterials used to create dynamic ecofriendly reactors.

She’s inspired by nature. It was in college that she learned that biomolecules organize into larger structures through self-assembly. There is no outside force guiding them. That is why understanding the design of biomolecules is so important. The building instructions for things like the cell wall are programmed into the molecule. It’s the molecular design that is key to being able to build new materials for broader application.

“The NSF Career grant will help us design new biomaterials used to create dynamic ecofriendly reactors,” she says. “We will accomplish this by designing new peptides that assemble into multilayered liquids containing functional proteins called enzymes. Inside of cells these type of transient structures are used to control chemical reactions.”

With more than a dozen peer-reviewed journal articles and another dozen invited lectures, Leon is on her way to becoming a master builder of these new materials, which hold so much promise.

Before joining the materials science and engineering department at UCF in 2017, she spent five years as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. She holds a doctorate in chemical engineering from City University of New York and a bachelor’s degree in the same field from University of Florida. At UCF, her lab is located at the College of Medicine at Lake Nona and she is also an affiliate member at UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center.

Like the other UCF award recipients, Leon is passionate about preparing the next generation of scientists. She does this through the several courses she teaches, and the mentorship in her lab. She works closely with two doctoral candidates and three undergraduates. She publicly thanked one of those students – Sara Tabandeh – on her Twitter account when notified about the award earlier this month.

“Both Ph.D. students have been part of the lab from the beginning,” Leon says. “They were instrumental in getting the lab set up, and are excellent lab citizens, they each manage specific instrumentation, mentor undergraduates, in addition to conducting research towards their dissertation. The undergraduates help the graduate students with their research, and eventually transition to individual projects. I have a great team.”

Dissecting Cell Mechanics to Understand Disease

Assistant Professor Robert Steward Jr.

  • College of Engineering, College of Medicine
  • CAREER Grant: $500,000

The body is often referred to as a machine and if that’s the case, Steward is a mechanic trying to find out what causes the heart and blood vessels to break.

In this analogy, heart disease and diabetes are the breakdowns. Using his background in cell biology and engineering, Steward looks at the cells that line inside of blood vessels to examine the mechanics at work.

He uses an automated fluorescent microscope coupled with complex mathematical algorithms to see, model and calculate the mechanical forces generated by cells. This high-tech system allows him to determine how strong cells are working. In the case of heart disease, the cells appear to exert more pressure, which then also impacts blood flow. If we can better understand these dynamics, we may be able to develop mechanic-based therapies to help stop or potentially eliminate heart disease, he said. The technique is applicable to other kinds of cells that he hopes his work is a stepping-stone that can be used to add the knowledge necessary to find a cure to heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Steward says the CAREER grant will help him fund his lab provide more time to spend mentoring students. For him, helping students find their way especially into research areas that aren’t yet established is part of his core mission.

The Chicago native is the only biomedical/mechanical engineer working with cell mechanics at UCF.

“I found cell mechanics by accident,” he says. “I knew I wanted to work in the medical field, and I knew I liked engineering, but I had no idea I could combine the two.”

He attended Clarke Atlanta University, an Historically Black College and University, which he says played a big role in finding his way to a doctoral degree and more opportunities to better his life. Through the university he was able to get a National Institutes of Health fellowship. Even then, he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. The fellowship came with funding to cover two years of research anywhere, but it didn’t come with instructions.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “So, I started calling universities and telling them I have funding, am studying mechanical engineering and I wanted to do research in biology, do you have a lab that might be a good fit?”

After several phone calls he ended up at the University of Maryland at College Park working with a professor in the orthopedic biomechanics lab during the summer after his junior year of college. The following year he made another round of cold calls and ended up at Carnegie Mellon University, where he would eventually earn his doctorate. He also met a mentor that helped shape his future. Next stop was Harvard University where he completed post-doctoral work and was able to work alongside medical doctors. It was a life-changing experience.

“Doctors are no-nonsense,” he says. “They would tell me, that’s great, but how is that going to help me help my patient. I really liked that environment.”

That was one big reason he joined UCF in 2015. It was an opportunity to work in engineering and alongside doctors again. Steward’s lab is at the Lake Nona campus and he splits his time on the main campus where he teaches engineering classes.

The best part about the CAREER grant, he says, is the ability to mentor more students and spend more time in the lab, which will lead to more discoveries and publications.

“I didn’t know graduate school was an option,” he says. “I didn’t know I could turn my love of engineering into this amazing career. I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me once I started doing research. The difference for me was meeting the right mentors. I want to be that for my students. I know because I’ve lived it. So that’s why this grant means so much to me. It will buy me more time to mentor students.”