The UCF community recognized six stellar professors who have had a national impact with their research or creative activities.

The early-career professors were given Reach for the Stars awards as part of the celebration of Founders’ Day. President John C. Hitt selects the winners based on faculty members’ past four years of work. Recipients must be an assistant or associate professor and have attained significant research work during their early career. Many winners have already received National Science Foundation Career Awards recognizing their potential.

The Reach for the Stars winners get a $10,000 annual research grant for three years, which can be renewed based on their promising work. This is the third year UCF has given Reach for the Stars Awards at Founders’ Day.

The 2016 winners are:

Xun Gong joined UCF in 2005, and is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering within the College of Engineering & Computer Science. His research interests lie in the areas of microwave filters and passive components, sensors, flexible electronics, micromachining and ceramic materials. He has published 31 journal papers and 64 conference papers. Gong’s total research funding is $4.3 million, and he is currently the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation that total more than $1.7 million. Gong has received an NSF Faculty Early CAREER award, the most prestigious honor the NSF awards to a junior faculty member. Gong has received a number of research awards and recognitions: the College of Engineering and Computer Science Distinguished Researcher award, and the College’s CAE Link Faculty Fellow. He has established an advanced antenna and microwave research lab, and received a number of honors for his teaching, including the UCF Teaching Incentive Program award in 2010 and 2015.

Annette Khaled joined UCF in 2002 and is an associate professor in the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences and the College of Medicine, where she heads the Division of Cancer Research. One area of her research uses innovative therapies and techniques – including nanoparticles – to attack and destroy metastatic cancer cells that leave the original tumor and travel to the brain, bones and lungs. Khaled has participated in research that’s drawn $4.8 million in grant funding from the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, the Florida Department of Health and others. She has been granted one patent and has five others in the application process, as well as a pending licensing agreement to allow her technology to be used in the treatment of breast cancer. She is a founding faculty member of the College of Medicine and helped develop its curriculum. Her research has appeared in 90 peer-reviewed publications and abstracts – more than 50 of those since coming to UCF. She has received an Outstanding Graduate Educator Award, Outstanding Service Award and a Research Incentive Award from UCF, as well as numerous awards from scientific organizations.

Seetha Raghavan, who came to UCF in 2008, is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering within the College of Engineering & Computer Science. She holds joint faculty appointments in that college’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and also with CREOL: the College of Optics and Photonics. Her research makes air and space travel safer by focusing on engineering the mechanics of structures and materials to meet the extreme conditions associated with energy generation, aerospace propulsion and re-entry. Her research team has shown the ability to monitor the very thin layers of super strong coatings used to protect turbine blades as they are exposed to extreme conditions to get a clear understanding of how they fail. Raghavan has brought in more than $1.5 million in research funding, published 23 journal papers and more than 30 conference publications and posters, and has been granted two patents. Her private-sector research collaborations have included Boeing Research and Technology, Praxair and ALSTOM Power. Raghavan received the International Research and Collaboration Award from the University of Sydney in 2015, and a Broadening Participation Research Initiation Grants in Engineering award from the National Science Foundation in 2011. From her college, Raghavan received an Excellence in Research award in 2014, a Teaching Incentive Program award in 2013, and an Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award in 2012. She became an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 2013 and a Lockheed Martin Faculty Fellow in 2012. She is consistently ranked highly by her undergraduate and graduate students.

Swadeshmukul Santra is an associate professor in the NanoScience Technology Center with a joint appointment in the College of Sciences’ Department of Chemistry. He is also an affiliated faculty of the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. Much of his research focuses on the use of nanoparticles in the areas of agriculture and medicine. Since joining UCF in 2005, Santra has brought in nearly $5.8 million in grants and other external funding to support his research. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Santra a $1.9 million “Center of Excellence” grant to develop a method for protecting the troubled citrus industry from Huanglongbing, better known as citrus greening. The same agency awarded $1.7 million to further develop Zinkicide technology, a nanoparticle aimed at curbing the same disease. Santra has developed novel probes capable of delivering anti-cancer drugs to cancer cells. The National Science Foundation continues to support his cancer research. Santra has 23 patents and more than 85 published articles. He received a UCF Excellence in Research Award in 2015.

Jayan Thomas is an associate professor in the NanoScience Technology Center with joint appointments in the College of Optics & Photonics and the Department of Materials Science & Engineering. Since joining UCF in 2011, Thomas has published 24 peer-reviewed journal papers, has had two patents awarded and has another four patents filed. He has received more than $1 million in research funding as a principal investigator and another $800,000 as a co-principal investigator. Last year, Thomas was awarded an R&D 100 award – given to the top inventions of the year worldwide – for his development of a cable that can both transmit and store energy, which has far-reaching implications for electric vehicles, wearable electronics and the aerospace industry. In 2014, he received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation and a UCF Excellence in Research award, and was a finalist for the World Technology Network award by TIME Magazine and Fortune. Other areas of Thomas’ research include a method for limiting laser light attacks on commercial aircraft, a new technique for fabricating nanostructured supercapacitors, self-cleaning solar panels and more. He has worked to further the field of nanoscience by developing new master’s programs in the NanoScience Technology Center, helping launch the Nanotechnology Club at UCF, organizing annual NanoFest Florida community outreach events at public libraries, and delivering nanoscience talks to students at Valencia College and Eastern Florida State College.

Subith Vasu is assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering within the College of Engineering & Computer Science. Vasu, who came to UCF in 2012, conducts research within UCF’s Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research, and has a secondary joint appointment with the Florida Space Institute. He is internationally recognized as a top researcher in the field of combustion science and fuels. He received a Research Excellence Award from his college in 2016, and in 2015 received a Young Investigator award from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and a New Investigator award from the American Chemical Society. In a little over a year, he’s received a number of grants totaling more than $1.8 million. That includes a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate how power plants might be able to abandon the use of water to generate energy from steam and instead use supercritical CO2, a fluid state of carbon dioxide. He also received a U.S. Air Force faculty fellowship in 2015. Since earning his doctoral degree in 2010, Vasu has had 27 papers published in scholarly journals, as well as 51 conference papers and more than 20 invitations to present his research.