The U.S. National Science Foundation has named eight UCF professors 2022 NSF CAREER award recipients. One of those winners, Assistant Professor Kawai Kwok, is from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
All of the recipients are engineers by training who are working on interdisciplinary projects that aim to improve health or to develop new technology that promises to improve our lives. The awardees represent the most promising junior researchers in the nation with the potential to lead in their respective fields, according to criteria outlined by NSF. This brings UCF’s total NSF CAREER winners to date to 85.
UCF has seen a rise in winners for the past few years. In 2019, the Office of Research launched a program to help junior faculty prepare their applications. The results — a record 12 winners in 2020. There were five winners in 2021, above the norm for UCF in the past decade. This year’s results continue the positive upward trend.
The winners all share three common traits. They are experts in their respective areas. They are curious about the world, and they believe their students are invaluable to their success.
Shape Changing Structures for Space Travel and Beyond
College of Engineering and Computer Science
You can learn a lot from observing nature. It’s the inspiration for much of assistant professor Kwok’s work, which focuses on developing shape-changing structures. These kinds of structures can be used on space missions, for drone work and for solar sails and blades among other applications.
“I was fascinated by how some insects fold their wings around their bodies when crawling through tiny spaces,” Kwok says. “The ability to transform their wings allows them to quickly switch between flying and crawling, making them among the most agile species in the animal kingdom. … What’s more rewarding is that once we understand these principles, we can use them to create new and extraordinary engineering devices that can change our lives.”
Among Kwok’s ongoing research is the use of thin-ply composites to support satellite payloads, such as solar sails for solar-powered space travel, or to serve as supports for large spacecraft. For the NSF CAREER award he will focus on harnessing snapping instabilities for shape shifting reconfigurable structures.
He says students are an integral part his lab, which is why Kwok is using part of his funding to give students more resources.
“They carry out much of the hard work, from building computational models, creating prototypes, running experiments to curating the results,” he says. “Working with students is truly a joyful experience. They ask hard questions, bring ingenuity, and come up with great ideas. I have learned a lot from these young minds.”
Kwok’s lab has conducted research that indicates that mechanical testing machines can be produced at low cost using off the shelf components. His goal is to set up a process where he can provide them more broadly to students.
“Very often undergraduates only get to see videos or demos about mechanical testing due to the lack of available tests,” he says. “The grant money will allow us to look into scaling up production. Eventually we want to hand these machines to students in undergraduate classes to enhance hands-on learning.”
Kwok joined UCF in 2017. Prior to UCF he worked as a researcher at the Department of Energy Conversion and Storage at the Technical University of Denmark. He holds multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in aeronautics. In addition to his CAREER award, he has been recognized with the NASA Robert H. Goddard Exceptional Achievement for Engineering award. He has published more than 27 articles and is funded by several agencies including NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the U.S. Office of Naval Research. He also serves as a reviewer for NSF and NASA, which means he helps select faculty and student awards in certain areas.