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This year’s 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. The awardees are:

  • Samik Bhattacharya, 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 46 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.

Samik Bhattacharya
Samik Bhattacharya

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

NSF Grant Helps Professor Dissect Cell Mechanics

Assistant Professor Robert Steward Jr.

  • College of Engineering, College of Medicine
  • NSF 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 NSF 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.”