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Celebrating Graduate Excellence in Research, Mentorship, and Scholarship at UCF

Recognizing students and faculty for their outstanding contributions to the UCF community.
By Mila Chial | April 10, 2024

Each year, students and faculty at UCF demonstrate incredible dedication to their work. Many go above and beyond to produce high-quality research while helping others reach their potential. The College of Graduate Studies recognizes students and faculty members annually for their exceptional teaching, research, and service through the Graduate Awards for Excellence.

At the awards ceremony during Student Research Week, several graduate students were recognized for their exceptional achievements in teaching and research. Additionally, other students and faculty members were acknowledged for their academic excellence during Founders’ Day.

This year, the awards expanded to include greater recognition of the arts — an area that may not always receive the attention it deserves. The new Award for Outstanding Graduate Creative Work, spearheaded by Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC) member and MFA feature film production student Tolulope Ogunrinde, recognizes the merit of creative scholarship and the incredible value art brings to our community.

This award aims to acknowledge and celebrate the significant creative contributions made by graduate students in various fields, including but not limited to film, visual arts, performing arts, literature, and digital media. The award also provides a platform for graduate students to showcase their talents, gain recognition for their achievements, and receive support and encouragement as they pursue their creative endeavors.

“The inspiration behind creating the Award for Outstanding Graduate Creative Work stemmed from one of my goals as a member of the Graduate Student Advisory Council, which is to promote creative works among graduate students at the university,” says Ogunrinde. “By highlighting the outstanding creative work of graduate students, I hope to inspire future generations of scholars and artists to push the boundaries of creativity and make meaningful contributions to their respective fields. I believe that by recognizing and honoring excellence in creative work, we can foster a culture of innovation, collaboration, and artistic expression within our graduate community and beyond.”

The Graduate Student Advisory Council also presents the Award for Excellence by a Graduate Student Researcher. This self-nominated award recognizes outstanding graduate student-level research and creative scholarship at UCF, allows students to share their research with the UCF community, and provides an opportunity for the GSAC to acknowledge and reward exceptional students.

Award for Outstanding Graduate Creative Work — Njeri Kinuthia, College of Arts and Humanities.

Njeri Kinuthia is a graduate student in the studio art and design MFA program. She is an immensely talented artist who creates multidimensional pieces representing her Kenyan heritage and feminist values. Her artistic style is multifaceted and uses various mediums, including fabric, canvas, and everyday objects. Kinuthia uses her art to raise awareness of gender and racial inequality while advocating for change. She loves incorporating bright and colorful fabrics from her hometown, and her background in fashion design enhances the visual appeal of her pieces, all while seamlessly integrating important social messages into her artwork.

Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Teaching — Hannah Bevan, College of Sciences.

Hannah Bevan is a graduate student in the conservation biology doctoral program. She is a graduate teaching associate in the Mammalogy Lab, where she is dedicated to creating a welcoming environment for students to learn and enjoys sharing her passion for biology. Her course focuses on the theoretical and methodological aspects of modeling species distributions through habitat suitability and connectivity analyses to inform effective conservation management decisions.

Award for Excellence by a Graduate Teaching Assistant — Mousam Hossain, College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Mousam Hossain is a doctoral student in the computer engineering doctoral program and teaches computer organization. As a graduate teaching assistant, she guides students on assembly language programming using the MARS simulator and Verilog coding using design and simulation tools. Besides her teaching responsibilities, she conducts research in the Computer Architecture Lab focusing on reconfigurable and evolvable hardware. Her love for computer engineering is channeled into her teaching as she helps students better understand computer organization and build a solid foundation in the subject.

Mousam Hossain with Vice Provost and Dean of the College of Graduate Studies Elizabeth Klonoff being presented the Award for Excellence by a Graduate Teaching Assistant.

Award for Excellence by a Graduate Student Researcher (Doctoral – Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities) – James Rujimora, College of Community Innovation and Education

James Rujimora is in the counselor education doctoral program, conducting research on the potentially traumatic experience of caring for a child with a chronic medical illness, specifically among parents and guardians. He found that raising a child with a serious diagnosis can take a major psychological toll on caregivers, leading to concerning levels of secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma. Now, he plans to utilize his research findings to enact meaningful change. By partnering with local organizations to develop targeted on-site interventions that provide parents and guardians with the support they desperately need during this challenging time, sharing his findings through peer-reviewed journals across multiple disciplines, and connecting with family advocacy organizations to inform caregiver-centric policies on the federal and state levels, he aims to support parents going through such struggles.

Runner-up (STEM): Joseph Goode, College of Medicine

Honorable Mention (STEM): Edwin Davidson, College of Sciences

Award for Excellence by a Graduate Student Researcher (Master’s – Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) – Melanie Cedeño-López, College of Sciences

Melanie Cedeño-López is in the Feature Film Production MFA program. For her thesis, she produced a feature-length documentary film called “La Buena Cosecha” which explores the remarkable contributions of Latino business owners in the United States. The film’s exploration of the economic impact of Latinos in the U.S. revealed their high entrepreneurship rates, job creation, and substantial contributions to consumption and capital formation, reflecting their growing wealth. She aims to continue sharing positive stories about Latinos making a meaningful impact on society.

Joint Runner-up (Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) Njeri Kinuthia, College of Arts and Humanities

Joint Runner-up (STEM): Manisha Thenuwara, College of Community Innovation and Education

Co-Runner Up Award for Excellence by a Master’s Graduate Student Researcher Njeri Kinuthia with adviser Jason Burrell.

Award for Outstanding Master’s Thesis (Engineering, Physical Science, Mathematical Sciences, and Life Sciences) – Tajnuba Hasan, College of Engineering and Computer Science

Tajnuba Hasan is from the mechanical engineering master’s program and mentored by Tuhin Das.

Hasan’s thesis is titled: “Control of the Spar-Buoy Based Wind Turbine Floating Platform Through Mooring Line Actuation.”

Hasan’s thesis focused on a critical challenge within the burgeoning field of offshore wind energy, specifically addressing the stability of floating offshore wind turbine (FOWT) platforms in challenging ocean environments. Her research proposes a novel approach to stabilize FOWTs by concurrently designing the mooring system and control strategy. Unlike conventional methods that exclusively focus on control design, this work recognizes the interdependence between platform dynamics and mooring configuration, thereby advancing the field of renewable energy.

Award for Outstanding Master’s Thesis (Social Sciences, Humanities, Education, Business, Fine Arts, and Health Sciences) – Jason Pagan, College of Health Professions and Sciences

Jason Pagan is from the kinesiology master’s program and mentored by Matt Stock.

Pagan’s thesis is titled: “Resistance Training Adaptations in Older Adults Exhibit Task Specificity.”

Pagan’s thesis focuses on examining how exercise and movement specificity determine the extent of improvements in strength and mobility in older adults. Adults lose muscle strength as they age, which can lead to gradual loss of mobility, chronic pain, and poor quality of life. Pagan found that strength training can help mitigate and even reverse these effects. His findings have important implications for designing senior community exercise programs when equipment access may be limited. His primary thesis manuscript is currently undergoing peer review in a top gerontology journal.

Honorable Mention: Cole Taylor, College of Arts and Humanities

Award for Outstanding Dissertation (Engineering, Physical Science, Mathematical Sciences, and Life Sciences) – Ce Zheng, College of Engineering and Computer Science

Ce Zheng is a graduate of the Computer Science doctoral program and mentored by Chen Chen.

Zheng’s thesis is titled: “Reconstructing 3D Humans from Visual Data.”

Zheng’s dissertation focuses on artificial intelligence-based solutions for human pose estimation (HPE) and human mesh recovery (HMR). At the time when Ce started his doctoral studies, the challenges posed by HPE and HMR were significant. Ce recognized the need for a more efficient and cost-effective solution, leading to the development of groundbreaking techniques for accurate 3D HE and HMR directly from images and videos. These advancements have not only eliminated the dependence on costly motion capture systems but have also significantly impacted the broader research community.

Honorable Mention: Swarnadeep Seth, College of Sciences

Award for Outstanding Dissertation (Social Sciences, Humanities, Education, Business, Fine Arts, and Health Sciences) – Corey Seavey, College of Medicine

Corey Seavey is a graduate of the Biomedical Sciences doctoral program and mentored by Bradley Willenberg.

Seavey’s dissertation is titled: “New Tools and Platforms for Mosquito Behavior, Control, and Bite-Site Biology Investigations.”

Seavey’s research focused on using technology to create new methods of studying mosquito-borne diseases and ultimately mitigate their impact. Through his work, he developed two innovative tools to help deepen our understanding of mosquito behavior and enhance control strategies. The first tool is a unique flight chamber designed to study spatial repellents – specific airborne chemicals that form an invisible barrier, deterring mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases away from humans. The second tool is a model system called BITES that mimics a mosquito biting a human, which can be used to study the mosquito-bite site more closely and potentially better understand disease transmission. These new tools can lead to improved mosquito control strategies, thereby reducing mosquito-borne diseases worldwide.

Honorable Mention: Ratna Okhai, College of Community Innovation and Education

Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching – Debbie Hahs-Vaughn, College of Community Innovation and Education

Debbie Hahs-Vaughn is a professor and academic program coordinator in the Department of Learning Sciences and Educational Research. She teaches a subject known to be challenging for many people – quantitative statistics. “Statistics is an integral component of graduate education but at the same time is also difficult for many students to understand,” Hahs-Vaughn says. “On top of this, not everyone learns the same so it’s important to present material in multiple ways to reach students.”

Despite the demanding nature of her subject matter, she is regarded as an excellent instructor who makes herself available to students and offers highly constructive feedback. Her recognition with this award is a testament to her exceptional teaching abilities. Her passion for statistics, eagerness to teach her students, and supportive nature have allowed her students to succeed under her direction.

“Being recognized through the Excellence Award for Graduate Teaching is an incredible honor and is incredibly motivating to continue to work on improving my instruction,” she says.

The college recipients of the Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching are:

  • College of Arts and Humanities: Julia Listengarten, professor, School of Performing Arts
  • College of Business: Lealand Morin, assistant professor, Department of Economics
  • College of Engineering and Computer Science: George Atia, associate professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • College of Health Professions and Sciences: Morris Beato, associate professor, School of Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Sciences
  • College of Nursing: Desiree Díaz, professor, Department of Nursing Practice
  • College of Optics and Photonics: Romain Gaume, associate professor
  • College of Sciences: Thomas Dolan, associate professor, School of Politics, Security and International Affairs
  • Rosen College of Hospitality Management:  Juhee Kang, associate professor, Department of Hospitality Management Services

Award for Faculty Excellence in Mentoring Postdoctoral Scholars – Mubarak Shah, College of Engineering and Computer Science

Mubarak Shah is a trustee chair professor of computer science and the founding director of the Center for Research in Computer Vision. The Pegasus Professor has mentored more than 20postdoctoral scholars during his tenure at UCF, many of whom have gone on to work for prominent universities, companies, and organizations such as Meta and Nvidia. Two co-founded startups and three are now successful faculty members at UCF.

“My philosophy always has been to mentor postdocs to achieve their goals of getting faculty jobs in highly ranked universities or jobs in top tech companies with strong R&D. I mentored them how to publish in a top-quality venue, and how to write successful proposals and how to guide research projects of graduate and undergraduate students,” Shah says. Watching his pupils find success is one of the most fulfilling aspects of his career.

Two exceptional faculty members are selected each year who show great dedication and guidance in the mentorship of doctoral students for the Award for Faculty Excellence in Mentoring Doctoral Students in the following disciplines: Health Sciences, Engineering, Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, Social Sciences, Humanities, Education, Business and Fine Arts.

This year, the two faculty members recognized for their excellence in mentoring doctoral students are Ahmad Elshennawy and Robert Dvorak.

Award for Faculty Excellence in Mentoring Doctoral Students (Health Sciences, Engineering, Physical Sciences, and Life Sciences) – Ahmad Elshennawy, College of Engineering and Computer Science

Ahmad Elshennawy is a professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Systems and Director of the UCF Quality Institute. Elshennawy has over thirty years of experience as a researcher, academic, and consultant in the United States and abroad. His areas of teaching expertise include quality and reliability engineering, quality systems and management, six sigma quality, and statistical process control.

Award for Faculty Excellence in Mentoring Doctoral Students (Social Sciences, Humanities, Education, Business, and Fine Arts) – Robert Dvorak, College of Sciences

Robert Dvorak is a professor in the clinical psychology program and director of the REALE-TIME Lab. His work focuses on cognitive, affective, and behavioral self-regulation in health-compromising behaviors, such as substance use and eating pathology. In his lab, he works alongside his students to develop mobile and web-based interventions to reduce involvement in health-compromising behaviors.

Mentoring his students and seeing them grow into wonderful scholars and people is what drives him to continue his work. “I’ve found that the key to being a good mentor isn’t teaching, or guiding, or providing opportunities, or support,” Dvorak says. “Those are all important, but the most important thing, at least from my perspective, is helping these amazing people see in themselves what I see in them.”

The 2024 Excellence Awardees represent a level of distinction in research, mentorship, and academic scholarship that goes above and beyond expectations. To learn more about the Graduate Awards of Excellence, visit the College of Graduate Studies website.

Story from Celebrating Graduate Excellence in Research, Mentorship, and Scholarship at UCF by By Mila Chial for UCF Today