Three UNT Engineers Awarded NSF CAREER Grants

February 3, 2021
Diana Berman
Dr. Diana Berman

Three UNT researchers in the College of Engineering were awarded more than $1.4 million total in grant money through the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program. Diana Berman, Hua Sun and Hui Zhao have each received awards to fund their innovative research into solving some very difficult problems facing industry today.

“We are pleased with the growth of CAREER Awards in the College of Engineering this year,” says Mark McLellan, vice president for research and innovation. “These awards help our young faculty propel careers in discovery and provide students with opportunities to conduct sophisticated research that is a hallmark of a STEM degree at UNT.”

National Science Foundation CAREER awards are granted to faculty within their first 10 years in a full-time college appointment whose scholarly products are considered to have had a high impact in their discipline and/or on society.

“Over the past three years, our number of faculty CAREER Awards has increased three-fold, speaking to the quality of our faculty, our research and our continued growth as a college,” says Hanchen Huang, dean of the College of Engineering. “With three of our outstanding faculty recognized this year, I am beyond thrilled to see the impact their research will have in the classroom and within our community.”

Berman, assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was awarded $500,000 for the development of a new robust approach to manufacturing mechanically stable nanoporous ceramics. The technology provides very precise design control of ceramic films and coatings used in a broad range of applications such as sensors in breathalyzers and carbon monoxide detectors, purification devices, self-cleaning materials and reflective coatings.

“These materials are highly affected by the porosity and surface area. The more available, the more sensitivity and functionality the materials will have,” Berman says. “That’s why it is important to have the control over the porous structure at nanoscale.” 

Traditional approaches for making ceramics involve high temperatures or plasmas, but the technology her lab is developing can be used at much lower temperatures. This provides new possibilities for materials used in advanced manufacturing, expanding their potential use.

“With this approach we can now mix the compositions together and make these multifunctional materials at once,” she says. “For instance, one material could be able to sense multiple carcinogenic chemicals or dangerous vapors.”

Hua Sun
Dr. Hua Sun
Hui Zhao
Dr. Hui Zhao

Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, received a grant of $427,000 to fund his research exploring the fundamental limits of cryptography through network information theory. He is using mathematics to apply a theory of communication to information networks in an effort to improve security, privacy and anonymity of digital communication.

“We are trying to apply something we call information theory to problems in cryptography,” Sun says. “The main tool is called information study, which was established by Claude Shannon in 1948. The word ‘bit’ was created in that paper. Shannon tells us the best way to tackle noise – when the zeros and ones from the transmitter is not received perfectly.”

Sun is applying the same theory to today’s more complicated problems of digital communication, especially on large networks and with problems like anonymity – doing searches or providing data without it being traceable back to a specific computer.

“We are applying information theory to all kinds of problems, such as secret sharing. A classic example is a nuclear weapon. You don’t want a single person to determine its launch. There are three keepers, and you have to have the get the consent of two of them,” Sun says. “You set a threshold and as long as there are enough participants, you can decode the data.”

Zhao, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, will use her $519,000 grant to design networks-on-chips for GPU-accelerated systems, which are needed in applications requiring the processing of large amounts of data such as deep learning, graph analysis, big data and streaming applications. Her research is making the data communication in these systems more efficient.

“GPU computing utilizes graphics processing units as co-processors to accelerate CPUs for general-purpose scientific and engineering problems,” Zhao says. “A GPU can host several hundred or thousand cores and can execute thousands of mathematical operations in parallel.” 

Currently, data communication is a critical performance bottleneck in GPUs. Zhao and her students will develop techniques to address the gap between the fast-growing computing power and the limited on-chip network bandwidth in these systems.

“Without fast data delivery, GPUs cannot fully take advantage of their computing power to achieve high performance,” Zhao says. “We will use a combination of system modeling, novel network architecture and emerging VLSI technologies to tackle this problem.” 

As part of the NSF grant, Berman, Sun and Zhao will develop educational programs so that UNT students can be involved in their research. Graduate students will conduct research and the research will be incorporated into undergraduate courses. Other plans include summer programs for high school students.

10 researchers at UNT are currently funded by NSF CAREER grants, the most prestigious recognition offered by the NSF for young researchers. The grants support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.