Imagine the most energetic person you've met. That person would likely pale when compared to the energy that Professor Cynthia Young exudes. She not only talks, but also accomplishes, with astonishing speed. Young is a Professor of Mathematics at UCF; she also has a joint appointment at CREOL, the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers, also at UCF. Performing dual roles is not new to Young; while working as a tenure-track Associate Professor in Math, she also held a joint appointment at the Florida Space Institute.
“So, here was the plan,” offers Young. “I was going to get a BS in secondary math education and play softball for UNC Chapel Hill. Afterward, I was planning to teach high school math and be a softball coach.” After graduating and taking the national teacher's exam, she recognized that she had an uncanny aptitude for mathematics. That awakening changed things a bit. Raised in Tampa, she had family in Orlando. So, she decided to attend UCF to pursue a Master's in Mathematics. She did that at night, while she taught at the Orlando Marine Institute during the day. More double-duty.
Her Master's thesis was in laser propagation – how a laser beam spreads over a distance because of atmosphere and other factors. That work continues today. Her research is in the mathematical modeling of the effects of the atmosphere on laser beams. While working on the thesis, Young discovered she loved conducting research. This discovery led to her obtaining a NASA Doctoral fellowship and a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Washington. In her characteristic speedy approach, she completed the program in three years. “My last summer in Seattle, I worked at Boeing Space and Defense,” says Young. “I obtained my pilot's license in the morning before work and a scuba certification at night after work.” That was while she achieved her Ph.D. a year ahead of schedule.
Because she obtained her Ph.D. in three years, she still had one year left on her fellowship. So, just to round out her resume, she obtained a Master's in Electrical Engineering with the remaining funding. “I spent my first two summers working at the Kennedy Space Center, while I got my doctorate and the last summer working at Boeing while I earned my MSEE,” says Young.
Young turned down many offers from industry, including one from the prestigious Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), to pursue her passion for teaching. “I had applied for the astronaut program, and I made the first cut, but did not ultimately get interviewed. I am not sure if working for JPL would have strengthened my astronaut application, but I have no regrets. The JPL offer was nice, but I found my niche here at UCF. I love the balance of faculty life (teaching, research, service, administration) and I love being a part of UCF.”
Young has published more than a half-dozen books - mathematics textbooks that are successful on an international level. She is now working on the third editions. She also has graduated three Ph.D.s in Mathematics, and six Master's students.
As you might guess, Young has won many awards (Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, several UCF teaching, research, and service awards, and she was elected as a fellow of the international society for optical engineers). Which makes her most proud? “The teaching awards, for example, the Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award. I love teaching and the students.”
In addition to her other achievements, Young co-founded the EXCEL program, along with Professor Michael Georgiopoulos. EXCEL is UCF's innovative program to boost student success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects. “I'm the bad cop, Michael is the good cop. My responsibilities focus on recruitment, admissions, selection,and academics. Michael handlesthe hard stuff: assessment, fundraising, logistics, budget, etc.,” says Young.
National statistics showed that less than half of students who signed up for some STEM program in their freshman year actually continued on and made it in STEM. “Our program's goal is to help the freshmen succeed in STEM, statistically, their toughest year,” she adds.
EXCEL provides a learning community to keep these STEM students together in their calculus sequence. She adds, “our data shows that EXCEL is demonstrating 20% higher retention rates for students in STEM. Learning communities work and that is why our program has been so successful.”
Young continues, “We don't mind whether students change their major, as long as they stay in STEM. They get a lot of opportunities for cross-pollination of academics and research. For example, a biologist could work on engineering-related experiments, etc. They get exposure to various academic topics.”
University commitment to EXCEL is exceptional– it has now become an institutionalized program, which means the program will be funded as an offering of the University and will no longer require research grants to be sustained. Young is excited, “The provost is now funding the program through the Office of Undergraduate Studies and we feel very good about that.”
“EXCEL not only helps students reach their goal of obtaining a STEM degree, it also makes them better scientists and engineers, because they come out of our program with both knowledge and experience.”
Another Duty to Add - Mom
“In 2005 (UCF) President Hitt asked me to be the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR)for UCF. As someone who enjoys playing and watching sports and as a former division I student-athlete I immediately said ‘yes'. The FAR certifies student-athletes for competition, gets involved with anything related to student-athlete welfare, and serves as a liason with faculty. I did this until Chris and I had Caroline in 2008. “ Her first child, which has not slowed her down a bit.
“I think I have a balanced life now – teaching, research, EXCEL, and family. UCF was the only academic institution I applied to - I chose it because I love to teach and I wanted to be near family. “ Fortunately for UCF and its students, Young selected UCF. And equally beneficial, she is not done yet.