Özer to Represent WKU as Fulbright Scholar, Research Fueled by EPSCoR Seed Funding

“I thought that it was a long shot for me. I was super shocked and honored.”

Professor Özkan Özer, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Western Kentucky University (WKU), will represent his team of mathematics scholars, WKU, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky as a Fulbright U.S. Research Scholar in northern France starting this fall. According to fulbrightscholars.org, “The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program offers over 400 awards in more than 135 countries for U.S. citizens to teach, conduct research and carry out professional projects around the world.” 

The prestigious Fulbright Research award is granted across disciplines, with the understanding that the awardee will, “actively engage host institutions in a spirit of promoting mutual understanding and sharing knowledge.” Özer will contribute to and establish scientific and social connections at the University of Université Polytechnique Hauts-de-France, in the field of applied mathematics, with the goal of furthering the field in areas such as education, economics, and advanced manufacturing. For a mathematician from Western Kentucky, this is a golden opportunity.

“There are so many prominent scientists that apply to the Fulbright award. I was told my type of mathematics was perhaps too theoretical in comparison to super applied fields in Health and Public Health, Humanities and Social Sciences, Fine Arts and Performing Arts, Education and Teaching, and Professional and Applied Sciences. Not many mathematicians are historically supported…but, I did my best anyway,” said Özer. “I wrapped up the outputs from the KAMPERS projects and tailored the new proposal around that research, and thankfully, it worked.”

Those outputs, supported by KY NSF EPSCoR over the last several years, were pivotal for Özer’s research, particularly when it came to student support, publications, and visibility. Özer’s received three seed-funding awards from KY NSF EPSCoR over a five-year period, under the auspices of KAMPERS, the Track-1 award committed to advancing manufacturing in Kentucky.

  • In 2019, Özer received an Undergraduate Research Experience Award (URE) titled, Developing a novel computational toolbox for the structurally-embedded smart material systems by feedback controllers.
  • In 2021, Özer received a Research Award titled, Robust-filtering of sensor data to optimize feedback-controlled software on structurally-embedded smart-material systems.
  • And finally in 2022, Özer received another URE award, titled, Developing a Novel Computational Framework of Piezoelectric Transducers for Contactless Energy Harvesting.

Together, these three awards totaled over $100,000 in infrastructure and student support, and were a sparkplug for the team’s innovative applied mathematics research. Özer’s team helped advance the algorithms of smart materials in manufacturing and other fields, increased the performance of embedded sensors, and better determined their power outputs.

Most importantly, these awards supported nine undergraduate students and six graduate students, many of whom are making significant contributions to the field of mathematics globally. One student has worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, while several others are now pursuing their PhDs. Among them, graduate student Ahmet Kaan Aydin is pursuing a PhD at UMBC, and Jacob Walterman is planning to pursue a PhD at MIT or another top-tier institution. Both have received national recognition for their publications. Additionally, two other graduate students will be starting their PhDs at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Iowa State University in fall 2024. More than numbers, however, Özer is proud of his group’s ability to publish, creating more exposure for the program.

“We published 25 papers through EPSCoR. I was shocked when I looked back and saw that number. In the math domain, that is crazy,” said Özer. “The impact is huge because of increased visibility. KY NSF EPSCoR’s funding helped us generate output, get students to conferences, and publish papers. Now, I am frequently invited to serve on panels for major funding agencies and space research organizations, reflecting the recognition and esteem for my contributions in the field. Now, prospective students want to know more about our program, too.”

This virtuous cycle of hire, publish, rinse, repeat culminates with Özer’s Fulbright award.  According to Özer, all of this started with a little encouragement to apply for seed-funding.

“I didn’t think, as a mathematics researcher, we could be supported by NSF,” said Özer. “People told me that funding was for big labs, for engineers only. But Dr. Cate Webb encouraged me to apply for seed funding. My first application was rejected, and she told me to keep trying, and I’m so glad I did. She supported and mentored me throughout the entire process. We need more people like Cate Webb to encourage faculty to apply for funding.”

“Dr. Özer has strategically leveraged his KY NSF EPSCoR seed funding opportunities to sharply increase his research productivity and student engagement which has now culminated in this Fulbright Award,” said Dr. Cate Webb, Associate Dean for Research, Ogden College of Science & Engineering, and Chair of the Statewide EPSCoR Committee, “This is exactly what we hope to achieve with NSF EPSCoR seed funding. Moreover, Dr. Özer actively engages both undergraduate and graduate students in his research. On behalf of the Kentucky Statewide EPSCoR Committee, I congratulate Dr. Özer on this outstanding achievement.

Professor Özer thought seed-funding was a long shot. He thought the Fulbright award was a long shot. But in the end, teamwork, perseverance, exemplary research, and a little encouragement from others built the Özer applied mathematics group into a sure thing. The group’s future is bright in France and beyond.

“My team comes from various academic mathematical domains, from applied to theoretical and everything in between—that is unusual in our field. The KAMPERS project ignited this research. If it was just me and a couple of graduate students, we would not be here,” says Özer. “KY NSF EPSCoR carried our research to another level. Now with the French and Fulbright connection, we will look to keep going.”