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Story Behind the Success: David Luong

2023 IEEE AESS Robert T. Hill Best Dissertation Award Recipient
2 weeks ago
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I imagine that most articles like this would talk about dedication, perseverance, hard work, and the other virtues conventionally associated with success. But the star of the show today is luck: luck in my life decisions, luck in standing out amidst a sea of young researchers more brilliant than I, and—more than anything else—luck in the people I had around me.

My research is in quantum radar, and at the quantum level, all radar signals are random processes. How appropriate, then, that the story behind the 2023 Robert T. Hill Best Dissertation Award was a random process par excellence!

Random Event 1: In my youth, I studied to become a classical musician. I even attended an arts-focused high school. But when the time came to apply to university, I impulsively decided to apply to physics instead. Apart from my incredibly supportive family, everyone was shocked, including my physics teacher! By the time I realized how crazy it was to make life decisions in this manner, I already had a master’s degree in quantum information.

Random Event 2: After my master’s, my friend forwarded me a recruitment email from Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC). I sent in my CV without thinking, then forgot all about it—until I was selected for an interview. When I heard that I’d be working on quantum radar, I assumed I’d just be performing quantum-theoretical calculations. Only after I was hired did I find out that there was relatively little for me to do on the quantum side of quantum radar. The theory was well-developed—on paper. Instead, I had to learn radar engineering and show the world how to turn paper radars into real radars. And that was how a couple of casual emails transformed me from a physicist into an engineer.

Random Event 3: My supervisor at DRDC, Dr. Bhashyam Balaji, sent me a surprise email saying that Prof. Sreeraman Rajan of Carleton University was willing to accept me as a PhD student. Dr. Balaji thought it’d be a waste if my research didn’t result in a degree, so he had convinced Prof. Rajan behind the scenes. Doctoral studies were barely on my radar at the time (pun intended), and I’d spoken to Prof. Rajan for only a minute in my entire life, so it was a gamble on all sides: Prof. Rajan didn’t know whether I’d be a good student, while I wasn’t confident I could earn a PhD in a field that was still so new to me. But we both made the leap. Since we were the first in the world to show how to perform signal processing for quantum radars, I think this was one case where jumping blindly didn’t lead to disaster.

Random Event 4: I received not only the Governor General’s Gold Medal and the University Medal for Outstanding Graduate Work from Carleton University, but also the IEEE AESS Robert T. Hill Best Dissertation Award for my thesis, “Quantum Radar Signal Processing” …

Now that we’ve reached the end of this “stochastic tale,” it’s time for the closing credits. Without my family, who gave me boundless love and encouragement; my PhD supervisor, Prof. Rajan, who helped me in more ways than I can count; my DRDC supervisor and PhD co-supervisor, Dr. Balaji, who introduced me to quantum radar; my friend, Dr. Ian W. K. Lam, who forwarded me that fateful recruitment email and later helped me run experiments; my research collaborators, especially Prof. Christopher Wilson and his team; Profs. Maria Sabrina Greco and Miodrag Bolić, who wrote such lovely letters of recommendation; the AESS Awards Committee, who had to make some agonizing choices; Robert Tyler Hill, who is still nurturing young engineers from beyond the grave; and many, many others, I’d never have achieved anything that could be called a “success.”

It's a great honor to be awarded the Robert T. Hill Best Dissertation Award, and I’m thankful to everyone who made it possible. Though I’m the lucky one whose name is engraved on the plaque, it's the ensemble cast in this “story behind the success” who truly deserve the accolades. After all, I’m just a minor actor, playing a minor role, who learned to embrace random processes.

Written by David Luong

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David Luong

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Region 7 (Canada)