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Story Behind the Success: Justin Metcalf

Feature Story Behind the Success for AESS QEB Q2 2023
3 months 1 week ago
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I can still remember looking out the windows of the gas station I worked at while pursuing my undergraduate degree, wondering what in the world I wanted to do. The only thing I was sure of was that it would have absolutely nothing to do with the topics of Signals and Systems or Electromagnetics, as those were my most despised subjects. After I graduated with a B.S. degree in Computer Engineering from Kansas State University, I went to work at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth, Texas, as an Embedded Software Engineer Associate. I considered myself safe from any Signals and Systems or Electromagnetics. While I worked with some amazing people there and had a great time, I couldn’t shake my lifelong dream of following my grandfather into academia and thought that perhaps I wanted to do a Ph.D. I also thought that perhaps I had been unfair to those two subjects. 

When I started as an M.S. student in Electrical Engineering at the University of Kansas in 2008, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to do research and I wanted to take another try at something to do with Signals and Systems and Electromagnetics. I ended up working with Dr. Shannon Blunt on radar-embedded communications, which relied strongly on both of those subjects. It turned out to work in what would now be considered spectrum sharing, as we were designing communication waveforms to co-exist in spectral bands overlapping and/or adjacent to radar waveforms. Those early years were not easy, as I felt like I had forgotten how to do any high-level math or even take an exam after taking a few years off school. I certainly could not have gotten through it without the patience, support, and encouragement of Dr. Shannon Blunt! =

One of the most pivotal moments in my career came at the 2010 International Radar Conference in Washington DC. Up until that point I enjoyed doing research in radar-embedded communications and was focused on research as a career. However, at that conference, I was exposed to the AESS radar community. I still remember being welcomed as a young graduate student by Dr. Mike Wicks, who stepped away from a crowd of friends and colleagues to kindly talk to me and another of Dr. Blunt’s students. I saw many other people whose papers I had read and studied talking and laughing with each other. That experience completely changed me.

It was there that I truly realized that at the heart of these exciting and interesting concepts I read about in papers and books were people. People with their own stories, backgrounds, and perspectives. At these conferences and through their papers these people talk, inspire, and debate. From my perspective, the health of a research area is driven by the relationships across the community. A strong research community will allow new ideas to thrive and support the development of young professionals to continue the growth of the community. Seeing the culture of the radar conferences convinced me that radar was not just a technical area I could enjoy working on but a vibrant community that I wanted to be a part of throughout my career.  

The following year, at the 2011 IEEE Radar Conference, I was introduced to my second mentor, Dr. Braham Himed. Dr. Himed brought me to Ohio for a summer internship at the Air Force Research Laboratory, Sensors Directorate in 2011 and gave me a very simple-sounding task: connect the Bregman Divergence with radar clutter. This one-sentence topic prompted the development of my dissertation topic, Signal Processing for Non-Gaussian Statistics: Clutter Distribution Identification and Adaptive Threshold Estimation. Dr. Himed and Dr. Blunt encouraged me to think about using machine learning and cognitive radar principles for the problem of detection.

In 2014, I left the University of Kansas to work full-time at the Air Force Research Laboratories, Sensors Directorate, in Dayton Ohio. There I continued to work on cognitive detection as well as spectrum sharing and dual-function radar communications and many other topics. It was there that I really grew beyond considering individual algorithms and techniques and began considering the full radar system. It was an exciting time, particularly with the opportunity to work with Dr. Himed and Dr. Cenk Sahin, and Dr. Patrick McCormick on radar-communications co-design algorithms and waveforms. 

After 4 years at the AFRL, I took a position as an Assistant Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Oklahoma and became affiliated with the Advanced Radar Center (ARRC). Here I began to really explore spectrum sharing from both a technical and regulatory perspective and was able to return to some of my previous work on cognitive radar and detection. I also had the opportunity to work with our faculty, students, and engineers on the large digital-at-every-element arrays we are building. Finally, it was here that I had the opportunity to get more involved in the AESS and try to do my part to continue the tradition of support and community. I was honored to join the Radar Systems Panel in 2020, and I have tried to support the Radar Conference series in any way I can, including by speaking at the Radar Boot Camps (formerly Radar Summer Schools) and providing tutorials. Every year I come away from the Radar Conference invigorated and refreshed from seeing old friends and new ideas.

The common thread throughout my journey has been the support of a wide range of mentors, colleagues, and family. First and foremost, I must thank my incredible wife, Miranda, who has followed me through many moves and countless challenges. I could not have pursued this journey without her. I also could not have done this without the inspiration and joy of my two incredible children, Mitchell and Rosie. Next, I have to thank the two most pivotal mentors in my career, Dr. Shannon Blunt and Dr. Braham Himed. They both have given me numerous opportunities and a wealth of wisdom. I would not be the engineer, mentor, or person I am today without their support and advice. There are too many friends, colleagues, and collaborators to thank. As an abridged list, I must thank my colleagues and friends Dr. Cenk Sahin, Dr. Patrick McCormick, my nominator Dr. Nathan Goodman, Dr. Mark Yeary, Dr. Jay McDaniel, Dr. Bob Palmer, Shane Flandermeyer, and Rylee Mattingly. Finally, I sincerely thank the strong support from Dr. Bill Melvin, Dr. Joe Guerci, Dr. Sabrina Greco, and Dr. Moeness Amin.

In summary, I have to say that the “Story Behind My Success” is a story full of hard work, uncertainty, support, and collaboration from a nearly uncountable number of people. I would not have moved beyond that gas station and eventually gotten this award without the culture of excellence and support that has been built up over the decades by the AESS radar community, exemplified by Mr. Fred Nathanson. I thank him and his family for sponsoring this award, and I look forward to continuing to maintain and build the community that has given me so much.

Justin Metcalf at RadarConf

Fulvio Gini, AESS Awards Chair, presented Justin with the Fred Nathanson Memorial Radar Award at the 2023 IEEE Radar Conference in San Antonio, TX, USA.

Written by Justin Metcalf