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Metcalf Shares his Experience, Offers Tips for New Graduate Students

February 7, 2013
Justin Metcalf received with the Moore Award for his thesis at the EECS Graduation Banquet in April. He stands with EECS Chair Glenn Prescott.
Justin Metcalf received the Moore Award for his thesis at the EECS Graduation Banquet in April. He stands with EECS Chair Glenn Prescott.

A desire to attack the really tough engineering problems led Justin Metcalf to graduate school. He chose KU for its strong EE graduate program, close proximity to his and his wife’s families, and diversity to his educational background. Metcalf graduated with his undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering from Kansas State University in 2006 and joined Lockheed Martin. Working at one of the world’s largest defense contractors, Metcalf became interested in signal processing problems.

He graduated this past spring with a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering. He earned Departmental honors for his thesis on a new form of high-speed covert communication. Signals hidden in radar echoes will offer soldiers in combat a new secure communication channel.

Metcalf is pursuing his doctorate under the direction of EECS Associate Professor Shannon Blunt.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day involves reading papers and writing. Sometimes I write simulations to verify the theories I am pursuing. We have a nice set up in my lab that allows me to easily talk to other graduate students in similar areas, tossing ideas back and forth and exchanging insights.

What have been some highlights and challenges?

The most challenging thing for me was to make the switch to electrical engineering as a graduate student.  After receiving my B.S. in Computer Engineering, I went to work at Lockheed Martin. When I decided to come back for my graduate degree in EE, it was very difficult to switch disciplines. However, I’m very thankful I followed my goals.

Share with us your overall experience as an EECS student.

I have had a very positive experience as an EECS student. KU has an incredible faculty and curriculum. The combination of applied and theoretical approaches has given me a good understanding of the key problems in RF signal processing.

Please explain your research.

I primarily work in covert communications and radar detection. The communication system is designed to be invisible to unauthorized users, but easily accessible to authorized users. The covert aspect comes from “hiding” data in radar emissions to decrease the chance that they can be detected. I’m developing tools to quantify exactly how much data can be reliably and securely transmitted in such a system.

What are your top tips for new graduate students?

In graduate school, the why is more important than the how. When you are studying, try to understand where everything comes from. Often, you will find a number of formulas all relate back to one key idea. Once you get that fundamental idea, the rest is easy. The same idea applies to research. Once you fully understand the problem you are trying to solve, it is much easier to understand different researchers’ approaches.

Finally, make sure you get enough sleep. If you study for an hour or two a day the week before a big test, you will not have to cram the night before the test. You will think better, perform better, and have less stress.

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