Mentoring Early Career Engineers Contributes to Antenna Advances

May 2018
Wajih Elsallal
Wajih Elsallal

What Wajih Elsallal truly enjoys is bringing early career engineers onto his MITRE projects, presenting them with new challenges, and helping them learn. But to get to this position, he first had to challenge himself.

As a high-school student in Saudi Arabia, Elsallal didn't do very well in physics his first trimester. But he was determined to succeed, so he applied himself—and earned the highest score in the class next trimester.

"That's when I started to love electromagnetics and math," he said. He also began to work with some of the other students on an informal basis, tutoring them in math and physics.

"That process of mentoring people and teaching them motivated me to continue in the path of electromagnetics and, eventually, antennas."

Elsallal went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in petroleum and minerals at King Fahd University in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He later completed his master's in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, a doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and an MBA at the University of Iowa. He was selected as the best graduate teaching assistant at Georgia Tech.

He began his career in the private sector developing communications systems for hand-held devices, and then phased arrays for research labs, aerospace companies, and U.S. government agencies. During that time, he built on his Ph.D. thesis about balanced antipodal Vivaldi antennas to develop a new generation of the traditional Vivaldi (tapered slots) antennas.

Elsallal joined MITRE in 2013, in part because he wanted to be in an environment that focused on research and innovation, addressed technical questions with a high degree of objectivity, and solved the sponsors' most challenging problems. He continues to specialize in wideband phased array developments and radar systems.

He appreciates the fact that MITRE operates FFRDCs—federally funded research and development centers—for the U.S. government. This allows him to have the best of both worlds.

He also likes the corporate culture he observes at MITRE.

"I'm surrounded by an excellent management team that empowers the employees and inspires them—they don’t micromanage them. They give us all the support we need to do our jobs."

Developing the Next Generation of Antennas

At MITRE, Elsallal has helped develop a new class of radiating elements for wideband phased array antennas for the Navy. Working with a team from the sponsor and MITRE, he developed FUSE, an acronym for Frequency-Scaled Ultra-Wide Spectrum Element.

FUSE is modular, so that a large antenna can be built from several small FUSE subarrays that could be easily reconfigured. Because FUSE doesn’t require connectors, large phased arrays can be made at a fraction of the cost of others their size. And since FUSE is an all-metal design, it has three to five times more power-handling capability than a comparable wideband phased array made with printed circuit board technology.

Working with Jamie Hood, a MITRE mechanical engineer, Elsallal also developed another new generation of low-profile wideband phased-array antenna. The MITRE team later collaborated with a start-up 3-D printing company in Boston, Voxel8, to find a way to manufacture the phased array using a compact Voxel8 printer that can be deployed in the field.

Elsallal looks at his development of new products as more of a collaborative process than a solo act. Just as he worked with classmates in high school, he brings junior engineers onto his projects, helps teach them, and, in turn, learns from them.

"MITRE encourages mentoring. I get support from management to allocate people who are new to the company or don't have the same experience as I do, and we work together." Two of his mentored colleagues went on to lead their own projects. And now Elsallal is mentoring three more engineers to become future leaders.

The company also supports his outreach efforts to the wider scientific community. In 2016, for example, he served as technical program co-chair of the IEEE Phased Array Systems and Technologies Symposium. And this year he serves as technical program co-chair of the IEEE International Symposium on Antennas and Propagation.

A Team Approach to Innovation

His teamwork-driven approach extends to his government partners as well. Coming up with groundbreaking designs for the Navy, for example, is the result of close collaboration with a "hands-on" Navy sponsor who provided some of the innovation, as well as working with an excellent MITRE team.

"This is the result of weekly meetings with our sponsors, looking outside the box, and borrowing from the expertise of people at MITRE from different backgrounds from my own."

MITRE has used Elsallal’s FUSE innovation work on other projects to help sponsors solve complex antenna issues. And we’ll soon have an active electronically scanned array capability based on FUSE technology with flight heritage.

Meanwhile, he's always looking for ways to encourage the next generation of innovators. In addition to Jamie Hood, some of the other early career engineers he has worked with at MITRE include John Liston, a lead antenna/electromagnetics engineer, and Cecelia Franzini, a former MITRE intern who is now a senior sensor systems engineer and has filed for two patent disclosures.

by Tom Nutile