An Engineer Keeps Career Development on Her Radar

September 2017
Jenn Forsyth

How do you sustain and modernize early warning radar systems that have been in place for more than 50 years? That's the challenge that intrigues MITRE's Jenn Forsyth, an electrical engineer.

Radars are a 20th century technology that provide an ongoing, valuable role in our nation's defense. "That's what makes it such a cool challenge," she says. "Our radar infrastructure needs to function while you make system improvements and upgrades.

"From a systems perspective, what you're worried about today is very different from what you worried about 40 years ago. Plus, you're trying to anticipate future needs and modernize the infrastructure in a way that will accommodate new technologies."

This long-term perspective is an integral part of the partnership MITRE has with our sponsors and our mission to work in the public interest. "My research focuses on technological improvements in radar and satellite communications for a range of different sponsors—not just for the immediate future but for the next couple of decades," Forsyth says.

Her work supports the National Security Engineering Center, a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) MITRE operates for the Department of Defense.

On-site Provides Insight into Arctic Communications Challenges

Forsyth, who came to MITRE after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), started her career helping modernize early warning radar systems. "A lot of my work can be applied to different projects," she says. "But much of it looks at ionospheric impacts on radar and satellite communications, especially at high latitudes."

It was her research and expertise in ionospheric physics and its effects that brought her to Thule, Greenland. She and two other MITRE staff spent a week on-site with a government sponsor running test scenarios, capturing data, and analyzing the performance of the systems.

"There are many communication challenges associated with the increases in accessibility of the multi-domain, multi-user activity in the Arctic. It's exciting because there’s a lot of new activity, but it's also challenging because of the disturbed ionosphere there."

The trip provided valuable insight as to how the operators use the system and how it performs in remote locations. "Being able to look at the system through the lens of an operator or the site commander is completely different from seeing it in a development lab." (MITRE staff also research Arctic effects for U.S. Northern Command, with a focus on emergency response.) Now Forsyth is applying what she’s learned to a MITRE Innovation Program (MIP) for modeling ionospheric impacts on arctic communications systems, for which she’s traveled to Alaska twice in the past year to support.

Forsyth traveled to Thule, Greenland (76.5 degrees north latitude) to work onsite with her sponsor.

Paying It Forward

A college internship first brought Forsyth to MITRE. But it's the ongoing professional development and educational benefits that made her want to come back—and stay.

Over the last few years, she's completed her master's degree at Northeastern University with a concentration in electromagnetics and plasmas. She also earned a graduate certificate in Northeastern's Gordon Engineering Leadership program. "Continuing my education was a priority," she says.

Forsyth also participates in several professional development and volunteer activities. They include the Society of Women Engineers, Toastmasters, Young Women in Engineering, Networking for Professional Women, STEM Council, MITRE’s NextUp Executive Board, and recruiting events at RPI.

But she is most proud of her work expanding MITRE’s Job Shadowing program. "I'm very pleased with how it's grown in the last few years," she says. "We have a lot of passionate staff here who apply to be mentors and mentees. When I got involved in the program in 2012, we had 11 pairs in one part of the company. Now we have 55 pairs across several different parts of the corporation. It's been very rewarding to see it grow."

Looking back, Forsyth appreciates all the opportunities she's had at MITRE. She's also grateful to Michelle Getherall, the engineering teacher at Woburn [Massachusetts] High School, who inspired her to pursue engineering in college and as a career.

"Now I see her attend MITRE's annual Young Women in Engineering Day with some of her current students. She had a real impact on my career, so it's nice to be helping and encouraging other young women interested in engineering."

—by Kay M. Upham

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