Meet Professor Mahta Moghaddam
Mahta Moghaddam is Distinguished Professor and the Ming Hsieh Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC), and the Co-Director of the USC Center for Sustainability Solutions. Prior to USC she was at the University of Michigan (2003-2011) and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (1991-2003). Moghaddam served as 2019 President-Elect of the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Society (APS) and was the 2020 APS President.
Moghaddam has made significant contributions in the advancement of radar technologies, microwave systems and sensors. She has pioneered sensing technologies and algorithms for the characterization of the environment and the quantitative interpretation of the effects of climate change. She has also leveraged microwave technology towards the development of innovative tools enabling focused microwave therapy and image-guided thermal therapy.
Moghaddam is an IEEE Fellow and has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, and academic achievements. She is the 2016 recipient of the NASA “Outstanding Public Leadership Medal” for her outstanding leadership in the advancement of microwave remote sensing technologies. In 2019 she was honored with one of the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer; she was inducted in the National Academy of Engineering for her outstanding contributions in the development of physics-based computational algorithms for mapping of subsurface characteristics.
Her passion, dedicated work and impact in the antennas and propagation community are universally acknowledged and serve as a true inspiration for women engineers around the world. In light of the International Women’s Day, Moghaddam walks us through her career path and shares her thoughts on how the field is changing to advance diversity and inclusion in engineering.
Tell us about your early career path. What made you choose your technical field of interest?
Growing up in Iran, seeking knowledge and a career in science and engineering was (and is) almost a given – something that you were expected to do to benefit society and to advance the humanity’s state of thought. In that sense, the early decisions were quite easy to make: I was going to pursue a career in a technological field that would allow scientific exploration and to help enhance the human condition. And I don’t want to make it sound like this was just an obligation – on the contrary, it was a decision based on sincere interest and conviction. The decision to study electrical engineering was therefore an easy one, in that I saw that it was a dynamic and diverse field that enabled positive societal impacts to be made in many different directions. At the same time, when I started studying electrical engineering, I didn’t really have a grand vision or plan for how I would end up using my knowledge. I was intrigued by the rapidly advancing technologies and wanted to have a part in them. I knew that I wanted my knowledge to be used to benefit humanity or to make discoveries that enhanced human knowledge in some meaningful. This may sound cliche, but it truly was a starting point to keep myself in check, answering the “so what?” question along the way.
I draw much inspiration from my interactions with my mentees, who are really my junior colleagues.
Early during my undergraduate studies, I realized that the field of electromagnetics had, for me, the ideal balance between intellectual intrigue and impactful applications. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. I was extremely fortunate to be taken under the wings of my PhD advisor and mentor, Prof. Weng Cho Chew, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. To this day, I continuously benefit from the depth and breadth of that training. I came to understand and apply electromagnetics in the areas of nondestructive evaluation, subsurface sensing, and medical imaging.
With my first job, post PhD, at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), I was exposed to the concepts of microwave (especially radar) sensing for environmental applications and Earth system exploration. It was also during that time that I had the privilege of meeting many Earth scientists – ecologists, hydrologists, climate scientists – and realizing that our engineering tools were going to be needed to address some of the long-standing, as well as emerging, climate grand challenge questions. That further led me to explore the development and use of new observing systems for Earth system variables that are currently poorly observed – variables such as ground water, soil moisture, and snow water equivalent. A common theme here is water and how it cycles through the Earth system. Engineering innovations are needed to better track and understand these water cycle quantities and to work closely with the scientists to provide accurate and frequent information they need for their global-scale models. This in turn would allow us to come up with better predictions of the Earth system and its climate, and therefore to enable us to come up with solutions to potential adverse effects – especially the human toll – of such change. Climate change and its human impacts have been called an existential threat to humanity; our engineering tools can have an important role in developing solutions for this threat. Together with my wonderful group of graduate students and post-docs, we have therefore been involved, in the past 3 decades, in the development and demonstration of new instruments, measurement techniques, and analysis tools for tracking the pieces of the global water puzzle, such as radars for subsurface water characterization from in-situ, drone-based, high-altitude aircraft, and spacecraft vantage points.
Engineering careers are impact-driven – as engineers, we can work towards a better society and we can benefit humanity.
Since transitioning to academia, first at the University of Michigan and then at the University of Southern California, I and my group have also been focused on medical applications of electromagnetics. This set of applications includes diagnostic imaging for cancerous tumors, but more recently, it has included non-contact high-power focused microwave thermal therapies, and most importantly, monitoring of thermal therapy treatments via non-contact microwave imaging techniques. There are many commonalities between the medical and environmental applications of our work, even though the physical domains of our observations may be orders of magnitude apart. In either case, it’s the realistic human-centric and societal benefits that drive our work.
You have received numerous awards and honors for your research and academic achievements. What inspires you and keeps you motivated to continue advancing and innovating?
I am humbled to have received the awards and recognitions. I am grateful for colleagues and mentors who have supported and nominated me. As any of them would surely tell you, it’s really the conviction and the will to advance the state of knowledge and to ultimately benefit the human condition that drives innovation. The more we learn, the more we understand how much we don’t know, and that in itself causes us to want to work harder to answer more questions. I also draw much inspiration from my interactions with my mentees, who are really my junior colleagues. It’s always a learning experience to talk to them about our research problems and to jointly come up with new solutions.
What are the biggest challenges women in engineering face?
Women in engineering currently face a few challenges, but none of them are unsurmountable. To start, our numbers are small – the percentage of women in our field is small, and that in itself may be a deterrent for the next generation of women. Then we can ask why are the numbers so small, which is really where we can look for the sources of the problem. It may be that for one reason or another, historically, engineers were expected to be men, and therefore there is a mindset barrier to overcome. To get past the barrier, persistence against and resistance to discouraging messages are needed (and there could be a lot of negative messaging!). Both women and men need to learn and understand that there is no intrinsic factor limiting either gender from pursuing a career in engineering. There may also be the traditional family roles and responsibilities that women are expected to carry, and until we address those and help women achieve a better balance, overcoming that barrier will remain difficult. These challenges need to be addressed early on, starting with k-12 education.
There is no intrinsic factor limiting either gender from pursuing a career in engineering.
In your view, what aspects of engineering make it a particularly good career path for women?
I would answer this question by posing the converse question of which aspect wouldn’t be! Engineering careers are impact-driven – as engineers, we can work towards a better society and we can benefit humanity. The economic impact, both at a personal and at the societal level is also immense. A career in engineering is a great way to achieve financial independence and to support those in need, as the case may be. There are also numerous teaching and mentorship opportunities, in our own immediate communities and also globally.
Stories of successful women in leadership roles can serve as inspiration, motivation and a model for others to follow. You have led one of the largest societies within IEEE with over 8,000 members. What particular challenges have you faced during your term as the 2020 IEEE AP-S President?
Unfortunately, the biggest challenge during my presidency term was the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had to transition the work of our AP Society online rather quickly. We had to rescue our meetings and conferences, switching from in-person venues (some of which had taken years to plan) to digital formats in a matter of a couple of months. It was a challenging and trying time for all of us, but I had the good fortune of having full support of the Society and its leadership team (the AdCom, the Society committees, the Society representative, and the Society publications teams). As a cohesive team, we were able to pull through not only without impacting our operations, but hopefully also emerging stronger.
It is not just enough to have a diverse team at the table, but we need to make sure everyone feels, and is, included equally in the discussion.
During your term you launched a number of activities towards increasing the participation and engagement of women in the AP community. Do you consider diversity and inclusion as essential elements for innovation?
Absolutely and unequivocally YES. It has been proven over and over again that diverse and inclusive teams are the most creative and innovative. I would also like to emphasize that it’s not enough just to be diverse, but “inclusion” is just as important: It is not just enough to have a diverse team at the table, but we need to make sure everyone feels, and is, included equally in the discussion. This is how we achieve excellence and dynamicism.
Besides gender parity, there are other diversity and inclusion goals that we need to keep in mind and act on as well…we need to be mindful of geographic, racial, and gender identity aspects of diversity and inclusion.
How can we inspire and support the next generation of women engineers?
We need to truly believe in the importance of diversity and inclusion. We need to take action based on this belief, as opposed to using it just as a motto that gets plastered on walls or in headlines. Besides gender parity, there are other diversity and inclusion goals that we need to keep in mind and act on as well. For example, we need to be mindful of geographic, racial, and gender identity aspects of diversity and inclusion. The new AP-S committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), chaired by Prof. Claire Migliaccio, is working on a number of specific actionable society-wide initiatives that include mentorship mechanisms, award nominations, workshops, and financial support avenues that I expect will help our Society enormously in advancing our DEI goals.