December 2020 OES Beacon

Who’s who in the IEEE OES (December 2020)

Milica Stojanovic, IEEE Fellow, OES TCC Chair for Underwater Communication, Navigation and Positioning

Milica and Zoran. Taken circa OCEANS’18.

When I told my children that I was asked to write a story about myself, they laughed hard. Through the laughter, I heard “Who asked?” and “Good luck to them!” and “Is there a page limit?”

Yes, dear reader, I like to talk, and when no one wants to listen any longer, I start writing it down. So praise the page limit, and please read on.

I hope that this will not be terribly disappointing, but I was not born knowing that I wanted to be an ocean engineer—or any engineer, or a professor for that matter. What I wanted to be (at the tender age of three, according to my parents), was a hairdresser.  Seriously.  Now look at that picture:

Would you let a person with hair like mine be your hairdresser? I don’t think so.

The other person in the picture is my husband Zoran. He is a serious guy; he never let me cut his hair, and he always knew that he wanted to be an engineer (he works at Analog Devices). The two of us came to the U.S. in 1989 and began graduate studies in electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University in Boston. At that time, my advisor, Professor John Proakis, had a project with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and so I was introduced to ocean engineering. Thank you, Professor, for that and for much more.

The project involved using acoustic waves to transmit digital information through the ocean. The problem was wonderfully hard, requiring all of our brains and a good amount of faith. Luckily, there was a light (perhaps I should say sound) at the end of the tunnel, and our work eventually lead to the development of the first high-speed acoustic modem, known today as the “WHOI micro-modem.” It also resulted in a lasting friendship and collaboration with the team of Woods Hole engineers headed by Lee Freitag. (Many years later, I even officiated at Lee’s wedding, despite the fact that I once almost lost an entire array of his hydrophones at sea.)

Solving an engineering problem really means opening the door to two new ones, and so I never left the area of underwater acoustic communications.  As part of my work, we spent summer months in Woods Hole, where our children (a boy-girl-boy sandwich) had the luxury of running barefoot and meeting new friends from all around the world. While they were falling in love with the Wood Hole summer scene, I fell in love with the work that began in graduate school.  Here I am, almost thirty years later, still working on the next two problems. My job titles have changed, from a Principal Scientist at MIT to a Professor at Northeastern, but the love has not. I love my ocean engineering and my next two problems.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank all of the Ocean Engineering Society for recognizing that love and the results that came out of it. In 2010, I was awarded the IEEE Fellowship (“for contributions to underwater acoustic communications”), and in 2015, the IEEE OES Distinguished Technical Achievement Award. I am very proud of these achievements. One of the award ceremonies was held at the OCEANS Conference in Sydney. On the evening of the ceremony, to which we were to go by boat, it was raining cats and kangaroos.  I felt obliged to dress up, something that does not come to me naturally. I shoved the party shoes into a handbag and put on a skirt over hiking boots for the boat ride.  The sea was rough, but once we got there, a jazz band and mountains of sushi did their magic, and I got lost in conversations with friends. Then I heard my name being called. As I scrambled up the stairs to the stage, a voice yelled from the audience: “Nice boots!” I looked down at my feet—the boots were still there. I looked at the audience — René Garello was there. OES is full of extraordinary friends who just know how to give support when it is needed.

How could anyone not like that? OES is indeed like an extended family. We make fun of each other and we go on family trips too. OCEANS Conferences took us all to fantastic places. Our youngest made his first steps in the conference hotel bar in Seattle at OCEANS’99. Our daughter hung out with my students in the white nights of OCEANS’13 in Bergen (I had to sleep because I was to give a tutorial the next day), and she planned a memorable five day hut-to-hut hiking trip that to this day reigns supreme on our top ten list.  Finally, back at that OCEANS’10 in Sydney, I was accompanied by our oldest son. While I was attending sessions, he had procured tickets for the two of us for some ultra-important rugby game (All Blacks vs. Australia?). As it turned out, the game was on the night of the award ceremony. My dear friend Lee Freitag immediately intervened, offering to take my place and go to the game instead of accompanying me to the ceremony. Isn’t that just how a family behaves?

Speaking of the family, the Sydney guy is now a doctor, the Bergen girl is studying to become a doctor, and the Seattle baby is in college, thinking that he wants to be an architect. When we are not at work, our life revolves around mountains and skiing. In this picture, you can see me caught in a passersby’s camera, on top of a snowy peak:

Sailing after a 2004 experiment in Greece with Rob Damus and Lee Freitag. One is holding the camera, and the other is probably just holding his breath – can I be trusted this high with no skis on?

Most pictures are worth a thousand words, but some are just the opposite. See that last Instagram comment? Come to think of it, that is all I ever wanted to be – a cool mom. My children might still think that their mother’s job is to talk to the whales, but they now surely ski better than I do, and yes, they love to make fun of me. If I succeed in a cooking endeavor, which is not often, I might be rewarded with “Almost like Sandipa’s.” Sandipa Singh, besides being my cooking nemesis, is my best-ever office mate and friend, a fabulous parent and a WHOI ocean engineer par excellence. Nevertheless, I hope that this Instagram comment from one of my children was genuine. So, to all my young colleagues who are wondering if it is possible to be both a parent and an engineer, the answer is a resounding yes. Remember, you have the entire OES family standing behind you, and some day, you will be standing behind another young person.

So dear reader, we are nearing that page limit. For the end I was thinking that instead of me writing about myself, I should ask a colleague to say something. Then I remembered a note that another OES family member, John Potter, had sent me after UComms’18. Among other things, he wrote: “…and thank you for your irreverence, sprinkled liberally throughout the conference.” Well, I have changed my mind about asking others to write something about me. Who knows what they might say!

Instead, here is something slightly less incriminating for the end: a photo that a friend and colleague from the MIT AUV Lab, Rob Damus, recently dug out:

Can you imagine what a huge smile Rob’s photo brought to my face?  Sixteen years have passed since then, full of exciting work and great friendship. None of it would have happened were it not for ocean engineering. Let us hope that the pandemic will release its grip, and that we will soon be able to travel and spend some time together again.