CAREER awardee balances antenna research with mentorship of aspiring STEM professionals

Dr. Maria Pour

Dr. Maria Pour is the recipient of an NSF CAREER Award, the 2017 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award, the 2016 Southeastern Center for Electrical Engineering Education Award, and a 2016 New Faculty Research Award.

Michael Mercier | UAH

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Development Program (CAREER) is designed to support early-career faculty who have "the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization." As such, recipients of the award are encouraged to support the NSF’s mission of fostering the integration of research and education, and helping to "recruit, train, and prepare a diverse STEM workforce to advance the frontiers of science and participate in the U.S. technology-based economy."

That’s a mandate Dr. Maria Pour, an assistant professor in UAH’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, takes seriously. In the year or so since she was selected to receive a five-year CAREER award for $500,000 in support of her research on phased array antennas, she has dedicated herself to growing UAH’s graduate program in electrical engineering. "Currently I have four Ph.D. students and four M.Sc. students in the program," says Dr. Pour, who joined the UAH faculty in the fall of 2015 after earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Manitoba in Canada. "I also have two undergraduate research assistants. My mission is to encourage undergraduate students to pursue graduate degrees and build their future careers in the area of antennas and applied electromagnetics."

To attract new students to the program, she’s sought to increase its visibility among members of the university’s undergraduate and graduate community and beyond. Earlier this spring, she hosted a seminar on antennas and radars that featured seven speakers, including two locally employed professionals. "I’m trying to encourage undergraduate students to join our graduate school, especially women and underrepresented students, so I want to do one seminar per semester," she says. "As part of this, I want to present a short course on antennas: real-world applications and future career opportunities."

I’m trying to encourage undergraduate students to join our graduate school, especially women and underrepresented students.

Dr. Maria Pour

Recruiting is only half the equation, however; the other half is retention. To that end, Dr. Pour has invested both time and money in making the university’s research facilities and resources more robust. "We completed an operational undergraduate antenna lab for training and education, which is equipped with a four-port vector network analyzer up to 20 GHz," she says. "And we are about to finish up a new spherical near-field antenna test range. It’s an anechoic chamber covered with microwave absorbers, and it has a frequency range from 0.65 GHz up to 18 GHz, so it’s perfect for testing antennas."

As for the research requirements of her CAREER award, which are considered co-equal to those of education and outreach, Dr. Pour has made similarly impressive progress. She and her group have been active in disseminating the results of their efforts through scholarly publications to develop new techniques to address the current challenges of phased array antennas. "We are working on reducing the grating lobes and making them reconfigurable without using mechanical means, so that they can be used for wide scanning applications," she says. "This would bring a greater degree of freedom over the course of operations and an improvement in terms of the cost of the overall antenna unit." Currently, they are developing prototypes to make sure the techniques they’ve proposed will work well in practice.

Dr. Pour has also managed to secure additional funding from a variety of sources, enabling her to expand her research in new directions and to provide her students with even more opportunities for real-world, hands-on experience. In 2017, she received a Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, as well as the Outstanding Junior Faculty Award and the Outstanding Research Award from UAH’s College of Engineering; in 2016, she received the Southeastern Center for Electrical Engineering Education Award for her work on developing adaptive aperture reflector antennas and a New Faculty Research Award from UAH’s Office for the Vice President for Research and Economic Development for her work on multi-function virtual antennas.

Yet as appreciated as this financial support is, it’s not what drives Dr. Pour to meet – and often exceed – the goals set by the institutions that have honored her with some of their most prestigious awards. Rather, it’s her passion for her chosen profession and her aspiration to impart that passion to others. "I’ve always loved mathematics, and the best field is applied electromagnetics," she says. "I would like to transfer the knowledge to future generations."