“Talking in depth”: exclusive interview with underwater communications scientist Dr. Milica Stojanovic

EarthzineIEEE OES, Underwater Communication, Women in Engineering

A conversation with Milica Stojanovic about her foray into underwater tech research

15 June, 2023

Afzalbek Fayzullaev

From wanting to be a theater actress to being in the top 2% of most-cited scientists and one of the most famous and established names in underwater communications, Milica Stojanovic has had a large impact on both the research and academic field. Currently a Professor of Electrical Engineering in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern University, Professor Stojanovic’s past research focused on efficient digital underwater communication by using acoustic transmission. When asked about her endeavors, Professor Stojanovic made sure to note that she works on the theoretical side rather than the hardware implementation. The Institute for Experiential Artificial Intelligence (AI) at Northeastern University, Milica Stojanovic mentioned that she was excited to combine her expertise in wireless communications and networking with emerging AI applications. When asked about how her work can benefit from AI, she wanted to make it clear that the recent chat AI robot that has gained popularity is not what she is referring to. “When people think of AI, they think of the basic side. Behind it there are a lot of algorithms and the chat robot is not intelligent, it is just learning itself.” AI applications that she refers to would allow her to do machine learning and would allow her “to do things that we do not know how to do” such as topology estimations.

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Milica receiving the OES Distinguished Technical Achievement Award

Milica receiving the OES Distinguished Technical Achievement Award at OCEANS conference

“I always liked math, and I liked signal processing. The Ocean was a practical problem that I fell in love with.” After initially not knowing what she wanted, Milica Stojanovic found her path toward teaching and research through her love for mathematics and the realization of the work that can be done in the field of underwater communication. Stojanovic’s story is especially interesting when taking into the fact that initially, she did not want to come to the United States of America, but chose to follow her husband and bravely pursued both her M.S and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at Northeastern University after completing her bachelor’s degree from the University of Belgrade in Serbia. Some challenges that Professor Stojanovic faced during her journey were surprisingly not hardships of immigration or technical challenges in her studies, but challenges of everyday life and humorously the fact that “there are fewer and fewer hours in the day.” She also  mentioned that “When you like what you are doing, you do not have challenges.”

The favorite part of Milica Stojanovic’s position as a teacher was the ability to tell a story and explain concepts to other people. Early on she wanted to be a theater actress and by holding on to the dream of reaching people through the presentation, Professor Stojanovic revels in challenging herself to “explain anything to everybody.” In her position specifically as a Professor of Electrical Engineering, she noted that everybody can complicate things but at its heart, engineering is logic. The purpose of a professor is to uncover material for the students instead of simply covering material. In research, Milica Stojanovic’s favorite part is figuring out what problems exist and working towards solving them. In addition to this, she also finds great pleasure and satisfaction in working with students and teaching them how to solve problems as well. Her love for teaching and students has led her to numerous honors and awards in education, including students of Electrical and Computer Engineering selecting her as the Eta Kappa Nu Professor of the Year. She is also an IEEE Fellow, and the Oceanic Engineering Society (OES) Technology committee Co-Chair for Underwater Communication, Navigation and Positioning.

Milica with Zoran

Milica with Zoran

Some advice that Professor Stojanovic had for students and young professionals considering joining oceanic engineering studies and careers were to find a challenge that “tickles your brain” and to fight it. She also made sure to emphasize that there will not be instant gratification but that pleasure comes with learning and the ultimate pleasure comes from doing good service. Bringing up current issues with the blue economy, climate change, fish farming, and energy harvesting, she lightheartedly said how the field needs to get a facelift by the next generation. Speaking further about her experience in both academic and research, when asked how important inclusion and equity is, Professor Stojanovic promptly said “immensely important.” She believes that people should judge each other solely on their skills and how good of an engineer they are. Confirming that progress is being made to get more inclusion in the field of academia and research, she hoped to make it clear that individual effort matters and public effort is necessary.

During her career, Milica Stojanovic has been an active part of OES, and is a recipient of multiple awards such as the IEEE OES Distinguished Technical Achievement Award and IEEE Women in Communications Engineering Outstanding Achievement Award. Speaking about how OES can help other aspiring engineers and researchers, she stated that “OES is putting up a nice effort for young people with the programs (such as YP-BOOST) and conferences with student posters and student involvement (such as OCEANS conferences).” She also noted that she even feels shy at times and the students do not! The network that OES helps build is real and OES is able to create real opportunities that will lead to a brighter and more hopeful future.