Published: July 11, 2022

Michelle PirroneElectrical engineering PhD student Michelle Pirrone has won a prestigious Department of Defense fellowship for her promising research in microwave engineering and machine learning.

National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowships provide three years of funding for tuition and fees, as well as a monthly stipend and travel budget. The DoD awards approximately 500 fellowships each year to students across the country.

We asked Pirrone to share some thoughts on her journey in electrical engineering and advice for those considering a PhD path.

How did you originally choose to study electrical engineering?

I originally started as a mechanical engineering major in my undergrad but had an electrical engineering professor recruit me for research on antennas and 3D printing. I thought it would be a good opportunity to try something new, so I gave it a shot and loved working on microwaves engineering so much that I switched majors and decided to continue with the work in my PhD.

What made you decide to pursue your PhD at CU Boulder?

After working on the antenna research in undergrad, I felt that I had only just scratched the surface with microwaves engineering and really wanted to learn more and try to solve many of the questions or problems I had encountered in my original research. When I came to CU Boulder for visit week, it was my first time in Colorado, and I fell in love with the region. Both the professors and the students in the microwaves program were very welcoming and worked well together, which was a camaraderie that I had not seen at any other program. I decided then to take the leap, not only with going for a PhD, but also moving across the country to Colorado.

Tell us about the project you’re working on now. What do you find most interesting or satisfying about the work?

I am currently working on integrating machine learning techniques into microwaves systems that change in real time. As the requirements for things like communication systems and reconfigurable networks continue to increase, we are hoping to address these demands by allowing machine learning techniques to dynamically improve system performance as operating conditions vary. I originally started the PhD program working solely on microwave design, but I love the challenge of having to work on two very technical and different topics as microwaves engineering and machine learning are. Not many people have tried to put these topics together before like we are doing, and the projects are forcing me to take new approaches to problems in totally different ways than I would never have had to before. 

What is your favorite part about working with your faculty co-advisors, Taylor Barton and Emiliano Dall’Anese?

Both of my advisors have been really great about being open-minded and giving me the room to make some of my own decisions and choices as we work on projects. However, I also always feel like they are there for me when I need support or am stuck on a part of my research and don't know how to continue. I believe we have struck up a really good balance of independence and mentorship, and the three of us work very well on capitalizing on each other's strengths for the research.

What’s next after you finish your PhD?

I still have a few years to go before finishing my PhD, and I like to always keep my opportunities open until it's time to make the final decision. I think I am currently considering going into industry to get some new experience after spending several years in the academic sphere, but only time will tell.

What advice would you give students considering pursuing their PhD?

For most of my time in undergrad, getting a PhD was not on my radar. It wasn't until I found a topic of interest that I really enjoyed that I started to seriously consider graduate school. And even though I work on totally different topics than I did in my undergrad research, there has always been a level of engagement with my work in which I always had been asking questions on if something was possible or how something worked, and now I could actually answer these questions that no one had before. Getting a PhD requires always trying to solve problems or innovate, and I think anyone considering getting a PhD needs to ask themselves if they will enjoy both the frustrations and the satisfaction that comes with forging their own path forward on things no one has really done before.

Do you have any hobbies you’d like to share?

As probably a large portion of Colorado shares, I love being outdoors and in particular love hiking. It's amazing to me how many beautiful hikes are such a short drive away from this area, and I really like doing long hikes that get you far away from the typical hustle bustle of our everyday lives. In addition to that, I really like to cook and try to make foods I've tried at restaurants at home and also like to weight lift.

Anything else you want readers to know about you or your work?   

I really didn't expect to be where I am in my life right now or working on what I do, but I took some chances on trying new things along the way, and I'm hoping to continue to push the limits in my research of what's out there now and what we can accomplish.