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Nicole Bohannon

Electrical and Computer EngineeringNicole Bohannon
National Defense Science & Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship 2013-16

If you’ve ever been frustrated by bad cell phone reception, know that Nicole Bohannon is working hard to remedy the problem.  As a doctoral student in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Nicole aims to develop more efficient and scalable wideband antennas.  In particular, she is coming up with new approaches for the design and placement of antennas in settings where multiple communication devices are in use at the same time.

Working in the EM Lab under the guidance of Professor Jennifer Bernard, Nicole is working on optimizing the placement of multiple antennas in cell phones, cars, and even Navy ships.  She explains, “Nowadays, even an ordinary cell phone needs multiple antennas, one each for WIFI, GPS, lower cell phone bands, the new LTE bands, and Bluetooth in order to provide the features people have come to expect.  Their design and placement needs to be optimized for maximum reception and minimal interference.”

“The next step is to think big,” she says. “Cell phones are simple compared to something like a ship, which has a wide range of communication devices aboard.  Each of them has its own set of antennas, and there is always a danger of one system interfering with another one next to it.  We need to establish the best design practices for settings with multiple devices, different frequencies, and different modes in order to take antenna design to the next level.”

Her ultimate goal is to improve global communication through better-designed antenna systems.  As she explains it, “New antenna technology will reduce the power needed for remote sensing and satellite applications.  It will also increase the quality of transmission and will translate into improved wireless communication in emerging markets, enabling truly worldwide communication and information dissemination.”

Nicole majored in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Maryland where an internship led her to research in antenna design.  “It was a perfect combination of my skills and interests.  On the one hand, you’re doing highly theoretical work in electromagnetics.  On the other, you’re in the lab building things, using saws and soldering irons.  Antenna design lets me join in-depth electromagnetic theory with practical construction and lab bench skills,” she says. 

In addition to her research, Nicole has also devoted a lot of time to outreach activities.  “As Vice President of External Affairs for the student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), I brought in consultants, engineers, and entrepreneurs from the Maryland community to speak to students about opportunities available after college.  I also mentored students and matched them with internship and research opportunities,” she says. In other outreach efforts, she has participated in programs designed to get young kids excited about science and encourage girls in high school to pursue degrees in engineering. She explains, “I’ve had so many great mentors that this is my way of giving back.”

A recipient of a National Defense and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG), Nicole is enthusiastic about the benefits that come with having her own funding.  “The fellowship gives you a certain amount of research independence.  If you’re a research or teaching assistant, you have other responsibilities.  With the fellowship, you have freedom to pursue your own projects because you don’t have to rely on a professor or department to fund your work,” she says.  She applied for the NSDEG with the encouragement of her advisor, Professor Bernhard, and also submitted a proposal for a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. 

“That was my first proposal writing experience, and it was tough,” she says.  “I remember going to Ken Vickery [the Director of the Office of External Fellowships] with my proposal, and he really took it apart.  The pages were bleeding.  However, he taught me how to frame my work and present myself well on paper.  I did a lot of rewriting, and in the end my research statements are better and my proposal writing skills are stronger.”  Her efforts resulted in fellowship offers from both NDSEG and NSF, and Nicole ultimately chose the NDSEG.

After graduation, her research in communications will lend itself equally well to work in private industry, government, or academia.  Meanwhile, she is taking her passion in new directions.  “I got my ham radio license in June.  The beauty of it is that you can talk to anyone who is listening on a particular frequency.  If the signal is strong enough, you can go across oceans,” she says.