Charles V. “Jack” Jakowatz Jr.

Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff
Manager, Radar Signal Processing Research Group
Sandia National Laboratories
BSEE ’72, MSEE ’73, PhD ’76

For his outstanding scientific contributions to radar signal processing and his important contributions to environmental monitoring and national security, the College of Engineering is proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to Charles V. “Jack” Jakowatz Jr.

An Unexpected Path

Jack Jakowatz knew he wanted to attend Purdue before he even saw the campus for the first time. “I was fascinated by Purdue from watching them beat Notre Dame so many times in football, as a giant killer,” Jakowatz says. “I somehow just loved Purdue from the day I drove on the campus, and I told my dad, ‘I’m coming here.’”

While at school, Jakowatz could have never foreseen that he would become a leader in developing synthetic aperture radar.

“I remember sitting in a senior EE projects course at Purdue—one of those courses where you get a smattering of different kinds of modern engineering topics,” he says. “One of the topics for a couple of days was synthetic aperture radar (SAR). It sounded like a nightmare. I remember walking out of there and thinking, ‘Okay, note to self—never work in SAR.’”

After completing his undergraduate degree with highest distinction, Jakowatz stayed on at Purdue to write both his master’s and PhD theses in the area of medical CAT scanning.

“I was so fascinated by computed three-dimensional imaging, the notion of being able to see the complete structure of something non-invasively—the human body, for example, in the case of medical CAT,” he says.

A New Vision

As soon as he finished his PhD at Purdue in 1976, Jakowatz began working on various national-security problems at Sandia National Laboratories, but he still wasn’t thinking about radar imaging.

“Somewhere in the mid-’80s the subject of SAR came up,” he says. “Someone pointed out to me that SAR can be viewed in a very similar way as medical CAT.”

That understanding prompted a new train of thought for Jakowatz, and he began working on the problems related to radar imaging through the mental lens of medical CAT.

“That realization turned me around completely, because I was very familiar with medical CAT from my work at Purdue,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘Wow, if you just look at SAR this way now it makes total sense.’ We’ve used that notion to make significant contributions to SAR in the last 15 years.”

Among Jakowatz’s contributions was an autofocus system, which takes into account the small variations in aircraft movement that once blurred the radar image. For this development, he and a colleague won the R&D 100 Award in 1990.

His team also developed a coherent change-detection system in which different images can be overlaid to indicate very subtle changes that have occurred on the earth’s surface. This process is not only of interest to national security but can also be used to measure ground shifts after an earthquake and may eventually help predict earthquakes better. For this and other pioneering developments in SAR, Jakowatz received the U.S. Department of Energy’s E. O. Lawrence Award and was elected into the National Academy of Engineering.

Despite beginning in what seemed a very different field, Jakowatz is pleased with the path he has followed. “I started out thinking that I’d never work in SAR, and I ended up having a huge interest in it,” he says. “Most of the successes I’ve had in my career have come about just because I found a new way of looking at the problem.”

Passing On the Vision

Jakowatz has made contributions not only in research but also in education. Between 1978 and 1993 he served as an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico.

“I think many of the EE professors that I had at Purdue were really outstanding teachers,” Jakowatz says. “I realized from them how important it is to care about teaching and be interested in the students’ needs. I saw my own teaching as a way to give back a little for all that the Purdue faculty taught me.”

In response to colleagues in industry who wanted to learn more about the SAR process, Jakowatz founded SAR Education Associates in 1993 and wrote a book on SAR using medical CAT as the foundation.

Currently, in addition to working at Sandia National Laboratories, he travels all over the country giving short courses in SAR. “It allows me to teach the subject that I love the most and I am most expert at,” Jakowatz says.

He also continually encourages the next generation of engineers. “Not only can you make the world a better place, but it’s a fascinating field,” he says. “If you can find a job where you are driving to work and you want to be there that day because its going to be interesting—you can learn something, you can teach something, you can do a meaningful piece of work for the country—man, you’ve got it made. You won’t really have to work a day in your life because your job won’t be work. Engineering affords a chance for people to do that.”

Career Highlights

2003 Elected to the National Academy of Engineering
2002 Outstanding Electrical and Computer Engineer Award, Purdue
1997 E. O. Lawrence Award, Department of Energy
1993 Founder and managing partner, SAR Education Associates
1990 R&D 100 Award
1986– Distinguished member, Technical Staff; and Manager, Radar Signal Processing Research Group, Sandia National Laboratories
1978 Adjunct Professor, College of Engineering, University of New Mexico
1976– Member, Technical staff, Sandia National Laboratories

BSEE ’72, MSEE ’73, PhD ’76, Purdue University