ALERT Student Spotlight: Yolanda Rodriguez-Vaqueiro

April 30, 2015

Some us are lucky enough to know what we want to do with our lives at an early age. For Yolanda Rodriguez-Vaqueiro, an ALERT Research Assistant and recent doctoral degree recipient in the Electrical and Computer Engineering program at Northeastern University, a career in STEM has been a lifelong dream.

“From the very beginning, my brain was a mathematical one. Instead of a left and right brain, I like to say that I have two left brains. For example, there is only one answer to 2 + 2. For me, that is perfection!” declares Rodriguez-Vaqueiro with good humor.

During her four-year involvement with ALERT, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro’s primary research focus has been developing compressive sensing for standoff detection of security threats at distances of 10 to 50 meters using millimeter wave radar. This research is highly relevant to the Homeland Security Enterprise, as it could be utilized by law enforcement and first responders to detect explosives and weapons from a safe distance. Rodriguez-Vaqueiro is credited with proposing a new geometric configuration for a multiple-bistatic, millimeter wave radar imaging system, which could potentially be used for threat detection in outdoor environments, such as sporting events and music festivals.

Under the guidance of advisors Professor Jose Martinez-Lorenzo and Professor Carey Rappaport, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro was given the freedom to test out new ideas and come into her own as a researcher. According to her, “My capacity to do research has improved significantly. I learned how to take an idea and apply it to the real world by creating simulations and collecting data from measurements done in the lab. Both Professor Martinez and Professor Rappaport were excellent mentors. I was able to give them my very best work thanks to their guidance. They allowed me a great deal of independence to try new things on my own, while pushing me to become a better researcher.”

Rodriguez-Vaqueiro points out that research does not come without difficulty. She states, “When you’re doing research, every project and every new day presents challenges. For example, every time we get data from the lab, it’s a challenge to decipher that data, and then take that data and turn it into an image for others to understand. I’m a person who enjoys challenges though.”

During her time with ALERT, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro was a prolific writer. She authored and collaborated on a total of 14 peer-reviewed publications, receiving the Best Paper Award (2012 IEEE Homeland Security Technology Conference), the Best Propagation Paper Award (2014 European Conference on Antennas and Propagation), and most recently, the Burke/Yannas Bioengineering Best Paper Award (47th Annual Meeting of the American Burn Association), which recognizes original research studies in the field of bioengineering. Additionally, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro is the 2015 recipient of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Research Impact Award at Northeastern University. Publishing her research is among her greatest achievements: “Every time I publish a paper, it’s a huge milestone for me, because you finally have the opportunity to share the results of your research with the public. You may have been working on a project for a long time—six months, or a year—and then you get to write it all down. It’s very exciting.”

Despite balancing her roles as an ALERT Research Assistant and doctoral candidate, Rodriguez-Vaqueiro made time to mentor other students, introducing approximately 15 high school and undergraduate students to STEM research. She especially enjoyed her experience mentoring high school students through Young Scholars, a program operated by the Northeastern University Center for STEM Education: “It was very rewarding for me to assist high school students, because although they have little research experience, they were able to obtain meaningful results from scratch. They also learned some basics in coding. It was good for them, and for me.”

“Without a doubt,” claims her advisor, Professor Martinez-Lorenzo, “She is one of the most talented students that I have ever had during my academic career. She was the Ph.D. student that every faculty member desires in a research group—a student who sets the example of true leadership. I believe Yolanda will have an outstanding academic career solving important and difficult engineering problems with her unique insight and her quick mind.”

Rodriguez-Vaqueiro plans to continue her research and mentoring efforts in a post-doctoral position at the University of Vigo in Pontevedra, Spain, where she will be exploring electromagnetic engineering in regard to checkpoint security applications, and will no doubt, inspire other STEM students to follow their dreams.

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