2020 AFRL Fellow motivates future innovators

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFRL) – Air Force Research Laboratory commander Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle recently announced the selection of the 2020 AFRL Fellows and AFRL Science and Engineering Early Career Award winners. From among the 20 honored researchers, the AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate here is pleased to recognize Dr. Khanh Pham as an AFRL Fellow.

AFRL’s Fellows program recognizes the most outstanding scientists and engineers in the areas of research achievements, technology development and transition achievements, or program and organizational leadership. AFRL bestows this recognition on its most distinguished and exceptional researchers who are at the pinnacle of their career and represent the top 0.2% of AFRL’s professional technical staff.

Pham’s journey to the United States is a story worth repeating though, as stated in previous articles about him, as this honor is just one of several noteworthy recognitions he has received over 15 years of government service.

Pham was born in Vietnam where his parents served in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government and became prisoners of war from 1975 to 1984. Under the Special Release Re-education Center Detainee Resettlement Program, also known as the Humanitarian Operation, he and his family came to the U.S. in the early 1990s.

In Vietnam, he was a second year student at Ho Chi Minh University in the field of electrical engineering. The family settled in Lincoln, Nebraska and Pham graduated from high school three years later. “I barely knew any English on arrival in the U.S.,” Pham said. “Despite my circumstances, I worked hard to learn the language spoken in my new home.”

Electrical engineering continued to be Pham’s course of study and in the late 1990s, he earned bachelor and master degrees from the University of Nebraska, and in 2004, a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame.

Today, Pham is a senior aerospace engineer in the Geospace Technologies Division of the Space Vehicles Directorate. The directorate nominated him as a Fellow in the category of research achievements. He is a recognized national scientific authority and independent researcher in Statistical Control Theory and Game-Theoretic Decision Making, a rigorous strategic thinking process in developing scientific solutions.

According to the AFRL description of his Fellow selection, Pham is the only DoD person succeeding in transforming this new technical area from a pure academic interest into an integrated decision support system capability. In addition, Pham has more than 260-refereed publications, two books, 30 book chapters, and a record -winning 17-awarded patents to his credit.

“Khanh is an outstanding researcher as well as a truly awesome individual,” said Dr. Tom Caudill, AFRL’s Geospace Technologies division chief. “It has been inspiring to see not only his technological contributions to the Nation’s defense, but also his desire to mentor younger scientists and engineers, both in the Lab and outside. Khanh continues to work on cutting-edge technology that will push the boundaries of the art-of-the-possible to provide new capabilities to our Airmen and Space Professionals.”

In discussing a career highlight, Pham points to his accomplishments in the body of new potentially transformational capabilities in space control autonomy, space domain awareness, and protected satellite communications.

“I have always valued interdisciplinary collaboration and teamwork, which have led to national and international publications and visibility, including my recent work that has appeared through a handful of awarded patents.”

Pham is humbled to see that his work has led directly to solutions for use in anti-jam communications and in a flight-qualified software-defined radio to detect ground/air emitters that fits in size, weight, power (and cost) into a 6-unit CubeSat used by the Department of Homeland Security.

“My greatest day-to-day satisfaction comes from knowing I serve, represent and motivate a cadre of 100 plus high tech small businesses and entrepreneurs that represent the growth and development of future leaders and engineers by means of the Small Business Innovation Research initiative called America’s Seed Fund,” Pham said.

“There are so many young scientists and engineers who just venture into industry. They have modest resources, but they are still able to come up with innovative research and technologies, especially with the help of resources like the SBIR program.”

Pham said working with AFRL has given him a number of opportunities to gain experience in leading diverse teams of technical professionals across multiple theaters.

“I have been able to meet and connect with many outstanding students and faculty across the U.S.,” he said. “This has allowed me to communicate, influence and collaborate with a variety of entrepreneurs. And, I hope to interest more Asian American Pacific Islander people in federal service who may have never considered this as a professional option.”

As he looks back at his career. Pham said he has come to understand what it really means for “Vietnamese by birth, American by circumstance, Asian-American by choice.”

“I am honored to get the recognition, and I’m happy that the Space Vehicles Directorate is recognized too,” Pham said. “I genuinely think that it is my family, colleagues and mentors who have made me what I am. It is them who make me shine.”

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2020 Air Force Research Laboratory Fellow Dr. Khanh Pham. Pham is a senior aerospace engineer in AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate. (U.S. Air Force photo)