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After spending more than 12 years developing compound semiconductors for a new satellite, William L. Jones got to experience the ultimate product launch when the U.S. Air Force Advanced Extremely High-Frequency Satellite blasted off in August.

Jones, a senior staff scientist working on aerospace systems at Northrop Grumman, appreciates the rare opportunity to shepherd a project from the lab through production and to the stars. “People move around a lot and don’t get to see what they’ve worked on go into use,” he says.

Jones’s own trajectory began at MIT, though he originally declined the Institute’s offer of a scholarship. He’d planned to attend North Carolina State University to stay close to his brothers at home. Then he discovered they had their own futures planned out of state. “I took the letter out of the trash and asked MIT if it was too late to come,” he says.

In his junior year, Jones worked with Cardinal Warde, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, on a copper vapor laser as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). The experience inspired a lifelong love of research. “I got to see what goes on in a lab, to see what you need to do to tweak and squeeze every bit of performance out of these various components,” recalls Jones, who now holds nine patents on techniques for optimizing materials.

Jones earned his master’s and PhD at Cornell. After a stint at Bell Labs, he was recruited by TRW and stayed on after Northrop Grumman bought the company. His challenge: reduce the noise on receivers used in satellite communications. He developed new materials to lower contact resistance and reshaped the device. These approaches not only decreased noise dramatically but also reduced the receiver’s power requirements and made it possible to integrate the device directly into a satellite. The result is a far clearer signal for military communications.

Jones earned accolades twice in 2010. The National Society of Black Engineers bestowed its Celestial Torch Lifetime Achievement in Aerospace award on him in early February. Weeks later, at the Black Engineer of the Year Awards, he received Trailblazer and Special Recognition citations. He lives in Southern California with his wife, an adaptive physical-education teacher who works with kids with disabilities, and their daughter, who enjoys playing soccer and volleyball.

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