PANAMA CITY, Fla. —
Four years ago, Dr. James “Tory” Cobb was asked to take on a new role that would forever alter the course of his career.
“ONR (Office of Naval Research) needed someone to lead the process of transitioning machine learning programs to the Fleet,” said Cobb, Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) distinguished scientist and engineer for advanced signal processing and automation. “I didn’t really want to do it. I enjoyed my solitary research. This new position came with increased leadership responsibilities and meant that I would have less time to spend on research I am passionate about.”
Despite his reluctance, his new role would be one of the reasons he would go on to win the Dr. David P. Skinner award for sustained contributions to science and the Dr. Delores M. Etter Top Scientists and Engineers Award for scientific excellence in support of the Navy and Marine Corps.
“The successful strides my team and I were able to make had a lot to do with the stars aligning,” he said. “Advanced sensors had matured to a point that the data were reliable and trusted by Navy operators and the Navy’s appetite for artificial intelligence increased.”
This might be considered to some a unique career path for a boy from a small town in Alabama.
“I knew I wanted to get out of Anniston, Alabama. I had appointments to West Point and the Coast Guard Academy,” said Cobb. “I liked that the Coast Guard was small and I would get to work on the water.”
Cobb served four years over two tours on U.S. Coast Guard Cutters before transitioning into the Coast Guard Reserve and pursuing a Master’s Degree at Auburn University.
“I didn’t think I wanted to work for government again and had accepted a job with IBM, and was moving to Austin, Texas,” he said. “I was at a job fair at Auburn and NSWC PCD offered me a job.”
Cobb attributes his success to his first boss and mentor at NSWC PCD.
“Gerry Dobeck had an incredibly sharp mind and we could spend hours tackling complicated problems,” said Cobb. “It was because of him that I immersed myself in sea tests, writing software, and pursuing research.”
Cobb consistently tackled fundamental research problems and made his research relevant to Navy problems.
“Successful technology transition begins with an evolutionary dialogue with the warfighter to understand what they need to help win wars,” he said. “My team and I have been able to maximize use of data to improve automatic target recognition performance and give our Navy an edge over adversaries.”
Cobb recently accepted his current position as Distinguished Scientist and Engineer for Advanced Signal Processing and Automation and hopes he can be a sliver of what Dobeck was to him when he started.
“My advice to new scientists is to gain technical depth and not just jump into project management,” he said. “Everything we do here is about serving the warfighter. I have no misconceptions that this is a great job and we contribute enormous value to our national defense.”