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MIT Technology Review

Joel L. Dawson ’96, MEng ’97

Researcher pushes the boundaries in radio frequency design

February 23, 2010

As a child, Joel Dawson was so smitten with the Apple II computer his elementary school acquired that he decided to build his own computer, keeping a list of everything he meant it to do–realistic or not. Dawson brings that same approach to his research in radio frequency design as an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) at MIT.

After earning an SB in electrical engineering (with a minor in music) and an MEng in EECS, Dawson completed his doctorate in electrical engineering at Stanford in 2003. He cofounded Aspendos Communications, a startup based in San Jose, CA, before joining the MIT faculty in 2004. MIT is a natural fit for him, he says, adding that the biggest differences he has noticed since his student days are social tools: students have grown up with cell phones, the Internet, and social networking. “My students had to explain Facebook to me,” he admits.

Dawson conducts research in both biomedical applications and communications systems. His group has developed a handheld device that uses electrical impedance measurements to determine the health of muscle, a technique with potential applications for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (often called Lou Gehrig’s disease). In wireless communications, he is working on the fundamental trade-off in radio transmitters: they are efficient only in terms of either power or bandwidth. He and his colleagues, he explains, are trying “to get both at the same time.”

Among numerous other honors, Dawson won the Jerome H. Saltzer Award in 2006, given to an outstanding EECS instructor. In 2008, he received an NSF Early Career Award to support his group’s work in wireless transceiver architectures. And last fall, he garnered one of 100 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers for innovative research and a commitment to community service.

When he’s not in the lab, Dawson enjoys motorcycling, studying tai chi, and spending time with his wife, Marisol Negron, an assistant professor of American studies at UMass Boston. He also plays viola and violin and has performed with other MIT faculty members. “The easiest way to keep it up, given our busy schedules,” he says, chuckling, “is to commit to a performance date and just let the fear and terror do its work.”