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December 22, 2015

Dina Katabi’s Pathbreaking Work
A long time ago, I was told that the best work often happens at the intersection of fields, where by straddling largely disconnected bodies of knowledge one is able to make insightful connections and big advances that might escape others. Dina Katabi is proof of the profound wisdom of this advice (“Signal Intelligence,” November/December 2015). Her strong grounding in EE, coupled with the can-do, “code talks” CS culture, has enabled her to do pathbreaking work. The article did an excellent job of surveying a lot of Dina’s work, so I’ll just call out one example.

Over the years, many researchers (including me) have worked on the problem of tracking users indoors with a variety of sensors, in all cases requiring the user to wear or carry a tracking device. Dina’s work on Wi-Fi-based imaging represents a quantum leap forward by allowing device-free user tracking. Add to it the ability to recognize gestures and measure breathing and heart rate (which blew me away when I tried it at a Mobicom 2014 demo by Dina’s team), and we could well have a revolutionary piece of technology shaping up. For instance, it could open the doors to device-free and camera-free personal identification based on heartbeat fingerprinting, with many practical applications.

I know of only a handful of researchers in computer networking and communications who are pushing the frontiers at the intersection of EE and CS in the manner that Dina is. Remarkably, many of these researchers are current or former students of Dina’s, who are themselves highly regarded and much sought-after by universities and industry alike. This is a strong testament to Dina’s training and mentoring of the next generation of leaders.

Venkat Padmanabhan
Principal researcher
Microsoft Research India

Dina Katabi has made fundamental contributions to networking, communications, and algorithms for signal and image processing. In particular, in 2012 she and her MIT colleague Piotr Indyk, together with their graduate students Haitham Hassanieh and Eric Price, made a breakthrough in what has become known as the sparse Fourier transform (SFT). The SFT algorithms make a small number of samples or queries of a much longer vector and, from those few samples, efficiently (i.e., much faster than a more traditional fast Fourier transform) compute the most significant entries in the underlying discrete Fourier transform of the original vector. In other words, with a few samples and little computation, an SFT produces a good and also concise approximation to the vector that would be returned by the fast Fourier transform. Their work builds on over two decades of research in theoretical computer science and is a wonderful example of Professor Katabi’s ability to combine electrical engineering, computer science, and mathematics.

Anna C. Gilbert, professor of mathematics
Martin J. Strauss, professor of mathematics and EECS
University of Michigan

REX Tremendae
Every year, Residence Exchange, or REX, brings the machine of MIT back to life as freshmen arrive on campus and the upperclassmen return.

Lydia Krasilnikova’s article (“REX,” November/December 2015) captures the energy and spirit of REX—the feeling of so much happening all at once and the idea that you can’t do it all, but you can still embrace everything. It’s your first taste of the MIT firehose, of building your own experience (or building roller coasters). It’s a melange of quiet and loud moments that sends you to bed exhausted and giddy for the start of college.

While I was confident in MacGregor as my dorm choice, I still participated in this year’s REX events in full force. I chanted “West is best!” with my new friends at the Water War. I ate too many free burgers at East Campus—and almost lost said burgers riding the Big Flipper at Next. I had my first taste of Toscanini’s sitting on picnic blankets at McCormick, sampled Harry Potter cuisine at Random (and got to see much of the campus on the long trek to get there), made pizza at Burton-Conner, and had coffee and talked philosophy at Senior Haus. I played poker at ­MacGregor, admired the Boston skyline at Baker’s bashes, and collapsed into bed after dancing at the Top of the Sponge party at Simmons.

Before the p-sets and exams and projects and other commitments that dominate MIT life take over, the freshman convocation welcomes the new class to campus as the Institute opens its arms to those of us who came here from all over the world to a place that most of us only dreamed of. But REX, as Lydia notes, “lets upperclassmen welcome [freshmen] in true MIT fashion.” REX is driven by students, for the love of their living communities and in the MIT spirit of making fun bigger and better—a technicolor burst that takes us out of our native homes and into the Institute. 

Nina Lutz ’19
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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