Two MIT professors win MacArthur Fellowships

Katabi and Seager awarded $625,000 each

This year, the MacArthur Foundation selected 24 recipients of their MacArthur Fellowships, otherwise known as the MacArthur “Genius Grants.” Two MIT professors — Dina Katabi MS ’99, PhD ’03 from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Sara Seager from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences — were named MacArthur Fellows. The Tech spoke with them to find out what excites them about their research, and what it’s like to work in male-dominated fields.

Each fellowship includes an award of $625,000, with no restrictions on how the funds are used. This is an increase from the $500,000 given out to last year’s recipients, who included MIT writing professor Junot Diaz.

“This year’s class of MacArthur Fellows is an extraordinary group of individuals who collectively reflect the breadth and depth of American creativity,” wrote Cecilia Conrad, Vice President of the MacArthur Fellows Program, on the MacArthur Foundation’s website. Through its no-strings-attached prize money, the fellowship is meant to further encourage the winners’ creativity.

Dina Katabi

For over a decade, Professor Dina Katabi has worked on improving the speed and security of wireless networks. Her research at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory straddles the traditional division between electrical engineering (EE) and computer science (CS).

According to Katabi, the key limitation of today’s wireless networks is their ability to handle interference. Through her research, she aims to minimize the effects of interference.

“Wireless is a shared medium, so it’s like speaking in your room,” Katabi described. “If you have so many people who are trying to talk at the same time, nobody can understand anything.”

The community that is working at the intersection of EE and CS has been growing in recent years. “It is still relatively small because it is difficult,” Katabi explained. “You really need to have some background in EE and some background in CS, and most people don’t come equipped with this background.”

A Syrian native, Katabi obtained her bachelor’s degree from Damascus University in Syria before coming to MIT to obtain a Master’s and PhD. After completing her PhD work, she joined the faculty, and is now the director of the MIT Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing (Wireless@MIT) and NETMIT (Networks@MIT).

Although Katabi says that the low representation of women in her field crosses her mind sometimes, she deems it “annoying” but not enough to prevent her from doing the things she wants to do.

“When you are doing what you are passionate about, you love your work, and you don’t worry who [you’re with],” Katabi said. “You are with colleagues who are also passionate about the stuff that they do. You have more in common than the gender with them. You have the passion about what you are doing.”

Katabi is excited not only by her research topic, but also by the process of research itself.

“The thing that fascinates me about research in general — and I think this is probably true for all researchers here working at MIT — is really the process of discovering something new,” said Katabi. “It’s just like you are reading a book. Imagine you are reading a mystery book, every new page reveals something new that just gets you even more attached to discovering more. That process of research is really what’s most exciting.”

Recently, Katabi has worked on developing technology to see through walls and track moving humans on the other side using Wi-Fi signals. Her project, called “Wi-Vi,” has received press attention from multiple media outlets including TechNewsDaily, which was subsequently picked up by news outlets such as Yahoo! News and NBC News. Katabi imagines that Wi-Vi can be used in a range of real-world applications, such as helping firefighters locate victims trapped in burning buildings.

In the future, Katabi hopes to see wireless networks become more than just communication platforms. She compares wireless networks to what computers were a few decades ago, when they functioned only as computation devices. Now, computers are used in a variety of ways, from entertainment to online commerce. Specifically, Katabi imagines that we will be able to wirelessly power devices when the device is relatively far from the transmitter.

Katabi explained, “Then, wireless networks become a way of powering some devices so they provide power transfer, and then they [also] provide tracking and control and then you can start thinking, ‘Can I make networks become general-purpose networks?’ as opposed to just communication-oriented [networks] — similar to how your computers are general-purpose computers.”

Katabi’s research has other important applications as well, such as protecting pacemakers from harmful interference.

“Having a challenge is something interesting,” Katabi stated. “It gets the best out of you.”

Sara Seager

As an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets), Professor Sara Seager receives a lot of calls about UFOs and alien sightings. Thus, Seager missed the call the first time the MacArthur Foundation tried notifying her of her award. Her assistant had screened it out.

“In this case, the call was so mysterious that it didn’t go through,” Seager explained in a phone interview with The Tech.

In her research, Seager studies the atmosphere of exoplanets and their interiors, ultimately looking for any spectral signatures of chemical compounds that could indicate the existence of life (called biosignature gases).

“On my best days, I usually get to do some computer programming and often will be working with one or two colleagues and just intensely working for five or six hours in a row on a very hard problem,” said Seager.

After obtaining a B.S. from the University of Toronto and a PhD from Harvard, she went on to pursue her postgraduate studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. The Institute claims such famous members in science as Albert Einstein, Noam Chomsky, Alan Turing, and Julius Robert Oppenheimer.

However, in a field dominated by men, it was not always easy being the minority.

“Well, it’s just awkward, because all the guys are kind of friends with each other,” Seager laughed.

As an undergraduate in the University of Toronto, Seager was invited to a Women in Physics event for students, at which they were giving out a prize to an undergraduate. According to Seager, both men and women were invited.

“We were searching the looks on the male faces — the male undergraduates,” recalled Seager. “When they walked into the room and saw all the women, [they] just walked out. It’s like, ‘Well, how do you think we feel?’”

The MacArthur Fellowship is not the only recognition she has received for her work — Time magazine named her among the “25 Most Influential in Space” last year, and Popular Science named her in the Fifth Annual Brilliant Ten in 2006.

As a Canadian native, Seager chose to move to the U.S. and pursue U.S. citizenship because of the opportunities she saw offered here.

“Of all the places I’ve seen, MIT does the best they can in terms of trying to be a meritocracy,” Seager said. “I plan to be at MIT indefinitely.”

Seager hopes that the award will give her even greater influence in the field. She has already given a TEDxTalk on her work, and published a commentary in the Huffington Post on the scarcity of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) academia.

“I think people will listen to me now, even more than before,” Seager commented. “Assuming I want to get something done, it gives me a platform for a voice.”

Leon Lin contributed reporting.