Dina Katabi, a 42-year-old professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of this year’s
24 recipients of the MacArthur Fellow, commonly known as the “Genius Awards.”
The award comes with $US625,000 (an increase from last year’s $US500,000), paid over five years.
Katabi was running late for class when she got the life-changing phone call. “I thought it was a prank,” she said. The man on the other end of line “gave me a number and asked me to call the foundation.”
That’s when she knew — wow, this is real.
Katabi was allowed to tell one person about her accomplishment before the official announcement. She told her boyfriend, who also works at MIT.
Katabi was born in Syria. She came to the United States for graduate school in 1999 to study computer science at MIT, where she has taught since 2003.
Most of her work centres on making wireless networks and devices more efficient and secure to use. Another aspect is coming up with new uses for Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Currently she is exploring how to use Wi-Fi radio signals to track people through walls, similar to X-ray vision. The signals traverse through walls and obstacles and reflect off a human body.
“We don’t have a Superman here yet,” said Katabi. “We can’t see the silhouette of a person. We see the person like a blob, which we can use to trace how the person is moving behind a wall.”
This can be done without cooperation or knowledge from the person on the other side of the obstacle. That may sound nefarious, but it could be used by firefighters to find victims inside a burning building or locate trapped hostages, Kabati explains.
She still doesn’t know how she is going to spend the money.
Ideally she would like to use the extra cash to find an activity that would “impact her personal life” but also her work “in a positive way,” since she finds the two hard to separate.
“My work and my life are so much intertwined,” she said. “I spend my whole day in the office. Most of my friends in my life and my work are all together.”
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