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David Staelin, longtime professor in EECS and RLE, dies at 73

Researcher led a career distinguished by abundant accomplishments, widespread impact in his 55 years at MIT.
David H. Staelin ’60, SM ’61, ScD ’65, a professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Research Laboratory of Electronics
David H. Staelin ’60, SM ’61, ScD ’65, a professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Research Laboratory of Electronics

David H. Staelin ’60, SM ’61, ScD ’65, a professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Research Laboratory of Electronics, died Nov. 10 of cancer. He was 73.

Driven by a deeply felt sense of responsibility to MIT, the nation and society as a whole, Staelin dedicated his long career to basic science, technology development, service, education and entrepreneurship. His career, colleagues said, was distinguished by abundant accomplishments and widespread impact.

Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, Staelin came to MIT at age 18 as a freshman, in 1956, and remained at the Institute as a student and faculty member for the rest of his life.

Staelin joined the MIT faculty in 1965, conducting research in radio astronomy. Among his first accomplishments, in 1968 he developed a computationally efficient algorithm that enabled him to co-discover the Crab Nebula Pulsar, helping confirm the existence of neutron stars predicted by theoretical physics.

Over time, Staelin’s interests expanded to include remote sensing for climate monitoring, a field to which he brought a strong command of electromagnetics, signal-processing methodology and computation trends. Among many examples of his leadership in this field, he was principal investigator in the development of the first two Earth-orbiting microwave imaging spectrometers launched in 1975 for mapping global temperature and humidity through clouds. He was also a co-investigator on the 1977 NASA Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft missions, studying nonthermal radio emission from the outer planets. Starting in 1998, he co-developed techniques using operational millimeter-wave sounding satellites for more frequent and complete mapping of global precipitation.

In recent years, Staelin turned his attention to diverse emerging problems requiring sophisticated signal processing and estimation theory. These included the development of practical image- and video-compression technology, advanced methodologies for data-rich manufacturing problems (which he pursued under the MIT Leaders for Manufacturing program), heterogeneous and wireless communication architectures, and, most recently, neuronal computation models.

Staelin was an active member of the MIT community, serving on numerous committees and in many leadership roles. From 1990 to 2001, he was assistant director of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, where he focused on enhancing the Laboratory’s long-range focus while strengthening its ties to the main MIT campus. He also served as a member of the U.S. President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee from 2003 to 2005.

Staelin was a dedicated teacher who helped educate generations of electrical engineers. His focus for many years was the undergraduate electromagnetic curriculum. He co-authored the 1993 Prentice Hall text Electromagnetic Waves with Ann W. Morgenthaler and Jin Au Kong.

Colleagues recall Staelin as a thoughtful and patient mentor who was greatly loved and admired by his students. He supervised many doctoral, master’s and undergraduate student theses — almost 150 graduate theses alone — and a large number of alumni of his group have gone on to distinguished careers in academia and industry as researchers and scientists, entrepreneurs, technical leaders, and executives.

Highly entrepreneurial, Staelin helped start and direct three companies with colleagues and students. The first was Environmental Research and Technology (now part of AECOM), one of the first and largest environmental services companies, specializing initially in air quality and ultimately addressing the full spectrum of environmental issues. The second was PictureTel (now part of Polycom, itself founded by one of Staelin’s former students), which pioneered cost-effective video-conferencing systems based on sophisticated video-compression technology that ultimately formed the basis for the ubiquitous video-compression standards that today enable the widespread availability of video content over networks. Staelin’s third effort was in the area of personal transportation, where he founded EMPower (purchased by ZAP), which developed novel electric-scooter technology.

Following these experiences, in 1998 Staelin co-founded MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) to help early-stage MIT companies and aspiring MIT entrepreneurs benefit from the advice of experienced MIT alumni, and more generally to support entrepreneurial activity within the MIT community. VMS has served more than 1,000 companies to date, helping them raise almost $1 billion in capital, and has become a model for other similarly oriented university and government agencies.

Staelin’s last project was a collaboration on neural computation with his son, Carl H. Staelin, which resulted in a monograph, currently in press, titled Models for Neural Spike Computation and Cognition.

StaelinFest, an event held at MIT this past July to celebrate Staelin’s career, was attended by faculty, colleagues and former students from around the country. At the event, he also received the distinguished 2011 John Howard Dellinger Medal, awarded to him by the International Union of Radio Science for profound contributions to remote sensing over his career. Staelin was also a fellow of the IEEE and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Staelin’s instinctively self-effacing nature and his tendency to eschew the spotlight were in many ways the secret to his unusual effectiveness, colleagues say. Indeed, they add, he was the living embodiment of the maxim that you can accomplish a great deal in life if you don’t feel the need to take credit.

Staelin is survived by his wife, Ellen; children Carl, Katharine and Paul; daughters-in-law Sigal and Jenny; grandchildren Alexander, Adam, Ella, Lauren, Steven and Claire; and siblings Earl, Stephen and Mimi Ferrell.

A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 3, at 11 a.m. at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, 309 Washington St., Wellesley, Mass. Visiting hours will be held Friday, Dec. 2, from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. at the George F. Doherty & Sons Funeral Home, 477 Washington St., Wellesley, Mass.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the David H. Staelin Fund, which supports graduate students conducting research in RLE.

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