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Dina Katabi and Sara Seager win MacArthur ‘genius grants’

Two MIT professors are among 24 recipients nationwide of this year’s unrestricted $625,000 prizes from the MacArthur Foundation.
From left: Dina Katabi and Sara Seager
From left: Dina Katabi and Sara Seager
Photos: Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Justin Knight

Two MIT professors — computer scientist Dina Katabi and astrophysicist Sara Seager — are among 24 recipients nationwide of 2013 MacArthur Fellowships, sometimes referred to as “genius grants.”

The fellowships, awarded annually, carry a five-year, $625,000 prize, which recipients are free to use as they see fit. Including today’s winners, 19 MIT faculty members, and three staff members at the Institute, have won MacArthur Fellowships, which were established in 1981.

Dina Katabi

Katabi, a professor of computer science and engineering, works at the intersection of computer science, electrical engineering and physics to improve the speed, reliability and security of data exchange. “That intersection can enable new things that we couldn’t have thought of if we just focused on one of those things alone,” Katabi says. “How can you rethink your mobile applications if you have information about how the signal is going to propagate over the air and the wireless medium? How can you design your signals differently if you know what the application wants?”

The MacArthur Foundation cited Katabi, 42, for her “ability to translate long-recognized theoretical advances into practical solutions that could be deployed in the real world. Through her numerous contributions, Katabi has become a leader in accelerating our capacity to communicate high volumes of information securely without restricting mobility.”

Although most of Katabi’s work has centered on wireless data transmission, her research has provided solutions for a range of networking issues — from protocols to minimize congestion in high-bandwidth networks to algorithms for spectrum analysis.

“When they called me, I thought they were joking, so I wasn’t paying attention,” Katabi says. But, she adds, a recognition like the MacArthur grant “brings a lot of general attention to the work which you don’t get when you publish your work in your own community. And that’s very important for scientists.”

Katabi joined the MIT faculty in 2003. She is director of the MIT Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing, and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where she leads the Networks at MIT group.

Sara Seager

Seager, who is the Class of 1941 Professor of Physics and Planetary Science, is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist who has explored the possibility of life elsewhere in the galaxy. Specifically, she has adapted the principles of planetary science to the study of exoplanets — planets outside our own solar system.

The MacArthur Foundation cited Seager, 42, for “quickly advancing a subfield initially viewed with skepticism by the scientific community. A mere hypothesis until the mid-1990s, nearly 900 exoplanets in more than 600 planetary systems have since been identified, with thousands of more planet candidates known.”

Seager found out about the award a few weeks ago via a phone call, although the MacArthur Foundation had to try twice to deliver the good news.

“The first call did not get through because, as the Foundation put it, my ‘very professional and protective assistant’ screens my calls for anything unusual, as I try to avoid calls about UFOs and aliens,” Seager recalls. “This one sounded like a UFO call at first.”

The award, she says, represents the enormous support she’s received from friends and colleagues throughout her career.

“So many people in my professional life and personal life believe in me, and that
I can accomplish my very most ambitious dreams,” Seager says. “I did not fully appreciate this until the MacArthur Award.”

Seager adds that she is looking forward to the freedom that the fellowship provides — both for her research and her family life.

“As a single (widowed) mother, I will use all of the grant money on the home front, so my own brain can be free to think creatively, and I can preserve quality time
with my children,” Seager says.

Seager joined the MIT faculty in 2006, following appointments at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and the Carnegie Institute of Washington. She is the author of “Exoplanet Atmospheres” and “Exoplanets,” both published in 2010.

Other recent MacArthur Fellowship winners from MIT have included Junot Díaz, the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at MIT, in 2012; Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics, in 2010; Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics, in 2009; John Ochsendorf, the Class of 1942 Professor of Building Technology and Civil and Environmental Engineering, in 2008; and Marin Soljačić, a professor of physics, also in 2008.

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