Soon after Kristina Monakhova started graduate school, she attended a lecture by Professor Laura Waller ’04, MEng ’05, PhD ’10, director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Computational Imaging Lab, who described a kind of computational microscopy with extremely high image resolution.
“The talk blew me away,” says Monakhova, who is currently an MIT-Boeing Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellow in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “It definitely changed my trajectory and put me on the path to where I am now. I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do. It was the perfect combination of signal processing, hardware, and algorithms, and I could use it to make more capable imaging sensors for diverse applications.”
Today, Monakhova’s research involves creating cameras and microscopes designed to produce not high-resolution images for human consumption, but rather information-dense images to be used by algorithms. She aspires to combine imaging system physics with deep learning.
She points out that the purpose of cameras has been fundamentally changed by automation. In many contexts, “people don’t look at the images; algorithms do,” she explains.
A good example of when the data in an image is more important than its visual representation or sharpness is in skin cancer diagnosis, where measuring specific light wavelengths using a hyperspectral camera can help determine whether a certain skin lesion is cancerous and, if so, malignant. While hyperspectral cameras generally cost more than $20,000, Monakhova has designed a cheap computational camera that could be adapted for such diagnosis.
Monakhova says she inherited her early academic ambition from her mother, who brought her to this country from Russia when she was 4 years old.
“My mother is my role model and inspiration. She immigrated to the U.S. as a single mother and raised me while completing her PhD in electrical engineering,” Monakhova says. “I remember spending my elementary school holidays sitting in her classes, drawing. She tried to get me excited about math and science as a child — and I guess she succeeded!”
By middle school, Monakhova had discovered her interest in engineering after joining a robotics team. When many years later she started graduate school at UC Berkeley, she chose robotics as her first lab, although Waller's computational microscopy lecture drew her away to Waller's lab and to her current field of research.
Starting in the MIT Postdoctoral Fellowship Program for Engineering Excellence in fall 2022, Monakhova experienced another life-changing event.
“My daughter was born on the first day of work at MIT, making for a particularly exciting first day,” she says.
Born four weeks early, the baby required an elaborate system of feeding, a process that took almost two hours — and needed to be repeated in three-hour increments, which left the parents just one out of every three hours to do everything else.
“The first four or five months were a whirlwind of challenges and emotions and doctor appointments,” Monakhova says.
Despite those challenges, the new mother continued with her fellowship. Knowing that a postdoc is often a bridge to a faculty position, she took special advantage of a series of program presentations focused on what it’s like to be a professor and the academic job search process. Although the presentations took place while she was on maternity leave and she wasn't required to participate, Monakhova still attended via Zoom.
“I could call in and listen while breastfeeding my newborn infant,” she says. “I went on the academic job market, and this series was useful to help me get my job materials together and prepare for my interviews.”
Monakhova says she is "thankful that MIT has a relatively good maternity and family leave policy, as well as crucial resources, such as lactation rooms, back-up daycare, and a fantastic on-campus daycare program with financial aid available. Without these resources and support, I would have had to quit my career. In order to attract and retain women in science and engineering, we need family-friendly policies that don’t penalize women for having babies.”
By June, Monakhova had landed a position as an assistant professor at Cornell University’s Department of Computer Science. Having deferred the appointment, she’ll start in fall 2024.
Referring to her upcoming work as a professor and lab leader at Cornell, Monakhova says, “I’m particularly excited to try to set up a collaborative, friendly lab culture where mental health and work-life balance are prioritized, and failure is seen as an important step in the research process.”
Throughout her academic career, Monakhova says community has been extremely important. The MIT Postdoctoral Fellowship Program for Engineering Excellence, which was designed to develop the next generation of faculty leaders and help guide MIT’s School of Engineering toward supporting more women and others who are underrepresented in engineering, allowed her to explore new research questions in a different area and work with “some amazing MIT students on some exciting projects.”
“I believe it’s important to help each other out and create a welcoming environment where everyone has the support and resources they need to thrive,” says Monakhova, who has an exemplary record of mentoring and giving back. “Research and breakthroughs don’t happen in isolation — they’re the result of teams and communities of people working together.”