Syrian Scientist With “Genius Grant” Advances Wireless Technology

/ 22 Jan 2015

Syrian Scientist With “Genius Grant” Advances Wireless Technology

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Among the disjointed collection of buildings that make up the Massachusetts Institutes of Technology (MIT), stands the Stata Center. It’s the sort of design that would look more at home in a Dr. Seuss book than a New England university campus. Inside this illustrious research center, the Syrian-born electrical engineer, Dina Katabi, conducts her calculations and experiments. 

On the way to her ninth-floor office there’s a spiral staircase, which leads to a human-sized chess set and a maze of other corridors. Katabi’s own door offers the warning “Beware of the dog.” Katabi likes to bring her friendly Yorkshire terrier puppy, Mika, to work with her.

Just outside her office is a hallway cluttered with discarded iMac boxes, water cooler refills and a vast amount of wires and adapters that hint at her research, which in 2013 won her the prestigious MacArthur fellowship. The fellowship comes with $625,000 that fellows are free to use as they see fit and is often called the “genius grant” even though the MacArthur Foundation, which awards the prize, discourages the label.  Katabi is developing a way to remotely and non-invasively measure movement, breathing and even heart rates with the accuracy that the medical world demands.

Katabi moved from Syria after she finished her bachelor’s degree at the University of Damascus. She went straight to MIT where she studied for her master’s degree and Ph.D. before joining the faculty in 2003. She would have followed in her father’s footsteps to become a doctor if  she hadn’t had a change of heart after a year of medical school.

She couldn’t imagine a job where she wasn’t using mathematics and physics everyday and so she opted for electrical engineering instead, which is significantly less respected in Syria, says Katabi. But it’s a decision she doesn’t regret. “At med school you study the human body, which is already fixed in design,” she says, “but with engineering you get to re-imagine a whole new system.”

Dina Katabi with her team.

Dina Katabi with her team.

A decade since she began her research career as a faculty member, Katabi is close to commercializing a technique that would allow doctors to keep tabs on a patient’s heart and breathing rates without having to hook them up to sensors and machines. Katabi hopes this will be especially helpful for vulnerable patients such as premature babies, whom doctors and parents like to keep close tabs on.  The wireless technology could also be used to turn whole houses into gaming environments, to alert caregivers when elderly people fall and to turn appliances and lights on or off with a wave of a hand.

The project, called WiTrack detects movement by transmitting a low energy radio wave and listening for signals that bounce back. They pick up random reflections from every object within range, but they can tell when these objects are moving. “The motion is imprinted on the wave,” says Katabi.

She later realized that with a refined algorithm, the system could detect movements as small as an intake of breath or a beating chest. WiTrack is also sophisticated enough to discern between multiple people in the same room.

“In the beginning we just wanted to see if we could track people behind walls. We wanted some form of X-ray vision,” jokes Katabi. Indeed, she harbors fears that her technology could be used for espionage. “I hope it’s not used for spying,” she says. “ There are way more interesting and useful applications.”

Other professors at M.I.T are impressed with Katabi. “She’s a very unusual person,” says Martin Rinard, who works in the same department as Katabi but does not directly collaborate with her. “Tenacious would be the right way to put it,” he adds. Rinard admires her talent for squeezing the most out of an engineering practice. “She takes basic technology and reapplies it in a whole new and creative way,” he said.

The MacArthur Foundation saw the same resourceful attribute.  They cited, “Katabi’s ability to translate long-recognized theoretical advances into practical solutions” as one of the reasons they chose to award her the grant. Katabi blushes at mention of the recognition, though she concedes it meant a lot to her both professionally and personally. She didn’t actually believe she’d won the award when the foundation called out of the blue, assuming it was a practical joke. “I have the kind of friends who would do that to me,” she says.

Her parents are of course proud—and they continue to motivate her, she says. “My teachers in Syria were good, but the people who inspire me academically are my parents,” she says. “My family really values education and knowledge—that got imprinted on me.” Katabi grew up in the wealthy Damascus neighborhood of Malki, where foreign embassies, malls, international banks and the American school are.  The shops in Malki are apparently still stocked with iPad minis and imported French cheeses despite the ongoing war.

“People are warm and friendly,” remembers Katabi, “Damascus is a very old city, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. There are so many civilizations on top of each other, evidence of the French and Ottoman empires is seen in the city’s rich mess of architecture.” This historical heritage, which once earned Syria the title of an “archaeologist’s paradise,” is at risk of destruction due to the civil war.

Katabi has one sister in New York and another in Dubai, but her parents remain in Damascus, which worries her. The last time she was in Syria was during the beginnings of the conflict. “I feel guilt for not doing more for Syrians,” she says. “You can’t help but feel guilty that so many people are being killed.”

When it comes to Katabi’s work at MIT, Rinard says she is known for her sheer will to see a project through to the end. “She has an unbelievable work ethic,” he says, “If she decides to do something, she’ll find a way through when other people would just give up.” He adds that she displays an air of self-confidence. “Like a lot of successful people, she doesn’t seem to be hampered by an obsessive self reflection. She doesn’t have a lot of self doubt, she just goes and does it.”

Katabi disagrees with this assessment. That may be the impression she manages to project, she says, but she says her biggest weakness is a fear of failure. “It causes me to waste my energy on worrying too much and second guessing myself,” she says.

In the coming years, Katabi aims to help relieve new parents’ fear of cot death: “Right now, many baby monitors just show you a video stream of the child sleeping, but many parents worry that the baby may have suddenly stopped breathing.” She intends to reduce the size of her WiTrack device into something that could sit comfortably alongside a baby monitor. “We will be able to track breathing without having contact with the baby’s body.”

She says it always takes longer than expected to get a product now in the prototype phase into commercial production, packaged and on store shelves, but she estimates it’s not too far in the future. “I can imagine it will be on the market in one way or another within the next two years.”




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