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Great Immigrants

Dina Katabi
Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT | MacArthur Fellow
Born in:
Syria

As a girl growing up in Damascus, Syria, Dina Katabi loved Star Wars and was fascinated by the notion of the “Force” — the invisible energy generated by all living things that can be used for good or evil by those able to harness its awesome power. That spirit of imagination led her to leave medical school to pursue engineering instead of becoming a doctor like her father. As she told Al-Fanar Media, “At med school you study the human body, which is already fixed in design, but with engineering you get to reimagine a whole new system.” She came to the United States to study computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), completing her PhD in 2003 and staying on as a faculty member. A leader in wireless data transmission research, Katabi tapped into her own version of the Force by developing a wireless device that is able to track motion using radio signals reflected off of the human body, even through walls — a technology that has great potential for medical use. For example, the device can help doctors monitor a patient’s gait, breathing, and heartbeat — at home and without hooking them up to sensors. Using artificial intelligence, the device is also able to recommend a course of action, such as a phone call to a care provider in the case of an elderly person who has fallen. After cofounding the start-up Emerald to commercialize the technology, Katabi joined other inventors invited to the first-ever White House Demo Day in 2015. In addition to her position as the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, she is the director of the MIT Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing. Katabi received a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant,” and the 2018 Association for Computing Machinery Prize in Computing.