As a mathematician and theoretical physicist, Ingrid Daubechies works with highly esoteric ideas that, to the uninitiated, seem as mysterious and incomprehensible as an ancient language. Yet anyone who uses computers, the internet, or digital imaging and communications directly benefits from her achievements every day.
Born in Belgium, Daubechies studied physics at the Free University in Brussels, earning her doctorate in 1980. As a research scientist, she did important work in quantum mechanics, while also beginning the work that would make her famous. Dr. Daubechies studied sophisticated mathematical models related to signal processing, looking for techniques beyond the traditional and well-established methods. She studied wavelets, oscillations which can be combined mathematically to analyze and study various signal forms. Her life changed greatly in 1987, when she moved to America to take a position at AT&T Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and married an American mathematician.
But that year was more than simply a personal turning point. It was also the year Ingrid Daubechies made what would become her best-known discovery—the construction of compacted wavelet forms. Daubechies's paper on the subject, "Orthonormal Bases of Compactly Supported Wavelets," published the following year, significantly transformed this field of mathematics, and more than twenty years later, it is still considered a watershed moment within the field. Working at the intersection of abstract mathematics and the practicalities of signal processing in electronics, Daubechies had broken entirely new ground.
In fact, Dr. Daubechies's entire career has been a sparkling example of interdisciplinary science, of bringing together and synthesizing separate fields. Her work has combined mathematics, engineering, and theoretical physics in new and startling ways that have in turn, enriched each discipline. Yet its impact reaches far beyond the academy. The mathematical and theoretical tools she has developed, particularly involving wavelets, have proven so pervasive and influential that for many researchers, the term "wavelet theory" is simply synonymous with Daubechies's work. Her contributions have revolutionized and greatly improved digital image and signal processing, providing the most common and versatile algorithms for data compression. To cite just one example, the 9/7 biorthogonal wavelet designed by Daubechies forms the basis of the JPEG2000 image processing standard.
Data compression is only one realm in which Daubechies's wavelet work has made a difference. In our modern world, so reliant upon digital technology and signal processing for such a variety of uses, the processing and filtering methods devised by Daubechies are employed in technologies ranging from medical imaging, remote sensing and surveillance, printing and scanning, the internet, and of course, digital photography. The fact that most of the people who use these applications every day in their working and personal lives are probably unaware of the intricate and elegant mathematics that makes it all possible hardly diminishes the magnitude of Daubechies's contributions.
Ingrid Daubechies has also made her mark as an educator and author. She has taught and inspired students all over the globe, not just in mathematics but also in physics, engineering, and other fields of science, with a teaching career that began in Brussels and has since continued at Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, and most recently Duke University. In 2011 she will take up a mathematics professorship at Duke University. Her book Ten Lectures on Wavelets is a recognized standard text in the field, and her hundreds of research papers are routinely cited by mathematicians, engineers, and physicists engaged in a broad range of research.
Compared to other scientific disciplines such as biology or physics, there may not be many "superstars" in the field of applied mathematics. But based on the enormous influence and importance of her work, and the universal esteem in which she is held by all those who know her, Ingrid Daubechies is surely one.
Information as of April 2011