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Duke mathematics professor Ingrid Daubechies becomes first woman to receive Wolf Prize, awarded for work on wavelet theory

<p>Courtesy of the BBVA Foundation</p>

Courtesy of the BBVA Foundation

Ingrid Daubechies, a Duke mathematics professor dubbed the “Godmother of the Digital Image,” has received one of the highest honors in the field of mathematics.

Daubechies, James B. Duke professor of mathematics and electrical and computer engineering, was awarded the winner of the Wolf Prize in mathematics on Feb. 7. 

Previously considered the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics” before the Abel Prize was established in 2003, the Wolf Prize is currently considered to be the third-highest award that a mathematician can receive, after the Abel Prize and the Fields Medal.

“I had not in my wildest dreams expected it because the list of people … it’s a fantastic list,” she said. “It's a very distinguished list. I had not seen myself really among them.”

Daubechies, a trailblazer in the field of signal processing, was awarded the Wolf Prize for her work on wavelet theory. Her research, according to the Wolf Foundation, has become a “crucial tool” in several signal processing applications, ranging from reconstructing images from the Hubble Telescope to compressing sound into MP3 files. Her work on biorthogonal wavelets is the foundation for the JPEG 2000 image compression and coding system.

Daubechies is also the first woman to win the prize.

“There certainly are women from previous generations who [the Wolf Prize selection committee] could have given the prize too,” she said. “... I hope that there will be other women following me soon so that some people will no longer worry about [the] ‘first’ or so on.”

Daubechies acknowledged the immense difficulties that female faculty members on the tenure track in science and mathematics face, particularly if and when they have children. 

“[I think] why our pipeline is so leaky around that career stage [is] that you feel under enormous pressure just at the time that you want to start a family and with tenure track and so on,” she said. “And I think that's why there are women who decide to go to other jobs in academia, where they can still use their mathematical talents and not have that pressure.”

Daubechies herself chose to leave academia and had accepted a position at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey when she moved to the U.S. and started her family. She then returned to academia, first at Rutgers, then at Princeton, and then at Duke. When she arrived in Durham, there were no tenured women in Duke’s mathematics department. Now, according to Daubechies, there are at least seven.

Winning the prize as an applied mathematician

Daubechies is an applied mathematician, and she noted it is not often that an applied mathematician wins the highest awards in mathematics. But she strongly believes that the distinction between applied mathematics, which heavily involves disciplines outside of mathematics, and pure or foundational mathematics is “very artificial.”

“What makes me an applied mathematician is that I get motivation for some of the problems I think about from talking to people who are not mathematicians,” she said. “And I like that some of the work I do is connected to very concrete circumstance applications in other fields, because that's what makes me tick. But what I do is still mathematics.”

In some ways, Daubechies winning a mathematics prize was unlikely, given the path she took to get there. Daubechies was trained as a physicist, where her specialization was mathematical physics. In 2021, she described herself as an “oddball mathematician” who “came out of left field.”

It was when she started collaborating with engineers that she was considered a mathematician instead of a physicist. 

“I always felt that I could get motivation from other things than physics, so I was talking to engineers and all of a sudden, I was doing the same things, but because it was applied to engineering, I was now an applied mathematician rather than a mathematical physicist,” Daubechies said. “Okay, fine with me.”

Daubechies appreciates that the Wolf Prize is not constrained to particular branches of math.

“I'm happy both because for the Wolf Prize, it says that they look at things more widely. And because it recognizes what I do as mathematics,” she said.

When Daubechies started her work on wavelets, there had already been some pure mathematics research done which had discovered some “beautiful algorithms.” But the “beautiful” properties of these algorithms disappeared when they were adapted to the practical and computational constraints necessary to meaningfully apply them.

“So one thing I'm proud of in research, the thing I'm most known for … is that I really do take the constraints of the application seriously,” Daubechies said.

She said that the mathematical community at the time largely disregarded any need to make sure these properties held for applied work.

“They said, ‘Well, that's always the case. You know, mathematics is beautiful. And then once you give it to the engineers, they have to make it dirty,’” Daubechies said. “... I've never bought that. It's still beautiful in its application.”

Daubechies wanted to see if she could build something applicable that would “fit in that beautiful theory.” So, she worked backwards from the application to find a potential functional solution, seeing if the same properties of the original algorithms held.

When her method worked and she decided to publish her work, she insisted that the paper be presented in an accessible way to practitioners.

“I insisted in this math journal that they publish these tables of numbers, which is not a standard thing to do for math journals,” Daubechies said. “And that made a difference there again, because that meant people have tools which implement and then to see how well it works.”

Daubechies is passionate about breaking down the very barriers in mathematics for other students as she did for herself. At Duke, she teaches an introduction to proofs class where she dives deeply into the mathematics of a particular applied problem. 

Everyone, even children, has mathematical instinct, according to Daubechies. The best example of this is when you tell a teenager or a child to not do something, she said. 

“They immediately start to say, ‘And even under that circumstance, and when this were to happen, and so on,’” Daubechies said. “What they're doing is building a counterexample. I mean, what is more mathematical? It’s instinct. Mathematics is an instinct. It’s something we like doing.”

Adway S. Wadekar profile
Adway S. Wadekar | University News Editor

Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume. He has also contributed to the sports section.


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