As a woman in mathematics, I often find it hard to find fellow women mathematicians as it is a very male dominated subject. Emmy Noether has long been one of my role models for breaking the male-shaped mould of a mathematician. However, there are other women working in the field today who fight against the still-existing stereotype, and Ingrid Daubechies is one of them.
Born in Belgium in 1954, Daubechies received her B.S degree in Physics from the Free University Brussels in 1975; most mathematicians start out in mathematics and later apply their skills in other scientific disciplines, however Daubechies is one of the few who progressed in the opposite direction. From 1975 until 1984, she held the post of Research Assistant in the Department for Theoretical Physics at the Free University Brussels. Halfway through this period she received her Ph.D. for a thesis called ‘Representation of quantum mechanical operators by kernels on Hilbert spaces of analytic functions‘, although by this time she had already published around ten articles.
After teaching at the Free University Brussels for 12 years, she joined AT&T Laboratories in the United States where she became the leading authority on wavelet theory. In 1987, she constructed a class of wavelets that were identically zero outside a finite interval, which are now the most common type of wavelets and led to many important applications. Daubechies believes that she is considered a mathematician due to the fact that:
“even as a physicist, my work was very theoretical, very mathematical. I became interested in applications of mathematics outside physics (especially in engineering), and that is how I am now considered a mathematician.”
In 1993 she became a full professor in the Mathematics Department and the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics at Princeton University. In fact, she was the first woman full professor of mathematics at Princeton! In 2010 she was elected as the first woman president of the International Mathematical Union.
- Louis Empain Prize for Physics (1984) – awarded every 5 years to a Belgian scientist on the work they did before age 29.
- Steele Prize for Mathematical Exposition (1994)
- Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize in Mathematics (1997)
- National Academy of Sciences Award in Mathematics (2000) – presented every 4 years for excellence in published mathematical research. She was awarded it for her “fundamental discoveries on wavelets and wavelet expansions and for her role in making wavelets methods a practical basic tool of applied mathematics.”
- Leroy P. Steele Prize for Seminal Contribution to Research from the American Mathematical Society (2011)
- Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering from the Franklin Institute(2011)
- Fellow of the American Mathematical Society (2012)
Her work on wavelets has been extremely important and has strongly influenced diverse fields of application ranging from data compression to pattern recognition.
Who’s your favourite modern mathematician? M x