Ingrid Daubechies: a mathematical revolution for data compression


Professor Ingrid Daubechies’ groundbreaking work on wavelet theory has transformed the numerical treatment of images and signal processing, providing standard and flexible algorithms for data compression. Her research has catalyzed multiple innovations, with new image processing and filtering methods used in technologies ranging from medical imaging to wireless communication.  An exceptional woman scientist, she is also engaged in the fight for equal opportunities, education and access to science in developing countries. She will receive the 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award for North America in recognition of her exceptional contributions to science.

Ingird Daubechies is a physicist and applied mathematician. “In maths, we always seek to understand magical things,” she explains. “I hope that my work will also be instrumental in helping people see that mathematics is everywhere. Identifying patterns and applying them in a different setting is very natural, very human.”

Prof. Ingrid Daubechies’ steadfast focus on recasting problems in a new light saw her building on the foundational work of wavelet pioneer Yves Meyer to establish the ultimate solution to wavelet decomposition. She describes wavelets as “mathematical building blocks” that can be used to extract the essential elements of images or signals (according to the required scale) without losing their quality. Meyer describes her work as a “revolution”.

Wavelet decomposition has become an indispensable tool for working with signals, images and video. For example, it has enabled the reconstruction of early Hubble Telescope images, electronic sharing of highly detailed fingerprints, the detection of forged documents, the rise of digital cinema and even medical imaging. Similarly, it is a vital component of wireless communication, and is also used to compress sound sequences into MP3 files, so that music can be stored and transmitted via iPods and smartphones. Scientists even used construction akin to wavelets to help detect, in 2015, a gravitational wave generated by the collision of two black holes.

Born in Belgium and naturalised as American in 1996, Prof. Ingrid Daubechies’ studies and career have spanned two continents. With an innate interest in how and why things work, she was encouraged towards science by her school teachers and parents, and remembers being particularly inspired by learning about light refraction and prisms. “I felt absolutely thrilled, and a little incredulous, trying experiments to see whether it was really true,” she recalls. “The sense of combined wonder and awe, and the thirst to understand is what drives me still.” 

Beyond her mathematical prowess, Prof. Ingrid Daubechies has been active in helping to expand access to maths and science in developing countries, a cause that she pursued vigorously as the President of the International Mathematical Union from 2011 to 2014.

While she has not experienced gender discrimination on her own scientific journey, Prof. Ingrid Daubechies recognises that there are still many barriers to more women entering science, with too few role models and few women in positions of authority. In addition to mentoring for young women scientists, she believes a wholesale shift in perceptions is needed, both in terms of gender equality and the nature of mathematics as a subject. “Many people see life as a scientist as rather narrow or uncreative – which isn’t true at all – and I believe this discourages women more than men,” she says.

“Diversity brings a wealth of ideas and more surprising ways of approaching issues, which is vital for any creative discipline,” she concludes. “This is now more important than ever as scientists seek to address the existential challenges facing life on Earth.”

The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards

Each year, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards honours five outstanding women scientists, from each world region (Africa and the Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America). The Fondation L’Oréal and UNESCO have worked together for more than 20 years to help empower more women scientists to achieve scientific excellence and participate equally in solving the great challenges facing humanity. Together they have celebrated more than 3,000 women scientists in 117 countries, and awarded 107 laureates. 

The 2019 Laureates’ achievements will be celebrated alongside those of 15 promising young women scientists from around the world at an awards ceremony on 14 March at UNESCO’s Headquarters in Paris.

Follow the ceremony live on facebook.