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Remembering David H. Staelin, 1938–2011


MIT Professor David H. Staelin, member of the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the Research Laboratory of Electronics, passed away Nov. 10, 2011 of cancer, he was 73 years old.

Driven by a deeply felt sense of responsibility to MIT, the nation, and society as a whole, Staelin dedicated his long career to basic science, technology development, service, education, and entrepreneurship. His career was that of abundant accomplishment, and widespread impact.

Staelin was born and raised in Toledo, OH, came to MIT at the age of 18 as a freshman, and remained at the Institute for the rest of his life.

Staelin’s career as a junior faculty started in radio astronomy. Among his first accomplishments, in 1968 he developed a computationally efficient algorithm that enabled him to discover the Crab Nebula Pulsar, helping to confirm the existence of neutron stars predicted by theoretical physics.

Over time, his interests expanded to include remote sensing to enable climate monitoring, to which he brought together a strong command of electromagnetics, signal processing methodology, and computation trends. Among the many examples of his leadership in this field, he was principal investigator in the development of the first two Earth-orbiting microwave imaging spectrometers launched in 1975 for mapping global temperature and humidity through clouds. He was also a co-investigator on the 1977 NASA Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft missions, studying non-thermal radio emission from the outer planets. Later still, during 1998-2011 he co-developed techniques for using operational millimeter-wave sounding satellites for more frequent and complete mapping of global precipitation.

In subsequent years, he turned his attention to diverse collections of important emerging problems that required the application of sophisticated signal processing and estimation theory. These included the development of practical image and video compression technology, advanced methodologies for data-rich manufacturing problems, which he pursued under the MIT Leaders for Manufacturing program, heterogeneous and wireless communication architectures, and, most recently, neuronal computation models.

Staelin was an active member of the MIT community. He served on numerous committees and took on important leadership roles. Later in his career, Staelin served as Assistant Director of MIT Lincoln Laboratory for 11 years (1990-2001), where he focused on helping both enhancing the long-range focus of the laboratory and strengthening its ties to campus. He also served as a member of the (U.S.) President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (2003-2005).

Staelin was a dedicated teacher who helped educate generations of electrical engineers. His focus for many years was the undergraduate electromagnetic curriculum. He co-authored the 1993 Prentice-Hall text Electromagnetic Waves with Ann W. Morgenthaler and Jin Au Kong.

Staelin was a thoughtful and patient mentor, greatly loved and admired by his students. He supervised many doctoral, masters, and undergraduate student theses (almost 150 graduate theses alone), and a large number of alumni of his group have gone on to careers in academia and industry of great distinction and striking impact as researchers and scientists, entrepreneurs, technical leaders, and executives—a testament to his skillful training of them.

Highly entrepreneurial, Staelin started and directed three pioneering companies with colleagues and students over his career. The first was Environmental Research and Technology (ERT, now part of AECOM), one of the first and largest environmental services companies, specializing initially in air quality and ultimately addressing the full spectrum of environmental issues. The second was PictureTel (now part of Polycom, itself founded by one of Staelin’s former students), which pioneered cost-effective video conferencing systems based on sophisticated video compression technology. This technology ultimately formed the basis for the ubiquitous video compression standards that today enable the widespread availability of video content over networks. Staelin’s third foray was in the area of personal transportation, where he founded EMPower (purchased by ZAP), which developed novel electric scooter technology.

Following these experiences, in 1998 Staelin co-founded MIT’s pioneering Venture Mentoring Service to help early-stage MIT companies and aspiring MIT entrepreneurs benefit from the advice of experienced MIT alumni, and more generally to support entrepreneurial activity within the MIT community as a furthering of MIT’s educational mission. VMS has served more than 1000 companies to date, helping them raise almost $1B in capital, and has become a model for other similarly oriented university and government agencies.

Staelin’s last project was a collaboration on neural computation with son Carl H. Staelin, which resulted in monograph currently in press entitled Models for Neural Spike Computation and Cognition.

StaelinFest, an event held at MIT in July to celebrate Staelin’s extraordinary career, was widely attended by many faculty, colleagues, and former students from all over the country. At the event, he also received the distinguished 2011 John Howard Dellinger Medal, awarded to him by the International Union of Radio Science (URSI) for profound contributions to remote sensing over his career. Staelin was also a Fellow of IEEE and AAAS.

Staelin’s instinctively self-effacing nature and his tendency to eschew the spotlight were in many ways the secret to his unusual effectiveness. Indeed, he was the living embodiment of the maxim that you can accomplish a great deal in life if you don’t feel the need to take credit.

Staelin is survived by his wife Ellen, children Carl, Katharine, and Paul, daughters-in-law Sigal and Jenny, grandchildren Alexander, Adam, Ella, Lauren, Steven and Claire, and siblings Earl, Stephen, and Mimi Ferrell.

The memorial service is scheduled for December 3rd at 11am at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, 309 Washington Street, Wellesley. Visiting hours will be held on Friday, December 2nd during 2-4pm and 7-9pm at the George F. Doherty & Sons Funeral Home, 477 Washington Street, Wellesley.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the David H. Staelin Fund dedicated to support graduate students whose research is being done in RLE.

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David H. Staelin Fund