Shwetak Patel, 29, an assistant professor in the departments of Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington, was recently named a 2011 MacArthur Fellow. Also known as the “Genius Award,” it was given to 22 individuals this year across the fields of music, journalism, architecture and medicine, among others.
Patel’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from West India before settling in Birmingham, Ala., where he grew up. He attended Jefferson County IB High School, a public magnet school offering the International Baccalaureate program to students; a set of rigorous courses at an accelerated level compared to the average class. Jefferson County IB was recently rated by Newsweek as one of the top 10 high schools in the country. It was here that Patel’s passion for science and research first developed. “I always knew I wanted to do research,” he said.
As an undergraduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Patel sought out a professor to conduct research with before he ever signed up for classes. He completed a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science in less than three years and received his doctorate, also in Computer Science from GIT, in 2008.
That year he was hired on at the University of Washington along with his wife, Julie Kientz, an assistant professor in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering and The Information School.
During his time at UW, Patel has earned recognition for the advanced technologies he has developed. These include the TR-35 award in 2009 (an award given by the Technology Review to 35 innovators under the age of 35), Seattle Business Magazine’s innovator of the year award, a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship, and most recently, a fellowship award from the MacArthur Foundation.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation typically awards 20 to 30 individuals with fellowships each year. A group of nominators across a wide range of disciplines selects candidates for the fellowship award without the candidates’ knowledge.
According to the MacArthur website, there are three criteria for selection of fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.
“There are a small number of awards that are just stellar, that recognize excellence well above the norm. The MacArthur is one of these,” said Scott Hauck, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington. “They basically looked around the country and said, across all fields, who are the 20-ish most innovative people out there. That’s a huge honor, and we are justly proud, both of the award, but more importantly of Shwetak himself.”
It is the type of award you can’t prepare for or do anything to get, said Patel.
He recalls that he was at home in his office waiting for another call when he got the news. “I was completely in shock,” said Patel. It was a feeling of utter disbelief. At first, he said, he thought it was his lab students playing a prank on him.
The MacArthur Fellowship is a no-strings attached award of $500,000 that is distributed to the individual over a five-year period to be used at his or her discretion.
According to the MacArthur website, “the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.” It’s based on the idea that “if you give creative people money, creative things will come out of it,” said Patel.
Patel earned this award for his innovative work with a series of sensor-technology systems, specifically for the home. These low-cost, user-friendly sensors can be used to monitor electricity and water consumption, broken down to the individual fixture and appliance simply by plugging one into the wall. Users can see which areas of the home are responsible for the highest percentage of use, allowing them to specifically target those gadgets and conserve water and energy more effectively. Compared to a monthly bill, “you have feedback that is more relevant,” said Patel.
“Shwetak is a very interesting blend. He is technically exceptional, but he also has a deep understanding of how computing can be introduced into the outside world,” said Aaron Bobick, Chair of the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The recognition of Patel with this award is validating of the work we do here, said Bobick.
When asked how he was planning to use the funds from the fellowship, Patel said he had to think about “where these funds could be the most useful and where typical funding is hard to find.” The money would be best directed toward a non-traditional avenue of research, said Patel.
There are many ideas Patel is considering, including using the money in the form of a nonprofit organization to help lower-income families have access to technologies that they wouldn’t normally have.
Patel is the 14th University of Washington faculty member and one of 850 individuals to be named fellows by the MacArthur Foundation since the creation of the award in 1981.
“Shwetak is an amazing faculty member, doing incredible work on research, teaching, service, and advising. He’s basically the entire package, and I’m constantly amazed at the wonderful things he does for UW,” said Hauck.
For more information on Shwetak Patel and the MacArthur Fellowship, visit the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation website at www.macfound.org.