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Alum wins National Science Foundation’s Waterman award

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Mung Chiang ’00 M.S. ’00 Ph.D. 03, professor of electrical engineering at Princeton University, was recently announced as this year’s recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award for his application of mathematical analysis to wireless network design.

Chiang will receive the award, considered to be the nation’s highest honor for scientists under the age of 35, at a ceremony on May 9 at the U.S. Department of State. Awardees are given one million dollars over the course of five years to advance their research.

Chiang said that he was extremely surprised to be notified that he had won.

“I couldn’t believe it because it was a mix of all sciences, social sciences and engineering,” Chiang said. “I have a four-month-old son, and I told him first. He didn’t have much reaction to the news.”

According to Mayra Montrose, program manager for the Waterman Award, the judging committee sought candidates with exceptional individual achievement in scientific or engineering research.

“[The judging criteria] is very holistic, and they will look at the complete portfolio for each of the nominees,” Montrose said, noting that the judges were impressed by Chiang’s ability to implement his theoretical research in the network industry.

Chiang, who has worked with AT&T and other companies, said that a major part of his research methodology is to “go from proofs to prototypes.”

“We work on mathematical and theoretical research, but we also take what the math predicts and build network systems,” Chiang said. “So we build up systems guided by theories and then prove more theorems.”

Montrose said that the committee also highly valued Chiang’s commitment to educating the next generation of engineers and scientists. Chiang’s online courses, including “ELE 381: Networks: Friends, Money and Bytes,” have attracted a total of 65,000 students.

“He is quite impressive as a teacher and had quite an amazing following,” said Lisa-Joy Zgorski, media representative for the Waterman Award. “These are the fine details that distinguish one nominee from the other.”

Chiang’s research in optimizing wireless networks started at Stanford under the mentorship of the late Thomas Cover M.S. ’61 Ph.D. ’64, professor of electrical engineering and statistics, and Stephen Boyd, professor of electrical engineering.

According to Chiang, his research with Cover and Boyd inspired him to pursue an undergraduate honors thesis and a doctoral degree in electrical engineering (EE).

“I learned so much from [the] EE department, especially from my two advisors about the extremely high standard of scholarly work that they set an example through their own liking and research,” Chiang said. “I have always been, since then, trying to pursue that bar.”

Chiang described Stanford as a “paradise,” fondly remembering time spent studying in the Oval, and praised the University’s entrepreneurial atmosphere, which he cited as a heavy influence on his later work.

“[Entrepreneurship] is something that Stanford excels like no other institution ever in history,” Chiang said. “That really drives me to think about how to take equations that very few can appreciate into products that many can use.”

Chiang plans to use the funding provided by the award to continue research into networks, with a focus on improving spectrum sharing, optimizing and deploying wireless mobile networks and managing traffic on wireless networks.

“The demand for mobile network is projected to double every single year. That means in 10 years, there will be a need for a one-thousand-fold increase,” Chiang said. “We have to come up with a solution.”