Home is a deceptively simple word. Both a concrete location and an abstract idea, it is the place we currently live as well as the place from which we came. It is a group of people living together as a family, and it is the place where people work together to achieve a common goal. It is the place where something, or someone, belongs.
For the past ten years, Watcharapan Suwansantisuk, known to his friends and colleagues by his nickname Ae, has made LIDS his home. He routinely spends eight to ten hours a day at the lab, taking short breaks to work out or to eat. He arrives early in the morning, his backpack filled with books and research notes. He brings food for his lunch and dinner, and the clothes he will wear to the gym. He comes to the lab every weekday, and sometimes, he admits, he comes in on weekends.
For as long as he can remember, Ae has dreamed of studying at MIT. He says the school has always occupied a small corner of his heart. When he received his acceptance letter from the Electrical Engineering graduate program, he felt both excited and nervous. He had finally achieved his dream.
He felt instantly at home in LIDS and credits his smooth transition from undergraduate to master's candidate to his program's supportive faculty and carefully planned curriculum. In his first semester, he took a special course designed to pair new students with potential research advisors. By his second semester, Ae had found both an advisor and mentor in Prof. Moe Win.
Ae cannot say enough good things about Moe, with whom he has authored four journal articles and fourteen conference papers and filed for a patent. Although he is quick to praise other faculty and researchers with whom he has worked, most notably, Prof. Lawrence Shepp, Prof. Marco Chiani, and Dr. Gerard Foschini, the affection and respect he has for his advisor is abundantly clear. It is Moe who first showed Ae how to formulate a viable research problem. He also prepared Ae for the rigors of an MIT doctoral thesis, and Ae feels his mentor trained him well, teaching him to develop realistic project timelines with clear deadlines, and helping him learn how to identify areas of research best explored with colleagues from different disciplines, who have the tools and expertise needed to find the best possible solution. Ae believes it is this training which enabled him to withstand the intensely stressful weeks leading up to his final thesis defense. He nods his head decisively. "I was prepared", he says. "I was well trained for this moment."
Over the past decade, Ae has trained in the classroom and in laboratories. He has interned for the Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs and worked as a software developer for Microsoft. He has been a visiting scholar at the University of Bologna in Italy and a teaching assistant at MIT. He has submitted papers and presented at conferences across the country, in Baltimore, New Orleans, Austin, San Diego, La Jolla, San Francisco, and Seattle, and across the globe, in South Africa, Switzerland, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Italy. He has won awards for his papers, his master's thesis, and his scholarship. He has traveled the short distance between his East Cambridge apartment and his office in LIDS on a daily basis, and each year he makes a longer journey to visit his family in Thailand.
Like many international students, Ae often experiences homesickness before and after a trip. When he returns to America after his yearly vacation, he misses his parents and sister. He misses hearing his native language spoken in the streets, and the familiar tastes and smells of his home country—the food, the people, the warm weather. He has lived in America since 1997, and he has lived in Cambridge since 2002. This may not be the home of his birth, but it is the home he has made, and when he leaves it, he feels the same sense of homesickness that he feels whenever he leaves Thailand. In this sense, Ae has become a man of many homes. But when asked if LIDS has become his home away from home, Ae shakes his head. He says, rather, that LIDS has become his true home, and the people he works and studies with his extended family.
He is eager to describe his collaborations with faculty members, researchers, and students in LIDS and in other MIT departments and labs. It is, he says, a highly effective and productive environment for scholarship. He explains how it feels to be surrounded by exceptionally talented people every single day. He views it as a challenge and an opportunity. "Where else in my life will I have this chance," he wonders, "to work with the best, to study with the best, to do my best? Where else do people perform to such a high standard?"
He says that he used to worry about meeting expectations, about performing perfectly all the time, but his experiences at LIDS have taught him that true scholarship means making mistakes and recognizing when other people have knowledge or expertise that you do not. The LIDS model encourages students to collaborate with people in other disciplines, people who may have research methods, analytical tools, or academic perspectives that will enhance and accelerate problem solving. Ae describes various research projects that required input from other departments, such as signal acquisition and frame synchronization projects, and talks enthusiastically about them. It seems, in fact, as if his entire office, from the rows of neatly organized journals to the tower of battered composition notebooks stacked next to his desk, represent years of collaboration.
The notebooks on the bottom of the stack are noticeably thicker. Their pages have expanded to hold years of class notes and research data. Ae has pursued many research interests during his time at MIT, from wide-bandwidth signal acquisition to optimal search strategies for spread-spectrum signal acquisition to waveform and frame synchronization. His thesis project, though, deals with first-passage-time problems. These problems examine how long it may take a process to reach a critical or target value, a calculation that is complicated by fluctuations in the process itself or the factors that affect it. To an outsider, this type of work may seem purely theoretical, but Ae points out its numerous practical applications.
Specifically, his research centers around a problem that, if solved correctly, helps people identify the point in time when certain corrections, recalibrations, or actions can be taken. Such information is of interest to a wide array of professionals, including stock market analysts, statisticians, astronomers, physicists, and biologists. For example, this data can help stock market analysts predict when a stock will reach a target price – the price at which the stock could be sold for profit, for instance. In engineering, the data derived from this research could influence global communication networks and safeguard time-aware networks, like those that synchronize the time on your cell phone to the time calculated by the nearest cell phone tower. This work could also improve GPS performance. The clocks in the satellites and the receivers that are part of the GPS need to be synchronized, it turns out, to provide an accurate positioning estimation. The time it takes for the signal to go from the satellite to the GPS receiver in your car or mobile device is a crucial element in determining your location, so if these two components are not in synch, the position your GPS gives you will not be accurate. Ae explains that his interest in synchronized clocks like these led him to his thesis project. Over time, small, nearly undetectable mechanical errors, imperfect electronics, and environmental variations, like gravity and temperature, will affect the performance of a synchronized time-keeping system. Engineers want to keep the time errors among the clocks small and calibrate them when the time errors are significant enough to keep an application from working properly. The difficulty lies in predicting precisely when the clocks need to be calibrated. Ae's thesis work begins to address this difficulty. In it, he attempts to derive mathematical expressions that will tell people exactly when their clocks must be reset. At the time to reset the clocks, the existing methods for synchronization can be employed to recalibrate the system, at which point synchronization is again possible and the system will be able to perform its intended functions.
Time, like the word home, has always been a difficult concept to define. A well-formulated research problem allows scholars to prove theories and derive information about how time works—how long a process could take, how long a system might endure. Ae explains that such research requires careful analysis and collaboration among many disparate fields, including, but not limited to, mathematics, probability theory, computer science, and electrical engineering. He says that it is always difficult to measure time accurately. "For instance, I have been at MIT for ten years," he says. "To some people, that may seem like a long time to stay in one place." He pauses briefly, looks around his office, and smiles broadly. "To me, though, it was the right amount of time, and time well spent," he says.