An ordinary day for a typical LIDS student is demanding. By implication, an ordinary day for LIDS student and new mother Etty Lee should be beyond exhausting. Yet in person, Etty is friendly and serene and speaks animatedly about motherhood, LIDS, and the evolution of communication. She laughs as she says that, as a girl growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, she “had never heard of engineering, except for in a romance novel where the boyfriend was an engineer.” That all changed in Grade 10, when Etty’s math teacher handed her a pamphlet about engineering and encouraged her to look into the field. “I thought, Wow! This seems really difficult but also really interesting and challenging. I wonder if I can do it.”
After completing her undergraduate career at the University of Waterloo, gaining work experience at numerous engineering companies, and making research contributions during her undergraduate and graduate studies, it’s clear that Etty is up to the challenge. She admits that “being a graduate student can be very humbling…you realize how little you know compared to what is out there.” However, her enthusiasm for her field hasn’t faded a bit. Etty’s research interests lie in “high-speed communication of data,” a phrase which should resonate with the millions of us who use the Internet daily. “I think it’s really interesting how communication has evolved for humans,” Etty says of her studies at LIDS. “The natural form of communicating with hand actions and voice used to be only face-to-face but has become more advanced with the help of technology and electronics, allowing us to easily communicate over long distances to multiple people in different geographic locations.” True to her interest in the evolution of communication, Etty’s current research is focused on a new system of network communication, faster than wireless communication with radio frequencies and cheaper to construct than wired connections.
What sort of system makes this possible? Equipment set-up time and costs can be cut by innovative thinking about the method and materials used to transmit information. “Rather than using cables or fibers laid into the ground, like telephone or internet cables, we’re using lasers through the atmosphere to communicate at high data rates,” Etty explains. These connections are called atmospheric optical links and have certain advantages over traditional terrestrial links. “You don’t have to dig the ground, lay the fibers, get all the licensing…it’s quicker and cheaper to set up something over the air” since these preparatory steps, necessary to construct a standard DSL or cable modem system, are costly as well as time-consuming. Atmospheric optical links also afford some security because they are “physically directed,” meaning that the transmitting laser can be pointed precisely at a receiver, rather than sending signals in many directions the way a lower-frequency wireless transmitter does. In addition, the higher frequency of lasers enables the transmission of much higher data rates, gigabytes per second as opposed to the megabytes per second that wireless offers. This higher data rate is the difference between traveling on a two-lane back road versus a superhighway. Etty’s research may now allow information to lift off the road entirely and travel through the atmosphere, outside the confines of the cables or fibers of existing terrestrial connections, which require more time, energy, and capital to establish.
While physical modeling and performance evaluation of single point-to-point atmospheric optical links began as early as the 1960s, Etty’s focus on whole networks of these links and fade mitigation is a new one. “The most exciting part is that research into networks of atmospheric optical links is relatively uncharted territory,” she says. Her research is a very promising territory. Owing to the relative ease and low cost of setting up a high speed atmospheric optical network, some potential applications include extending access to high speed Internet and data networks to people in rural areas or to developing countries which lack technological infrastructures. This research could also be useful in an urban environment, in order to “quickly and inexpensively set up a high speed network between buildings.” Because of this eye toward application, Etty believes that the research being done now is more practical than past research, which mainly investigated the physical properties of atmospheric optical links. In contrast, Etty is realistically concerned “with how to efficiently and fairly have lots of users send data through an atmospheric optical network.”
Etty’s interest in networks extends beyond her research; she values strong and supportive networks in other areas of her life as well. “If you have the right mix of people around you,” she says, “your life can be wonderful.” When looking at grad schools, MIT stood out for Etty because the people are “very brilliant…but at the same time, they are sociable and want you to grow as a person. That kind of mix is very hard to find.” In fact, the people at LIDS are what Etty will miss most when she graduates. “They’re so friendly and kind,” she says of the LIDS faculty and staff. Recently, this type of support network has become especially crucial for Etty. In addition to the responsibilities of being a LIDS student, she is also a new mom. At the time of this interview, her son Gavin is just four-and-a-half months old.
“He’s getting bigger,” she says, “he laughs really hard when we play with him…. he just enriches my life so much.” This is evident from the big smile on Etty’s face whenever she talks about her son. Despite the new demands on her already-limited time, Etty says that balancing life as a student and mother “is challenging but manageable,” in part because of the support networks she has sought out. For a few months, she attended MIT’s weekly parent/ infant group with Gavin to “talk to other moms and get advice” and she stresses the benefits of having family to pitch in. Etty’s support network also includes LIDS, at which she says “you’re open to do the research that sparks your interest… and have flexible meeting times that accommodate your schedule.” Etty also finds that the increase in demands in her life have allowed her to work efficiently and ironically become more productive in her research.
While much of Etty’s life outside of LIDS is now occupied with Gavin, she also enjoys sailing and ballroom dancing with her husband Dennis Lee whom she married in 2003. In addition, she takes advantage of the weekly LIDS socials to “talk to other people about their research and their lives and families.” Perhaps because of these social opportunities, Etty believes that the environment of the lab is an exceptionally open space for trading ideas and advice.
After her time at LIDS, she hopes to be “doing innovative research that will find its way into commercial industry and help people” while again working with “the right mix of people that are bright, interesting, and open-minded.”