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Wagner wins 2017 Massey Award

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Aaron B. Wagner, Associate Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University, has won the IEEE Information Theory Society’s 2017 James L. Massey Research & Teaching Award for Young Scholars.

The Massey Award recognizes outstanding achievement in research and teaching by young scholars in the Information Theory community.  The award is named in honor of James L. Massey, who was an internationally-acclaimed pioneer in digital communications and a revered teacher and mentor to an entire generation of communications engineers.

“I am delighted, but not surprised, by Aaron’s recognition as the 2017 Massey Award winner,” said Clif Pollock, Director of Cornell ECE and the Ilda and Charles Lee Professor of Engineering. “He has been steadily building a strong program in information theory and we have known for years that Aaron has very high standards for his and his students work. In fact, several of his students have received the “best thesis” award that ECE presents to one graduating Ph.D. student each year. It is great to know that the rest of his field sees him the way we do!”

Wagner is known for his work on data compression in which the encoding must be performed in a distributed fashion, on which he began work as a Ph.D. student. His early work established a methodology for analyzing such problems, which culminated in the complete solution of the two-encoder version of the problem with Gaussian sources, which had long been open. Other groups are still building on his groundbreaking work in this area.

Wagner has also made fundamental contributions to many other areas of information theory, notably the use of feedback in communication systems and the error analysis of channel codes.

More recently, his work on measuring leakage in privacy contexts proposed an entirely new metric that captures how much better an eavesdropper could guess sensitive information such as passwords or keys after observing leaked information. While his metric is wholly operational, Wagner has proved that it can be computed via a simple formula.

On the teaching side, Wagner has redeveloped core courses in the ECE curriculum, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, with the aim of highlighting the interplay between theory and practice. He transformed the graduate course in information theory into a pair of courses that are offered alternating years, with one emphasizing communication and one emphasizing data compression. This split allows both topics to be covered in greater depth and to cover both theory and practical considerations and how each informs the other.

Likewise, he transformed the senior-level elective on digital communications from a pure-theory class into a culminating design experience in which students compete to build the highest-performing communication systems. The channel used for testing is accessible over the internet and can be used by courses at other universities .

Wagner regularly receives student evaluations such as “Best instructor I’ve had at Cornell,” “cares a lot about teaching,”  “excellent lectures, clear and thorough,” “lectures were extremely well organized,” “labs were amazing and educational,” “phenomenal!” “Aaron Wagner is the best lecturer I have ever had.”

For his teaching, he has received numerous Cornell awards, including the ECE School’s Ruth and Joel Spira Excellence in Teaching Award in 2012; and the Engineering College’s Douglas Whitney ’61 Excellence in Teaching Award in 2015 and the Michael Tien ’72 Excellence in Teaching Award in 2009 and the university-wide Merrill Presidential Teacher in 2011. Wagner also received an NSF CAREER Award in 2007.

Wagner joined the faculty of Cornell ECE in 2006 after working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Coordinated Science Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received his Ph.D. in EECS from the University of California, Berkeley and his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Wagner received the award in a ceremony at the 2017 IEEE International Symposium on Information Theory in Aachen, Germany on June 28, 2017.

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