Most Laureates are in their 60s and 70s. They have made their contributions. I like to imagine that when they were young they were on fire.
Schwetak Patel is constantly on fire. He seems to think faster than he can talk, and talk faster than reporters interviewing him can type. He taps the balls of his feet on the floor and starts each answer with “That’s a good question,” a beat that sends him riffing at a mile a minute.
Patel was born in 1981, in Selma Alabama. He was made a Laureate for winning the 2018 Fields Medal, which goes to researchers under 40. But he insists that none of the honors he has won, including a MacArthur genius award, belong to him. “It’s for the lab. It showcases the great work my students have done.”
Patel’s parents were educated Indian immigrants who couldn’t practice their skills in America. They worked in a carpet factory and then became hoteliers, each working a 12-hour shift at the front desk. Schwetak estimates he made 15,000 beds.
The parents made enough to buy a larger hotel in Birmingham. That’s how he was able to test into the Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School, then ride a bus across town to attend it, two hours each day. It was in Irondale, where Fannie Flagg set her book (later a movie) Fried Green Tomatoes that got him into his first lab. That changed his life.
His experience in Irondale is why Patel prefers speaking to K-12 groups than college groups, prioritizing talks to rural schools that don’t see top researchers often. “I want to get in front of students before they get into college, show them how they can impact society.”
Patel’s next stop was Georgia Tech in Atlanta, close enough to come home every two weeks for his mother’s cooking, far enough away so that he could find his path. That led to Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), formed in the 1980s to connect university researchers with entrepreneurs. Eventually he got some seed money to launch projects like WallyHome, a sensor product sold to Sears. He also sold an energy monitoring company called Zensi to Belkin. After getting his Ph.D and his own lab at the University of Washington in Seattle, he sold a health monitoring company called Senosis Health to Google in 2017. He likes to sell ideas quickly and move on to the next one.
Patel’s message is to always reach out. “While research is fun, it’s a playground for very few people. We don’t just send papers to the computing journals. We present them at health conferences, do posters to outside research communities.
All this reaching out to younger students on the one hand, and to business and government on the other, results in what Pafel calls “naive innovation.” “If you take someone with a deep skill set and give them a problem domain where they don’t have entrenched industry knowledge, they may come up with something unique because they don’t know the entrenched way of doing things.” This is especially true with high school students, who don’t know what they don’t know and can sometimes make enormous breakthroughs.
Senosis works to put diagnostic tests and analyses inside phones so they can have a real impact in places like Brazil. “If something is embedded in a phone, and you can enable those devices, then you can democratize health care.”
Patel is also a believer in the idea that “your noise is my signal. This permeates my research career.” An example is the HemaApp, which uses a phone’s camera and lights to measure blood hemoglobin.
“In pulmonary health there had been a lot of auditory processing being done, so you can filter out the vocal track. It turned out when you cancel out the vocal track, that tells you what your lung function is, what your air flow patterns are. If you turn a problem on its head, the thing you’re trying to filter out can be the source of your solutions.”
Patel uniquely combines the passion of the young researchers at HLF with the knowledge and experience of HLF’s mentors. It’s exciting, it’s exhausting, and frankly it’s what made America great.