First-Hand:IEEE Award Recipient Series:Terence Chi-Shen Tao
Terence Chi-Shen Tao
What Award did you receive from IEEE?
2021 IEEE Jack S. Kilby Signal Processing Medal
Place of Birth
Where did you grow up
Family Background: Parents and their education level & Siblings and their education/profession
Father: Billy Tao, MB., BS., Pediatrician. Mother: Grace Tao, B.Sc., homemaker. Brothers: Trevor Tao, Ph.D., Research Scientist; Nigel Tao, Ph.D., Software engineer.
What did you want to do when you grew up?
A shopkeeper! (I had no idea that research mathematician was an option.)
What was your upbringing like? Did you have a large family?
My parents raised two brothers and me in a suburb in Adelaide. We would ride our bikes around the neighbourhood and knock on doors to get the neighbour kids to play outside without supervision. Amazing how unthinkable that my own kids would do this—times have changed!
Did you have any hobbies (eg. Some people talk about learning trade skills from a family member.)
I played a lot of computer games (though, with my first Commodore, it was more a matter of typing in the code for the games I would find in magazines) and read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I got obsessed with Latin at one point and even tried to translate "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" into Latin; I got as far as the prologue before giving up.
Did you partake in after school activities? Did you play sports?
I never really took to sports, except maybe a little bit of badminton. I rode my bike a lot for fun, though.
Did you have a part-time job (after school, summer)? What was your most surprising job assignment?
After high school I worked at the local hospital as a computer programmer in my dad's research group. I created (using very bespoke C code) software to record and replay data for a sleep study of infants. Many years later, my younger brother (who actually had serious software engineering experience) had to update and maintain my spaghetti code for this project, and I got no end of complaints from him about my poor programming practices. :)
Did you take vacations and/or go on day trips?Favorite holiday/family gathering?
We did do a few international trips, for instance to the US and Italy, but mostly we vacationed inside Australia. Every Christmas we would meet with relatives in Melbourne (or they would come here).
EDUCATION: Favorite subject in school (K-12, university). Why?
Well, definitely math was my obsession, but I did have an amazing physics high school teacher, as well as a deputy headmistress who took it upon herself to teach me Latin in her office. Of course I very rarely use Latin these days, but it certainly helped me appreciate the structure of English and the Romance languages much more.
Did you have a least favorite subject in school (K-12, university. Why?
Physical education was probably not my favorite :). At university, I had a Fortran class that I rebelled against, on the grounds that I already knew BASIC; I remember defiantly writing my final assignment code in BASIC instead of Fortran (and subsequently failing the class).
Why did you select the university (universities) you attended? What was your major and why did you select it?
Flinders University was very close to where we lived, and several of the professors there were already familiar with me, so it was an obvious choice for an undergraduate degree especially since I had been grade accelerated and was still living with my parents. My undergraduate advisor strongly advised me to study abroad, and Princeton was one of the few international institutions that accepted me, so it was a clear choice.
Employment and career: First job - Current position - Favorite job
My first job was as a computer programmer at my local hospital. Currently I am a professor at UCLA, which has definitely been my favorite job—many responsibilities, but rewarding in so many ways.
Has your career turned out as you expected?
I feel like I have been incredibly lucky in the level of support I received from my mentors and colleagues, and to have fantastic collaborators who introduced me to a much wider array of mathematics than I would have found by myself.
Has IEEE played a role in your career? How? What does IEEE mean to you?
I work almost entirely in pure mathematics, which is an area not usually covered directly by the IEEE. But through many of my coauthors and colleagues who are IEEE members I have been exposed in particular to the fascinating world of signal processing, where pure mathematics can have real-world impact. So I think IEEE plays an important role in maintaining a healthy dialogue between mathematics and the sciences.
You have been awarded one of IEEE's highest-level awards. What does this award mean to you?
It is humbling to be recognized by an organization focused on extremely practical applications of science and technology. Most of the work I do is very theoretical and abstract—even the results that are in principle "quantitative" often involve constants that are too large for practical use. But compressed sensing is the one area where the theory I was able to contribute helped lay the foundations for concrete and practical real-world impact.
What other associations have helped you in your career?
The American Mathematical Society plays an invaluable role for mathematicians like myself, through their journals, meetings, recommendations for best practices, awards and recognitions, and services such as MathSciNet and MathJobs.
Career Advice: What advice would you give to young professionals entering your field today?
What a complex topic! I have a whole collection of career advice posts on my blog at https://terrytao.wordpress.com/career-advice/. But if I had to just give one piece of advice, it would be to talk to as many people as possible in the profession, both at junior and senior levels of the field, to get as broad a perspective as possible. It's so easy to get a significant misconception about how the field operates if one only draws from one's own experience.
Reflection: What would you have done differently or tell your younger self now?
I would tell my younger self to develop more serious study habits and pay attention even to those classes that one did not initially find interesting :).
Was there a project that you were so passionate about that you continued to pursue it even though there may have been doubts about its success?
I'm not sure passion is the right word, but certainly once one has a secure career with a tenured position, one can explore more "blue-sky" projects that may not experience immediate payoff. For instance, I have been working on and off for several years on a possible framework to create solutions to fluid equations that blow up in finite time by taking advantage of some "universality" properties in these equations. So far I can only achieve this by making serious changes to the laws of motion, but I still hope eventually that this sort of strategy can be implemented for a more physically realistic model.
What career achievement are you most proud of?
Hopefully one that is still in the future :). For instance, seeing my students and mentees develop over time gives me more and more satisfaction every year.
Personal Life: What do you do for fun? Hobbies?
With work and family there isn't as much time for fun these days—pretty much restricted now to activities that can be done on my phone in a few minutes :). For instance in recent years I spend a few minutes each day learning a language (currently Hebrew) through an app.
What personal achievement are you most proud of?
I think ultimately it will be raising my kids, though this is still literally a work in progress. :)
Do you have a favorite food? Or a family recipe that may have been passed down?
There's some Australian and Cantonese comfort food I crave occasionally, though not as much these days since it's so easy to order almost anything online now.
Do you have a favorite genre of music? or a favorite song? Or do you play an instrument?
I play a little piano, although at this point I think both my kids surpass me in this.
Do you have a prize possession? If so, please explain.
I'm not really sentimentally attached to physical objects. Perhaps when I am older and more inclined to reminiscing I might, though.
What are three things people may not know about you?
Probably a lot of things in this interview; they're not exactly secret, but I don't go out of my way to publicise them either.
Who was your mentor? (eg. family member or professor)
My most important mentors were Basil Rennie, Garth Gaudry, and Elias Stein, all math professors (and unfortunately all deceased now).
What is one thing you cannot live without in your work space?