It was a few weeks into the start of the semester, and my schedule was set. As I went to the lab printer to pick up a problem set, I accidentally picked up one for ECE 445. Some problems required tools from signals and systems or probability to answer questions about quantization. The final problem was to design a primitive image compression algorithm. Although I would have to switch my schedule, I wanted to take the class. An e-mail to the professor was met with an enthusiastic response, so I made the switch.
Sergio’s class was one of my favorites at Cornell. The course mixed theory and programming and made me appreciate the important role theoretical questions have in the design of practical systems. Sergio’s teaching style was also one that encouraged questions. He would often pause before answering as if the question being asked were important. Even if I later realized I had said something incorrect or the answer to my question was self-evident, Servetto never sounded dismissive when he answered.
Part of the reason Sergio was able to relate with students was how comfortable he was around them. The first time I walked into his office was just after someone had brought him a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. Without a second thought, he immediately split the cookie and handed me half. I still remember seeing one of the melted chips stretch between the two halves of the cookie and thinking what a generous thing to do.
Given my experiences in Sergio’s class and others, I wanted to pursue information theory and communications after starting graduate school. Sergio and I would periodically meet at conferences. As we were catching up during ITA 2006, he mentioned that he had looked over my Master’s thesis. It was great a feeling to know that one of my former professors was still interested in my progress.
Most recently, I saw Sergio at ISIT 2007. He had recently agreed to oversee the Information Theory Society Student Committee, and we talked a bit at one of their events. I last saw him among the audience at my talk.
I found out about the plane crash this evening. It is much easier to reminisce about the past than to describe how I am currently feeling. I’ve been fortunate to have professors like Sergio Servetto who have encouraged my interests.
I remember we tested our primitive image compressors from that first problem set on a photo of one of Sergio’s sons. My thoughts are with the family.