EPFL President Martin Vetterli Takes On Gender Equity, COVID-19, and Science Policy

The signal processing pioneer talks about his work that led to today’s popular videoconferencing and streaming services

5 min read
Photo of Martin Vetterli
Photo: Alain Herzog/EPFL

THE INSTITUTE Signal processing pioneer Martin Vetterli began his second four-year term this year as president of EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, in Switzerland. The IEEE Fellow sets the strategic agenda for the research institution, and he helps establish Switzerland’s science policies.

“I’m the head concierge of the school,” Vetterli says, laughing. “If something goes wrong, it will end up on my desk.”

The Swiss government renewed Vetterli’s position as president in February. A statement about his appointment by the country’s Federal Council said that under Vetterli’s leadership, EPFL had “progressed in its policy of excellence in both teaching and research at the international level, further cementing its position among the world’s top universities.”

Vetterli is tackling several issues at EPFL, including increasing the number of female faculty members and developing technologies to fight COVID-19.


Vetterli is no stranger to EPFL, having earned his doctorate there in 1986. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich and a master’s degree from Stanford. He joined EPFL as a professor of engineering in 1995 after having taught at Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Vetterli has done groundbreaking work in the field of signal processing. He is also one of the pioneers behind multiresolution concepts underpinning videoconferencing and video streaming services.

“I’m just one guy among a huge community that contributed to these things,” Vetterli says.

While teaching at Columbia from 1986 to 1993, he worked on a project developing high-performance, high-speed networks that led to today’s high-speed Internet services. The only signal processing expert on the project’s team, he figured out how to use signal processing techniques to put speech and video on the packet network to make the network more useful. It was an unusual thing to try at the time, he says.

“I started battling in these fields of what was called packet video, which was taking video, making little packets out of it, putting it on a network and, at the other end, reassembling it,” he says. At the time “it looked like something esoteric. It was certainly not what the mainstream [signal processing field] was into: doing communications, video transport, and so on.”

His work led to the development of videoconferencing.

“I feel a bit like an idiot now,” he says, “because I did not see that [the video packet network] would go so far. It was interesting intellectually to make it work, but I didn’t [foresee] that we would have a conversation over video.”

At UC Berkeley, Vetterli worked with a Ph.D. student, Steven McCanne, whom Vetterli says was an “absolutely exceptional and brilliant student.” McCanne, now coding CEO at startup Brim Security in Oakland, Calif., was also working on a packet video project but from a different approach.

McCanne came up with the idea of putting a weekly seminar on the Internet, but in the early 1990s, Vetterli says, doing so was a headache because the Internet was just becoming available to the public.

“It was very clunky. You had to run wires and make sure you had access to one of the fat [data] pipes in the department,” Vetterli says. “We wrote papers on the infrastructure, the algorithms, and the protocols that Steve developed to put video up online in a way that people with different access channels could get. That was cool stuff to do.”

The technologies the two worked on contributed to the development of streaming video.

McCanne says “Martin was the perfect Ph.D. advisor: incredibly smart, a brilliant mentor and, most important, fun to hang out with. Back in the day, he told me that old joke: ‘When you get your undergraduate degree, you think you know everything. Then you get your master’s degree and you realize you know nothing. Finally, you get your Ph.D. and you realize nobody else does either, so it just doesn’t matter.’

“This was Martin [being] self-effacing and hilarious, but always supersmart and deep. Working with Martin all those years ago to push the boundaries of knowledge in our field, all while enjoying a balanced and rich life along the way, was a pleasure, an honor, and a gift.”

Vetterli joined EPFL as a professor of engineering in 1995 and held several positions there including dean of its School of Computer and Communication Sciences. He left in 2013 to become president of the Swiss National Research Council and returned to the school in 2016 when he was elected its president.


Many universities around the world have few female academics, and EPFL is no different. In Switzerland, 41 percent of women hold midlevel academic positions such as associate professor, while just 23 percent are full professors, according to the 2018 Women and Science report from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office.

“We don’t have enough female professors, especially at the senior level, and together with many other engineering schools, we are lagging behind,” Vetterli says.

He commissioned a study in 2018, and its findings were released in July. The 100-page report covers such issues as hiring and promotion practices, allocation of resources, gender pay gaps, and work-life balance. The task force working on the project has made recommendations on how to address the issues—including easier access to day care facilities, hiring substitute instructors for those on maternity leave, and pausing the tenure process for new parents.

“The most forceful thing we can do,” Vetterli says, “is to make sure that hiring committees aggressively invite many female professors to apply, invite many to interviews, make sure we show them we have an attractive campus, that we have programs for spouses, and that we provide help with child care. [We want] to create an environment that becomes more and more attractive for female professors.”


Like other leading research universities, EPFL has been working on projects to fight the spread of the coronavirus. In May EPFL released SwissCovid, a contact-tracing app for COVID-19 that uses Apple’s and Google’s application programming interfaces, according to news website Tech2. Using Bluetooth signals from smartphones, the app notifies users when they’ve been in close contact with another person who has the app and who has recorded that they have been exposed to the virus. It is designed to do so without identifying the individual or collecting personal information.

Apple and Google announced on 1 September that future versions of their mobile operating systems will include a COVID-19 notification system based on SwissCovid, CNBC reported.


Vetterli joined IEEE as a student member, and that’s when he says he discovered IEEE’s rich repository of research papers. More than 160 of Vetterli’s articles are now available in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.

“I knew that’s where real research in the field of electrical engineering was being published,” he says. “An IEEE paper is sort of an atom of knowledge for me because I’ve lived with them for so long.”

IEEE honored Vetterli’s work with its 2017 IEEE Jack S. Kilby Signal Processing Medal, sponsored by Texas Instruments. He was cited for his contributions to “advanced sampling, signal representations, and multirate and multiresolution signal processing.”

Vetterli says the award recognized his students’ teamwork.

“Because I’ve [advised] more than 70 Ph.D. students, I’ve been blessed with some absolute superstar students,” Vetterli says. “The award was really a recognition of the group and a research agenda that we have been pursuing all these years.”

This article appears in the December 2020 print issue as “EPFL’s Martin Vetterli Tackles Gender Equity, COVID-19, and Science Policy.”

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