Face of Flanders: Ingrid Daubechies


A Flemish mathematician has been voted one of the 50 most influential Belgians in the world

The Daubechies wavelet

Last week Humo magazine published the results of its poll to find the 50 most influential Belgians in the world. Peter Piot, a pioneer in research into the Aids and Ebola viruses, came in first.

Of the entire 50, only three are women – but at least they all made the top 12. In the highest place, at fourth, was Ingrid Daubechies.

Though you’d be forgiven for not knowing who that is, mathematicians and computer scientists the world over certainly do. Daubechies, a mathematics professor at Duke University in North Carolina, is a world authority on wavelets, a crucial component of the compression of images.

Daubechies, 62, was born in Houthalen-Helchteren, Limburg, in 1954 and studied physics at the Free University of Brussels (VUB). She graduated in 1975 and continued to earn a doctorate in physics.

She remained at the VUB as a researcher and assistant professor until she moved to the US to join the research team at AT&T Bell Labs. In 1994, she became a lecturer at Princeton University, remaining until 2011, when she moved to Duke.

The next time you post a photo of your lunch to Instagram or Facebook, consider that such a thing would not have been possible were it not for Daubechies’ work. Her major discovery was the wavelet – now named after her – that lies at the base of the JPG-2000 standard. It allows images to be compressed so that they can be more easily carried over the internet.

Without the Daubechies wavelet, your data limits would be reached in no time, internet speeds would be slower than dial-up, and Facebook would need to find an exoplanet just to house its image servers.

“Ingrid Daubechies is in the lives of every smartphone and internet user across the world,” economist Geert Noels told Humo. I have an incredible amount of respect for her.”

Daubechies – named a baroness by King Albert II in 2014 – is also behind the school competition Wiskunnend Wiske (Mathing Wiske), named after the adventurous female half of the comic-book duo Suske en Wiske. The programme aims to get secondary school pupils interested in maths.

Photo credit: Tasos Katopodis/AFP/BELGA

Educational system

The Flemish educational system is divided into two levels: primary (age six to 12) and secondary school (12 to 18). Education is compulsory for children between the ages of six and 18.
Types - There are three educational networks in Flanders: the Flemish Community’s GO! network, and publicly funded education – either publicly or privately run.
Not enough space - In recent years, Flemish schools have been struggling with persistent teacher shortages and a growing lack of school spaces.
No tuition fees - Nursery, primary and secondary school are free in Flanders.

million school-going children in 2013


million euros Flemish education budget for new school infrastructures in 2013


percent of boys leaving secondary school without a diploma