Record-Breaking Swimmer Katie Ness Finds Calling in Signal Processing

Katie NessWhen Katie Ness first started college at Duke University, she expected to major in math or computer science. But after taking a few classes and reading up on the field of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), she quickly found her calling at the Pratt School of Engineering.

“I like to apply math to real life,” said Ness, who is from Worthington, Ohio. “After reading about electrical and computer engineering I thought, ‘That’s it!’ I transferred in.”

Her decision was cemented in ECE 61, her very first experience with circuits, and by later experience with signal and image processing, she said. In fact, now in her senior year, she recently made the decision to stay on at Duke as a graduate student specializing in signal processing, a field she finds appealing because it “requires an understanding of arrays, electromagnetic fields and is very math-based.”

Ness said she expects to do her graduate research on image processing or “more tangible” signal processing such as that used in the detection of land mines under Assistant Professor Rebecca Willett or Associate Professor Leslie Collins, respectively.

Ness is already getting a taste of what her graduate research will offer in an independent study with Willett. She is working to develop image processing methods for quantifying differences between semiconductor materials. Her job is to examine such images and start to identify properties that might be useful for material identification.

It was in large part her experience with professors like Willett that led Ness to opt for continuing on at Duke.

“I looked at other graduate programs at other places, but ultimately decided to stay on at Duke,” Ness said.

“I think the Pratt School is on its way to becoming one of the top engineering schools in the country,” she said, noting the new Fitzpatrick Center building and the hiring of numerous high-caliber faculty. “I’ve also found great mentors in the women faculty here–— like Willett and Collins--who are really leaders in their fields.

“Dean Kristina Johnson is also my advisor, and she’s awesome,” she added.

Ness has excelled in her academic studies, as evidenced by her position as vice president of the electrical engineering honor society Eta Kappa Nu and secretary of the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi. Perhaps most impressively, she’s managed all of this while balancing a very successful swimming career.

“I’ve been competing in swimming since I was eight,” Ness said. She was good enough to receive offers of scholarships at a number of undergraduate schools, but came to Duke despite the fact that Duke’s swim team didn’t offer that financial incentive.

“The level of swimming here is good, and I also wanted to go somewhere that would be a good place if for some reason I couldn’t swim,” Ness said.

At the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) her sophomore year, Ness won the 200-yard individual medley event and set a Duke record that qualified her for the National Collegiate Athletic Association ( NCAA) Championships. The win also made her the first Duke swimmer to finish first in an ACC Championship event since 1981. In total, Ness holds 11 Duke records in 11 different swimming events.

With graduate school on the horizon, Ness said she is considering whether or not to continue swimming, noting that she has a chance to qualify for the Olympic trials in 2008.

“I think I’m capable of going faster,” Ness said. “But I have to decide if it’s a good use of my time. There are other things I would like to do.”

For example, she said she would like to act as a mentor for local high school students and participate in other community service activities through her church.

“Plus,” she smiled, “grad school will take time.”