We are here tonight to celebrate the life of a dear friend and colleague, Sergio Servetto. He was not with us very long but, as will be apparent from the speakers tonight and from the amazing tributes to Sergio that have been written on the condolence website, it is clear that Sergio had a tremendous impact on all who knew him.
I would like to invite Viviana to light a candle in Sergio’s memory, to remind us of Sergio’s warmth and spirit during the tribute.
To begin the celebration of Sergio’s life, we will share some memories with a photo collage, set to the music of the Flower Duet from “Lakme”
Sergio was the most passionate, bold, and brave researcher that I have ever met. Rather than shying away from challenging problems, he embraced them, and threw himself into them with all his heart, soul, and intellect. He was a true role model for me in this regard. He was also an amazing friend: dedicated, passionate, compassionate, and full of warmth. We would often exchange long emails in the middle of the night in California, the crack of dawn in Ithaca, typically after Sergio had been up all night working. The emails were usually in Spanish, and Sergio was by far my best Spanish tutor. I haven’t been able to go back and read those emails since his death, they were so warm and open and beautiful that my heart just breaks to think of them and that there will be no more. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have experienced Sergio’s deep and special friendship. Sergio and I often spoke about family, and this was always at the forefront of his thoughts – he said so many wonderful things to me about Viviana, Luciano, and Alejando. His pride and love for them was truly unbounded.
The tragic loss of someone so young, so passionate, and so full of life is hard to fathom. There seem to be no words or actions that can really capture the grief and sense of loss. But I hope that tonight we can create a tribute as special as Sergio, which will be preserved for Luciano and Alejandro to know in some way how special their father was to us.
Sergio Daniel Servetto was born in La Plata, Argentina on January 18, 1968. La Plata is a very small town hundreds of miles from Buenos Aires. Sergio received his Licenciatura en Informática from the Universidad Nacional de La Plata. The best thing for Sergio about La Plata was that he met there the love of his life, Viviana Sitz. Viviana was just 16 when she met Sergio, but she told me that she knew from the first moment of meeting him that he would be the love of her life, and they have always been together since that moment.
After Sergio’s undergraduate work, he moved with Viviana to Buenos Aires to work at IBM. After a few years Sergio was ready for the next challenge, and they left their Argentine country and culture for a very different place, Urbana-Champaign, where Sergio began his graduate studies. At UIUC Sergio worked under Klara Nahrstedt and his dissertation was awarded the prize for the best dissertation in computer science that year. Sergio and Viviana have wonderful memories of their years in Urbana, not just for the warmth, openness, and friendship of the people, but also because their two sons were born here.
P.R. Kumar will now share with us some memories and stories of Sergio’s graduate student days at UIUC., including some words from Sergio’s advisor Klara, who could not be here but very much wanted to participate in remembering Sergio tonight.
After receiving his Ph.D., Sergio worked as a postdoc at EPFL in Switzerland for several years, after which he accepted a faculty position at Cornell. In addition to his teaching and advising at Cornell, Sergio also served as an elected member of their faculty senate and I’m sure in that role contributed to many spirited debates. Sergio’s passion for excellence, boldness, and dedication in research was a true role model for his graduate students. Sergio cared deeply about the research and success of his students and, in addition to being their advisor, was also a true mentor and friend. His first two Ph.D. students, An-swol Hu and Ron Dabora, graduated this past May. The graduation pictures from the photo collage show Sergio bursting with pride on that day. Sergio’s other two Ph.D. students, Yorgos Lilis and Mingbo Zhao, have recently found other advisors at Cornell to continue their Ph.D. studies. Thus, Sergio’s legacy as an advisor will live on through these four.
Ron will now tell us what it was like to be Sergio’s Ph.D. student, after which I will read some words from Answol and Yorgos that they asked me to share about Sergio.
I first met Sergio in 2003 at the Information Theory Symposium in Japan. In fact, one of the pictures in the photo collage is from the night we met – a large group of us formed spontaneously for dinner and afterwards decided to try some Karioki singing together, which is an interesting way to meet a future friend and colleague. I don’t remember all the songs we sang that night, but I do remember that Muriel Medard and I sang “Girls just want to have fun.” I doubt either Sergio or I took the other one too seriously based on that first encounter. I got to know Sergio well a few years later when we worked together on the founding of the Student Committee for the Information Theory Society. The idea of the committee was to make the society of more value to its students, and while many members applauded the idea, Sergio was the only one who dedicated tremendous time and energy to brainstorm about what this committee should do, and to set up and host its website. The committee was originally chaired by me, and in March I handed the baton to Sergio, who was the unanimous choice of the students to take over the chair role. Sergio, as was his way, immediately threw himself into the job, beginning several new initiatives, including one for an annual week-long winter school in information theory for graduate students. The new committee chair, Aylin Yener, had the school approved by the Information Theory Society last night; the first will take place next spring or summer, and will be named in honor of Sergio.
The student committee is now a vibrant and successful part of our society, due in part to Sergio’s efforts. When news of Sergio’s tragic accident began to circulate, there was a tremendous outpouring of shock and grief from the students, especially the student volunteers within the student committee. It was their idea to host this tribute for Sergio at Allerton.
Ivana Maric, Brooke Shrader, and Lalitha Sankar have been among a handful of student volunteers that worked very closely with Sergio and myself to found and grow the student committee. I would now like to invite them to share their thoughts and memories of Sergio.
Although Sergio’s Ph.D. thesis was in computer science, shortly after moving to Cornell Sergio read a paper on information theory and was immediately hooked. Despite entering this challenging field at a relatively late career stage, Sergio made many profound contributions very quickly, and at the time of his death he was working to crack a 30-year old open problem in multiterminal source coding. His first presentation on this work was last year at the Information Theory Workshop in Uruguay, and the excitement and enthusiasm following the presentation of his bold and creative new approach to the problem was truly remarkable. Sergio had been working nonstop since that presentation to nail the proofs and close the problem. I believe there are few if any researchers that, pre-tenure, would attack such a challenging problem and not rest until it was solved. I have no doubt that Sergio would have nailed this problem eventually. He knew it so well and was so smart, creative, and persistent that he never would have given up until it was done, regardless of whether it took him months or decades. I believe Sergio as a researcher is best described by the quote he had from Theodore Roosevelt that is printed on the back of the tribute program. Sergio indeed spent his time on research problems worthy of great daring. Had he lived longer, I believe he surely would have known and been recognized for many triumphs of high achievement. Sergio’s research philosophy, drive and boldness were a true inspiration to me and many others. I wish all researchers were as courageous, undaunted, and pure in their motives as Sergio.
Sergio’s inspiration as a researcher and dedication as a volunteer was of incredible value to the Information Theory Society.
Bixio Rimoldi, president of the Information Theory Society, had asked to speak about Sergio’s contributions to the society tonight. Unfortunately, he had to change his plans unexpectedly to visit a very sick friend before returning to Europe, but he asked me to read the following words on his behalf.
Joao Barros was one of Sergio’s closest friends and collaborators. Joao was the first in the community to hear of Sergio’s tragic accident, and I first heard the news from him. I am grateful to have someone as warm and caring as Joao with whom to share this terrible period of loss. Joao has been instrumental to the family and the community during this difficult time: setting up an online condolence website and trust fund for Sergio’s family, helping to get Sergio’s professional affairs in order, coordinating with Cornell and the Information Theory Society on ways to help Sergio’s family, and doing as much as possible to preserve Sergio’s memory and legacy.
I would like to invite Joao to share with us his memories of Sergio.
Many of you have stories and memories to share about Sergio. I would like to invite anyone who wishes to share these now, either by coming up to speak, or signing the cards on the back table. These will be used to create a book of our memories and tributes for Viviana, Luciano, and Alejandro.
It is very difficult to lose someone you love, and to wish that all the beautiful words we are now saying could have been heard by Sergio when he was alive. We live frantic lives in a busy world, and then all of a sudden it is too late to tell someone how much they meant to you. So if there is a silver lining to Sergio’s death, it is a reminder to take that time, hug the friends and family that you love, spend time with them, and tell them how you feel about them. Perhaps over a lifetime this will cause a few less papers to be written, a few less theorems proved, but in the end, looking back, it won’t be regretted. I believe the outpouring of love and friendship tonight is what really defines Sergio’s success, so much more so than his papers and theorems.
We will close the tribute with a song by Violeta Para. It is a Chilean folk song sung by Mercedes Sosa. The first line is “Gracias a la vida, que me ha dado tanto”, “Thanks to life which has given me so much”. This was one of Sergio’s favorite songs, and over this past year of great professional difficulties, Sergio sent this song to Joao after a particularly tough conversation about his future. Despite everything, he knew he was a lucky guy, and that the love and support of his friends and family would get him through the rough times, and that many good things were ahead. I wish he was still here so that all those good things could have come to pass.
Gracias a ti Sergio, que nos has dado tanto de tu calor, espirito, y inspiración. Nunca te olvidamos, y siempre vivaras en nuestros memorias y corazones.
Thanks to you Sergio, for having given us so much of your warmth, spirit, and inspiration. We will never forget you, and you will live forever in our memories and in our hearts.
Remembering Sergio (from Klara Nahrstedt)
Sergio was one of the best PhD students in the Department of Computer Science between 1996 and 1999. I was very fortunate to be his PhD thesis advisor and see him growing into a mature colleague and scientist. He was fearless when it came to learning and intellectual experimentation. When he got excited about new problems, he started to solve them systematically. If needed, he took the hardest classes there were to understand the mathematical and experimental tools in order to solve the problems. He did not care about grades, he cared about knowledge and understanding, about moving the science forward and solving problems that were in front of him.
His excellent PhD progress and overall work were rewarded by receiving the first Ray Ozzie Fellowship in 1998. At the awards ceremony, Ray Ozzie, now the Vice President of Microsoft, had a wonderful discussion with Sergio. Ray was delighted for Sergio to have received this fellowship. The final PhD thesis on multiple-description source-channel coding over Internet networks was an outstanding work as well and was awarded by the Computer Science Department with the David Kuck Outstanding PhD Thesis award in 1999.
I will definitely remember Sergio as a wonderful PhD student, colleague, and researcher who left Urbana full of life, ambitions, goals, ideas, and with a very bright future in front of him. Although we have not worked together after he left Urbana, I have followed his work, we talked about his results and as an advisor I was very proud of him what he achieved in such a short academic time. He will be very much missed by me and all of his group members from the Multimedia Operating and Networking Systems (MONET) group.
Reminiscences of Sergio
It was a little more than ten years ago, in Spring 1997, that I taught a course on Information Theory. It was a class of 21 students, of whom two dropped out. It was my first time teaching Information Theory, and I have taught it one other time since. The only person I remember distinctly from that course was Sergio Servetto.
We used to walk to and from Everitt Lab to CSL, and I was intrigued to discover that he was from the Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire. Indeed his eyes had a fiery intensity, his passion was intense, and his respect for professors was old worldly. He was an extreme point in all senses of the phrase. We interacted several times in many ways. He took issue with a mid-term score, and was apparently right, since I subsequently sent a message to the TA, to increase his score by ten points. He once emailed me a lengthy question about a zero-error capacity problem I had assigned as homework, and apparently did quite a bit of research on it, for a few days later he sent me the Abstract of Shannon’s paper on the subject.
He had a genuine love of learning, which explains why we are all gathered here, celebrating Sergio the Information Theorist, with friends and collaborators all over the world.
Though Sergio was interested in source coding, his emails were not brief or Huffman coded by any means. Sergio felt science, and the reader could feel his feelings. He delved into its history. He was a connoisseur of knowledge, taking a broad array of courses that he certainly did not have to take, if all he was wanted was a mere Ph.D. This was his second course with me; he had taken a course on Stochastic Systems a year earlier.
In his career, Sergio proved to be an excellent strategist. Where many see leaves, he saw the forest. He was a great problem formulator. Where many work on derivative questions, he posed new ones. He thought about big open problems. Where many are intimated by decades old questions, he experimented with approaches to answering them. Research and learning did not just have a place in his head, they were embedded in his heart. He was emotional and passionate about them.
Looking back over his emails to me him over the years, I found a particularly poignant one, one that captured his essence. I will read out an extract; the full email is in the volume comprising this tribute:
“I remember once, when I was preparing my prelim, I went to borrow a copy of your book with Varaiya, to double check some claims I wanted to make. I remember when I went to return the book I told you I was trying to find a way to make something out of my career... Well, I think I have found my path. It's not an easy one, and I don't even know if I will make it to the end. But as I told you then: I am trying. And so far, things have been going well! I just hope they continue this way...”
I have read that Paul Erdos believed that God has a book in which he has written down all the most elegant and beautiful proofs of mathematical problems. Sergio, we hope you now have the pages for the multi-terminal source coding problem that was so close to your heart. You will always live on in our hearts.
P. R. Kumar
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
September 27, 2007
In the normal course of things it is the advisor who is asked to give his opinion of his students. Today, because of these tragic circumstances, it is I, the student, who has been asked to speak about my advisor.
I therefore take this opportunity to say a few words about what it was like to be a student of Sergio’s. Let me tell you up front – easy it was not. Like everything in life, there were good times and “less good times”.
However, not too long ago, when I was finishing my dissertation, I reached the point of writing the acknowledgements. I thought of the four years I spent working with Sergio. There are, of course, many stories I could tell about that time, but there is one particular story I would like to share with you now.
It was in January 2007, during ITA. Sergio had an invited presentation, and he suggested I would come with him to the workshop. When we got to the hotel he told me:
“Ron you better start working on your presentation.”
I said “What presentation? I am not a speaker at the workshop.”
He said: “I decided that you will give a talk instead of me. You need more exposure, now that you are near graduation.”
I said: “When did you get this idea?”
He said: “Yesterday.”
I said: “So why didn’t you tell me about this yesterday, so I would have more time to prepare?”
He said:” Well, had I told you about this yesterday, you would have a whole day to whine about me telling you things at the last moment. Now you have time only to work.”
So, we prepared a presentation. But, in the morning he received an email from the workshop’s organizers saying they do not approve to switch speakers.
At this point every other advisor would have given up. But not Sergio. He went over the slides we prepared last night. Then, when it was his time to give a talk, he put on his original title slide and said:
“I asked the organizers to allow my student, Ron, give a talk instead of me. They refused. I think this is stupid, so I am going to give his talk with his slides.”
I don’t believe any other advisor would do such a thing for his student.
Sergio was a man of integrity, he fought for what he believed was right, and he was a good man. He will be missed.
I had the honor and pleasure of knowing Sergio for nearly five years. He came to the airport to pick me up when I first landed in Ithaca to start my MS/Ph.D. program. “Professor Servetto,” was how I addressed him at that time. He immediately corrected me and told me to call him “Sergio.” I resisted. After all, it didn’t seem right to call my Ph.D. adviser by his first name. Well, needless to say, that resistance did not last very long. I quickly realized that while he was “Professor Servetto” in title and position, he was more a friend than anything else. Between our technical discussions we would complain about the unusually warm winters that kept us from going skiing or fret over the inadequacies of the cable and satellite companies since he wasn’t able to get UPN to watch Star Trek Enterprise. His warm and fun loving personality made my time at Cornell extremely memorable. I will always remember Sergio as a friend, my friend, that lived life to the fullest and made the most of every day.
João Barros read some of the entries from the online condolence book,
and closed with the following acknowledgement in his Ph.D. thesis: The core of the present thesis would not have been possible without the thoughtful guidance, the constant encouragement and the contagious scientific enthusiasm of Prof. Sergio Servetto. In the course of two research stays at Cornell University – kindly supported by Prof. Hagenauer and co-sponsored by the Fulbright Commission in June-September 2002, and again February- March 2003 – and through countless online and offline discussions in the past three years, Sergio has taught me how to find good scientific problems, how to gather the expertise needed to accomplish vital research tasks, and, most importantly, how to lose my natural fear of the complex mathematics that are necessary to solve challenging theoretical problems. By doing so, Sergio has deeply influenced the way I think about scientific research and helped shape and solidify the knowledge base upon which I can build my career as a scientist. Words cannot express my gratitude towards Sergio – his true and honest friendship remains one of the most important gifts from this endeavor.
So unfathomable and tragic an event leaves one almost speechless.
Sergio Servetto was my good friend and valued colleague.
He aimed high intellectually, seeking to move mountains
rather than just to smooth out bumps in the road or file rough edges.
His methods always were innovative, often were elegantly creative,
and sometimes even bordered on the radical.
Given today’s increasingly misplaced emphasis
on short-horizon accountability and applicability of research
by government, by industry, by universities,
and even in the research community itself,
Sergio was a breath of fresh air.
No theoretically challenging problem was too imposing to deter him.
We lost a dear friend; the world lost a great scientist.
It is indeed a personal tragedy for Sergio's family and friends.
But it was also a tragedy for our field.
Sergio Servetto would have been a major star.
Nothing would have stopped him.
His intellect, curiosity, and skills were unstoppable.
Fortunately he did provide sufficient evidence of his talents,
and his contributions, even during the
short time he had, have been substantial.
More importantly, he should serve as a role model
for the young scientists in our field.
He had powerful and pure motives for doing research.
He had intellectual versatility.
He had an inquisitive and incisive mind.
He had good emotions.
He was friendly, approachable, polite, and a true gentleman.
As we strive for words to express our deep sorrow and admiration
we know that he has left a legacy.
We want to preserve it and amplify it.
May this tribute to his memory be the beginning
of a continuing and permanent celebration
of his personality and accomplishments.
University of Maryland
I can’t believe that one of the most surreal tragedies has happened to one of the nicest persons I’ve had the privilege to know, even after so many weeks since receiving the phone call from Ithaca that Wed morning. Currently traveling for an award ceremony in Boston, I couldn’t make it to this tribute. And it’s really hard to put so many thoughts into a couple of paragraphs. Don’t know where to start. My fingers get heavy as I try to capture the tremendous sense of loss in words.
I remember meeting Sergio at Infocom 2002, and talking with him and working with him many times a year since. A kinder, warmer, gentler friend I could not have asked for. Whether it’s around a dinner table at Princeton or over coffee in Ithaca, being around Sergio has always been so pleasant and exciting. It’s just an unbelievable amount of energy and enthusiasm that Sergio has, and he passes that on to all those around him. He’s smart and humble. He knows he must be solving the hardest problems in the field. And he treats everyone, even students who drop him emails from somewhere in the world, with respect and patience. He takes research with dedication and embraces life with hope. Such dedication will surely be carried on by future generations of students including those in the IT society’s student chapter that he was chairing, and such hope will prevail as many legacies of Sergio continue to live on.
In the last conversation I had with Sergio over the phone, and had I known it would be the last time I hear his very unique voice, I would have kept talking on and on, we chat about all kinds of topics, and ended the call with a plan of working together on some problems next time he drives by Princeton. Indeed, Sergio knows the trip from Ithaca to Princeton very well as he comes over several times a year. He would drive back after getting dinner together, always hoping to get back to his family before the day is over. And he smiles particularly heartily when he talks about his wife and his two sons. They would be waiting for him so eagerly. We know he’s comfortable with driving for hours even when it’s snowing in the dark, for his heart is always filled with warmth. Now I don’t know how to handle the loss, the loss of one more opportunity to greet Sergio in the parking lot behind the E Quad at Princeton. He would smile so genuinely and lively as he walks over from his car, raising his voice as he recalls a sharp turn he made on the way here, and jumps right into an exciting new insight he just discovered the day before.
Such days will be no more.
Sergio writes long emails. He knows time spent with family and friends will never be time lost. He often ends his emails with some exciting plans for the next step. To those who’ve been close to Sergio, we know the next step: we’ll always be close to all the memories of him.