Janabel Xia: Algorithms, dance rhythms, and the drive to succeed

When the senior isn’t using mathematical and computational methods to boost driverless vehicles and fairer voting, she performs with MIT’s many dance groups to keep her on track.

Senior math major Janabel Xia is a study of a person in constant motion.

When she isn’t sorting algorithms and improving traffic control systems for driverless vehicles, she’s dancing as a member of at least four dance clubs. She’s joined several social justice organizations, worked on cryptography and web authentication technology, and created a polling app that allows users to vote anonymously.

In her final semester, she’s putting the pedal to the metal, with a green light to lessen the carbon footprint of urban transportation by using sensors at traffic light intersections.

First steps

Growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, Janabel has been competing on math teams since elementary school. On her math team, which met early mornings before the start of school, she discovered a love of problem-solving that challenged her more than her classroom "plug-and-chug exercises."

At Lexington High School, she was math team captain, a two-time Math Olympiad attendee, and a silver medalist for Team USA at the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad.

As a math major, she studies combinatorics and theoretical computer science, including theoretical and applied cryptography. In her sophomore year, she was a researcher in the Cryptography and Information Security Group at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where she conducted cryptanalysis research under Professor Vinod Vaikuntanathan.

Part of her interests in cryptography stem from the beauty of the underlying mathematics itself - the field feels like clever engineering with mathematical tools. But another part of her interest in cryptography stems from its political dimensions, including its potential to fundamentally change existing power structures and governance. Xia and students at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University created zkPoll , a private polling app written with the Circom programming language, that allows users to create polls for specific sets of people, while generating a zero-knowledge proof that keeps personal information hidden to decrease negative voting influences from public perception.

Her participation in the PKG Center’s Active Community Engagement Freshman Pre-Orientation Program introduced her to local community organizations focusing on food security, housing for formerly incarcerated individuals, and access to health care. She is also part of Reading for Revolution , a student book club that discusses race, class, and working-class movements within MIT and the Greater Boston area.

Xia’s educational journey led to her ongoing pursuit of combining mathematical and computational methods in areas adjacent to urban planning. "When I realized how much planning was concerned with social justice as it was concerned with design, I became more attracted to the field."

Going on autopilot

She took classes with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and is currently working on an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project with Professor Cathy Wu in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.

Recent work on eco-driving by Wu and doctoral candidate Vindula Jayawardana investigated semi-autonomous vehicles that communicate with sensors localized at traffic intersections, which in theory could reduce carbon emissions by up to 21 percent.

Xia aims to optimize the implementation scheme for these sensors at traffic intersections, considering a graded scheme where perhaps only 20 percent of all sensors are initially installed, and more sensors get added in waves. She wants to maximize the emission reduction rates at each step of the process, as well as ensure there is no unnecessary installation and de-installation of such sensors.

Dance numbers

Meanwhile, Xia has been a member of MIT’s Fixation , Ridonkulous , and MissBehavior groups, and as a traditional Chinese dance choreographer for the MIT Asian Dance Team.

A dancer since she was 3, Xia started with Chinese traditional dance, and later added ballet and jazz. Because she is as much of a dancer as a researcher, she has figured out how to make her schedule work.

"Production weeks are always madness, with dancers running straight from class to dress rehearsals and shows all’evening and coming back early next morning to take down lights and roll up marley [material that covers the stage floor]," she says. "As busy as it keeps me, I couldn’t have survived MIT without dance. I love the discipline, creativity, and most importantly the teamwork that dance demands of us. I really love the dance community here with my whole heart. These friends have inspired me and given me the love to power me through MIT."

Xia lives with her fellow Dance Team members at the off-campus Women’s Independent Living Group (WILG). "I really value WILG’s culture of independence, both in lifestyle - cooking, cleaning up after yourself, managing house facilities, etc. - and thought - questioning norms, staying away from status games, finding new passions."

In addition to her UROP, she’s wrapping up some graduation requirements, finishing up a research paper on sorting algorithms from her summer at the University of Minnesota Duluth Research Experience for Undergraduates in combinatorics, and deciding between PhD programs in math and computer science.

"My biggest goal right now is to figure out how to combine my interests in mathematics and urban studies, and more broadly connect technical perspectives with human-centered work in a way that feels right to me," she says.

"Overall, MIT has given me so many avenues to explore that I would have never thought about before coming here, for which I’m infinitely grateful. Every time I find something new, it’s hard for me not to find it cool. There’s just so much out there to learn about. While it can feel overwhelming at times, I hope to continue that learning and exploration for the rest of my life."