MRP 2016: The Remarkable Soha Hassoun
May 19th, 2016 by Peggy Aycinena
The spirit of Marie R. Pistilli will be writ large at the Design Automation Conference in Austin in June, because the woman who is receiving this year’s MRP Women in Engineering Achievement Award embodies everything that Marie admired in a technologist:
Intelligence. Courage. Articulate leadership. Powerful work ethic. Technical contribution. A track record of mentoring women in a field that has been incredibly resistant to people who are different.
Yep, Dr. Soha Hassoun, Professor and Chair of the Department of Computer Science at Tufts University, has all the strengths of character that Marie admired, but there’s more: Prof. Hassoun is also well-spoken, funny, charming, and beautiful.
Just icing on the cake and not part of the reason Prof. Hassoun deserves the award, but all characteristics that Marie would have admired as well, and did admire – particularly as Hassoun is a permanent member of the DAC Family: She was General Chair of DAC in 2013, the conference being one of Marie’s deepest passions.
Indeed the greatest honor that could be brought to the memory of the remarkable Marie Pistilli is to select the equally remarkable Soha Hassoun as standard-bearer for outstanding achievement in EDA – woman or man – at the first DAC after Marie’s tragic passing last November.
Kudos to the committee for selecting Dr. Hassoun. Well done!
A Conversation …
I spoke briefly by phone with Dr. Hassoun earlier this month. She had just arrived home from work in the Boston area with her school-aged children; I was on the other end of the continent, here in Silicon Valley, holding my 10-month-old granddaughter. We spoke about Hassoun’s technical career as I attempted to keep the baby on my lap occupied.
Prof. Hassoun told me she started her technical journey at South Dakota State University, where she earned a BSEE before moving to MIT for an MSEE.
“We designed complex systolic arrays in one of my classes at MIT,” she said, “and I totally fell in love with VLSI!”
Hooked on the technology, Hassoun took at job at DEC on Route 128 working on the company’s Alpha processor, just as the company was wrapping up its journey with the legendary VAX mini-computer.
As things wound down at DEC, Hassoun concluded that “there must be something better than this, so I decided to go back to school.”
She made her way to the University of Washington – one of the most beautiful campuses in the world – and there earned a PhD in Computer Science and Engineering, specializing in EDA.
“I worked with Carl Ebeling on the architecture of retiming for pipelining latency-constrained circuits,” Hassoun said. “Dr. Ebeling had an idea for multiple branch prediction in a processor, and I developed it for my thesis.”
When Hassoun finished at UW, she made the conscious decision to return to Boston, to live and work within Route 128. That translated into her joining the faculty at Tufts University in 1998. I asked if she could have anticipated at the time that she would one day serve as Department Chair.
“No, that would have been totally unexpected,” she said laughing.
Acting as Department Chair constitutes important service to the University, per Hassoun, and is usually only for a limited tenure. Nonetheless, during that time, administrative obligations often necessitate a reduced teaching load for the chair.
“But I love teaching,” she said adamantly, “so I have tried to keep up in that area as well, despite the additional pressures on my time.”
I asked what classes Prof. Hassoun teaches.
“A variety,” she explained. “Computer architecture. VLSI design. Circuit theory. And over the last few years, I have also been teaching computational systems.”
Hassoun’s research interests, however, extends beyond computer systems.
“There is so much uncertainty in biological systems,” she said, “and they are far more variable than [semiconductor-based] systems, with many mysteries yet to be unlocked.
“I am interested in coming up with ways of engineering biological or cellular systems, to modify cells to produce more ethanol, for instance, or a series of other compounds.”
Out here in California, I noted, companies like Genentech have been using bio-systems to manufacture compounds for quite some time.
“Yes,” Hassoun acknowledged, “which is why I would love to do an industrial sabbatical someday in the area.”
However, she added, such a plan would be difficult at the present time given her obligations at Tufts, the needs of her children, and the needs of her graduate students – about whom, Hassoun was proud to note: “Three out of my four grad students are women!”
I asked if that was her choice, or it just worked out that way.
“In some ways, it just happened,” she said. “But there are so few women in EDA, and in computing in general, I am happy to see that [more active recruiting of women into these areas] is showing results.
“Of course, I love working with all students. They are all so determined, so full of high hopes and aspirations, it is wonderful to watch them mature as people while they [are also] mastering the technical material.”
“So, I’m keeping score here,” I said. “Department Chair. Professor. Researcher. Grad Student Advisor. Mother. And to all of this, I’m adding DAC Chair, ICCAD Chair, and so on. How do you do it?”
“Service has always been important to me,” Hassoun replied. “Whether to my university or to my technical community. But it’s more than that.
“As schools go, Tufts is a small university but I wanted to be part of a larger, vibrant community. It’s through my work in the societies and the conferences that I have built that community.
“Whether through the PhD Forum that I started at DAC, now in its 19th year, or through my involvement with ACM/SIGDA, my community has expanded from a small group of colleagues at my university to a much larger community across all of EDA. And Tufts has been very supportive of my work.”
“And that infamous Life-Work Balance equation?” I asked, “How do you feel about that?”
Again Hassoun laughed: “I was on a panel recently addressing exactly this question, but with a twist. The topic of the panel was Life-Grad School Balance. I told them family always has to come first.
“But if you can marshal great energy and great optimism, you can achieve everything you have set out for yourself, professionally and personally. You need to find out what stimulates you and follow that always.”
As we finished our phone call – Hassoun’s family was calling and the little girl on my lap was out of patience – I asked, “Going forward, what would you wish for in the industry?”
Hassoun’s answer was immediate: “More active mentoring for young people – young women in particular – and more cooperation with these young people to help them better define their life trajectory.”
Amen to that, I said to myself, and thanked Dr. Hassoun for her time.
Our call ended, I turned my attention to the baby. “We’ve come a long way,” I said to her, “but there are many more miles ahead. Stay strong, energetic, and optimistic and the world will be your oyster.”
“Da da da da da da,” she said, and pounded happily on my keyboard.
The Remarkable Soha Hassoun …
Dr. Soha Hassoun, Professor and Chair of the Department of Computer Science at Tufts University and a past general chair of the Design Automation Conference, has been selected as the recipient of the Marie R. Pistilli Women in Engineering Achievement Award for 2016.
An accomplished academic and researcher, Dr. Hassoun also has held executive and leadership positions in conferences and workshops for computer-aided design, design automation, logic synthesis, timing issues in the specification and synthesis of digital systems, and bio-design automation.
In addition to providing a role model for female students in graduate and undergraduate engineering, Dr. Hassoun has given back to her professional community by acting as a mentor and advisor; working with students transitioning to graduate school; and speaking on improving the graduate school environment for female students, working the 80/20 rule for success, and helping women understand what defines future leaders and ideal hires.
Professor Hassoun created impactful and enduring educational and research programs for the EDA community including: the PhD Forum at DAC, now in its 19th year; the Design Automation Summer School, now in its 6th iteration; the CADathlon at ICCAD, now in its 16th year; the Designer Track at DAC, now in its 8th year; and the Work in Progress session at DAC, now in its 4th year. These programs have reconfigured the international educational landscape in EDA and significantly enhanced the creation of a coherent and connected research community.
Dr. Hassoun was a recipient of the NSF CAREER Award, and several awards from ACM/SIGDA for her service, including the Distinguished Service Award in 2000 and 2007 as well as the 2002 Technical Leadership Award.
She has held leadership positions for such conferences and workshops as DAC, ICCAD, IWLS, and TAU. Dr. Hassoun was ICCAD Technical Program Chair in 2005, ICCAD Vice Chair in 2006, ICCAD Chair in 2007, DAC Technical Program Co-Chair in 2011 and 2012, DAC Vice Chair in 2013, and DAC Chair in 2014.
Dr. Hassoun co-founded the International Workshop on Bio-Design Automation in 2009. She was an
associate editor of the IEEE Transactions on Computer-Aided Design and of the IEEE Design and Test magazine. She was nominated to the Defense Science Study Group, affiliated with DARPA’s Institute for Defense Analyses. Dr. Hassoun served on the IEEE Council on Design Automation and was director of educational activities for ACM’s Special Interest Group on Design Automation for several years.
Dr. Hassoun is a fellow of Tau Beta Pi, a senior member of IEEE and ACM, and a member of Eta Kappa Nu.
Tags: Design Automation Conference, Dr. Soha Hassoun, ICCAD, Marie Pistilli, Marie R. Pistilli Women in Engineering Achievement Award, Tufts University, University of Washington