Abbas El Gamal: I’d like to be remembered for work that mattered
Two years before Abbas El Gamal was born in Cairo, his uncle drowned in a tragic accident just days before starting his PhD at MIT.
El Gamal inherited his uncle’s engineering textbooks and when he learned to read English, he started looking at them. He never stopped. Today, El Gamal credits his Uncle Mahmoud as the reason he became an electrical engineer. His distinguished career includes being the Hitachi America Professor in the School of Engineering; a key player in multiple Silicon Valley companies over the years; the author and co-author of more than 230 papers and a textbook; holder of over 30 patents; and former chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, where he has been on the faculty since 1981. El Gamal reflects on the lessons of a career focused on the applications of emerging technologies, enjoying the beauty of learning, and always tackling big problems.
From day one, I liked building things and taking them apart. I used to ask my dad to bring me bits of electrical equipment leftover from World War II: motors, wireless communications gear, and the like. My desk was my lab, always filled with gadgets and things. On one memorable occasion, I set it – and almost the house too – on fire with a chemistry experiment. I often got in trouble with my father for spending more time tinkering than doing my homework.
As a child I always spoke my mind. I was very close with my grandfather, a well-regarded lawyer and senator, and he encouraged me to express my opinions. That got me in trouble at home and in school. This was not a time in Egypt to be too free with your opinions; we were living under the Nasser dictatorship. My parents had been very clear that you couldn’t say anything publicly to criticize the government, not in school, not on public transportation. They were constantly watching and making sure we did not get into trouble.
At home, however, my father gave me a much more accurate picture of history and events. So at school, when a teacher would say something that I knew was false or if we read a textbook that had been sanitized by the government, I couldn’t help saying, “That’s not true. That didn’t happen.” Then I’d get kicked out of class. My father was always waiting for me to get in real trouble, but I was just speaking my mind like he taught me.
After getting my undergraduate degree at Cairo University, I came to the U.S. on a Rotary Club scholarship to pursue my master’s at Stanford. It was a great time of life. I was really embraced by my host family and very much embedded in Bay Area culture. I remember being surprised when they encouraged me to have fun. I remember thinking, “Fun? What is this fun business? I’ve never heard of this before.” I discovered hiking and it was fun!
At the time, I had an opportunity to return and take a full-time appointment as an assistant professor at Cairo University. But I knew if I went back, I would only get to teach. There were no opportunities in Egypt for electronics the way there were in medicine or even civil engineering – and I wanted to be where the action was. I switched my master’s focus from electronic devices, which I already knew something about, to information systems. Eventually, working under renowned information theorist, the late SoE professor Tom Cover, I got my PhD in electrical engineering.
This theory work was truly foundational and exciting. It was challenging and elegant – but at the time, there were almost no applications. I wanted to start practicing, to get my hands dirty and have some impact.
After I finished my PhD, I took a position at the University of Southern California as an assistant professor and started working on very large scale integrated circuits (VLSI). People were designing chips by hand, which was not remotely scalable and very error-prone in fabrication. I started attending Carver Mead’s meetings on VLSI at Caltech; Carver was a pioneer in microelectronics and co-wrote a groundbreaking textbook on VLSI. He was looking at the automation and verification processes which would make it possible to scale design. I did some work on algorithms, leveraging my theoretical background, to reimagine the layout of chips.
This set me on a new and interesting path.
My work on VLSI led to my first foray into industry in 1983, when the co-founder of LSI Logic and Stanford alum Jim Koford invited me to consult with them. They asked me how I wanted to be paid – in money or in shares. I said, “What’s a share?” In Egypt, you take the money. This was a stupid – and expensive! – mistake because they went public a year later and it was a hugely successful IPO. I subsequently started their research and development group, a lab that became the consumer products division, which – after I left – ended up reaching $1B in revenue in just five years.
I had intended to go right back to Stanford but then some Intel ex-employees told me they had developed an electrically programmable switch and asked if I knew how it might be used in logic devices. That’s when I became a co-founder of Actel, only the second company to develop field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), integrated circuits that can be electrically customized after they’re manufactured. I spent a year and a half there before returning to the university while maintaining the chief scientist role with the company.
Once I returned to Stanford (again!), my PhD student Boyd Fowler got me interested in image sensors and how they might be designed in complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology, the mainstream technology for fabricating microprocessors, digital memories, among most other types of chips. Why have capture work separately from computing? Why not integrate them? Amazingly, this was not a waste of time. It actually made today’s mobile phone and computer cameras possible – and my group was the first to work on this in academia.
Now, the PhD students who worked on this project have gone on to be leaders in imaging technologies at some of the world’s most innovative companies. It’s really exciting to see the impact they’re making. This project has also resulted in several spinoff companies, including one that developed high dynamic range images and another that developed a next-generation DNA sequencer.
I also helped found a company that’s developed very small microscopes to watch brain neurons fire. There is no bigger challenge or mystery than understanding the human brain. Given how important the brain is to life, it’s astounding how very little we know about how it works. This company is working to advance our understanding of neural circuits, from what they do exactly, when they fire, in response to what stimuli, etc.
As I reflect back on it, my focus on applications of emerging technologies has kept my work relevant, whether it was using CMOS technology scaling – which enables an ever-increasing number of transistors to be packed on a chip – to develop field programmable gate arrays or integrating image capture with computing, which led to the design of microscopes to uncover how neurons work in the brain.
For the past decade, I’ve also been working on smart grid problems as part of the Bits and Watts initiative in the Precourt Institute. Again, my work here has been motivated by emerging applications, in this case how high-capacity lithium-ion energy storage – used to power mobile devices and electric cars – could help decarbonize the electric power grid by offsetting the variability of centralized and distributed renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.
I’m always trying to connect with the world. I’m asking myself continuously, “What’s really going on with this?” I always want to be doing something relevant. I’d like to be remembered as someone who spent time on things that mattered. I never wanted to dig the hole deeper and deeper in one area or subject for no reason or goal.
I encourage students to broaden their backgrounds and explore different subjects. You do need to take serious classes – in math, physics, the fundamentals of electrical engineering or computer science. But I hope students can find the beauty in the process, to enjoy the learning. Concepts are good for you intellectually and help you grow. It’s so easy to be in the “run, run, run” mentality, always pushing for the learning that leads to the bottom line. Enjoy it for its own sake.
I was so lucky to be schooled by my grandfather for my first few years – staying at home and doing my own thing was wonderful. I read random things, built things on a whim, could lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling and just think. That was really valuable. It taught me to take my time and be curious. I wish everyone could have this experience and the joy that comes with it.