Originally Printed in Winter/Spring 2011 Newsletter
Soha Hassoun is an Associate Professor at Tufts University in the Department of Computer Science, with a joint appointment in Electrical and Computer Engineering. She earned a Ph.D. from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1997. She received a BSEE from South Dakota State in 1986, and a Master’s degree from MIT in 1988. Prior to pursuing her Ph.D., Soha worked as a chip designer in the microprocessor design group at Digital Equipment Corporation. She was one of the 21064 Alpha processor’s main circuit designers.
Soha’s research interest lies in two areas: Electronic Design Automation (EDA), and Systems Biology. Her focus in EDA has been on understanding how emerging technologies impact design. She is able to apply her EDA expertise to Systems Biology, with applications that include analyzing drug toxicity and drug design. Soha is an NSF CAREER award recipient. She has served on the technical and executive committees for numerous conferences and workshops. She has served as an associate editor for IEEE Transaction on Computer-Aided Design and currently serves as an associate editor for IEEE Design and Test. Soha received
several awards from ACM/SIGDA including: 2000 and 2007 Distinguished Service awards, and 2002 Technical Leadership award. She is a Tau Beta Pi Fellow.
Q: As an undergraduate, you chose electrical engineering as your field of choice. What influenced this decision?
My father is an engineer. My brother, who was two years older, was studying Electrical Engineering. I liked Math and Electrical Engineering seemed like a field where I could use Math.
Q: After completing your Master’s degree, you worked in industry for a few years. How did you find this experience and how has it shaped your career path?
I worked at Digital Equipment Corporation on some of the fastest computers in the world at the time, including the first generation Alpha microprocessor. The experience was amazing as I understood what a huge effort it takes to ship a product, and that work is best done collaboratively with others.
Q: You then chose to go back to graduate school. Why did you make this change? How did you find the transition back to student life?
I’ve always wanted to get a PhD. My family situation allowed a chance to move to Seattle, WA. I had heard that the CSE department at UW was amazing, so it just seemed like a great opportunity. The transition was challenging, but enjoyable. The overall experience has left me with a wonderful sense of community and technical excellence.
Q: As a faculty member at Tufts, what does your job involve?
The usual faculty load: teaching, research, and service. I teach three courses per year, a heavy load considering the amount of research expected from each faculty. I supervise several PhD students in two research areas: Electronic Design Au-tomation (EDA) and computational tools for systems biology (Bio Design Automation). I serve on several committees inside Tufts, and I am involved with some conferences such as the Design Automation Conference, the biggest EDA conference.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your research and what motivates your choice of topics?
Three years ago, I decided to explore research areas other than EDA. I was fortunate to meet a collaborator, Kyongbum Lee, from Chemical and Biological Engineering at Tufts, and we have been working closely, co-supervising students, and exploring new research directions. I fell in love with Systems Biology! So exciting! In particular, I strongly feel that I can make a difference by bringing to bear automated design and analysis tools and techniques to help re-engineer biology. I am looking at the problem from a “systems” design perspective, and there are so many challenging issues to work with including the inherent variability of biological systems and the uncertainties associated with engineering such systems.
This area of research spans synthetic biology, systems biol-ogy, metabolic engineering, and computer science. This area is currently where the design of integrated circuits was in the 1970s! Imagine what we will see in the next few decades in applications such as personalized medicine, drug discovery, and biofuels.
Q: How do you feel about your job?
I simply enjoy working at Tufts. The Computer Science Department is unique as we have strong female leadership (Carla Brodley is currently department chair; Diane Souvaine was the prior chair), and several strong female faculty including our recent addition, Kathleen Fisher. The atmosphere is collegial. Everyone actively participates in building the department, which is only nine years old, and shares great concern for the well-being of the students. I also enjoy living in Boston — a city that offers so much in terms of history, culture, nature, and sports.
Q: How do you balance the competing demands on your time?
Balancing is a challenge. Earlier in my career, my circum-stances encouraged me to do a substantial amount of service. Due to the size of my department and my desire to connect to a larger community, I was involved with several organizations including ACM/SIGDA (Special Interest Group in Design Automation) and IEEE CEDA (Council on EDA). In the past three years, I have shifted my priorities to focus on research, but I am still involved with several community activities.
Q: Can you elaborate on your community activities?
I have established several successful programs within the design automation community, including the PhD Forum at the Design Automation Conference, now in its 14th year, the CADathlon, an EDA programming contest at the International Conference on Computer-Aided Design, now in its 8th year, the Design Automation Summer School, and the User Track at DAC, now in its 3rd year. This year, I have initiated new poster-based interactive sessions at the Design Automa-tion Conference to maximally engage the community with the conference.
Q: What CRA-W activities have you participated in and how have your interactions with CRA-W affected your career?
I have attended many CRA-W workshops, both as an attendee and a presenter. CRA-W creates a wonderful community for women in Computing: building bridges and easing transitions. I have met some amazing women at these events. They have inspired me and motivated me to be the best that I can be while keeping some sanity in my personal life.
Q: Have you been involved in other activities that support women in computing?
I have been involved with several NSF-funded programs at Tufts that support women, minorities, first-time college goers, and others that benefit from some additional support while pursuing degrees in Engineering and Math fields.
Q: What are your hobbies and what do you do for fun?
For now, my children are my main hobbies! My daughter, who is almost 16, has been skating since she was 6 years old. She competes in Synchronized Figure Skating. Sixteen to twenty girls are on the ice at the same time. Her team has been Eastern US Champs for the past 25 years, and has placed at the national level almost every one of those 25 years. So the sport is competitive – she spends many hours at the skating rink (13+ hours per week during the season) and I do my best to be supportive in every possible way! She travels with her team to competitions, but we enjoy tagging along to watch her compete. My son, who is 11, plays soccer with an in-town team and a league. I enjoy watching them compete and play sports. As a family, we love to ski in the winter and camp in the summer. I recently took up Vikram Yoga — when time allows. I was not sure I would like the heat, but now I very much enjoy it! If I had more time I would work out more often, cook tastier food, and take longer vacations.
Q: How do you balance life outside of work with your career objectives?
It became clear to me early on that I need to put the well being of my children ahead of everything else (i.e., myself and my career), and then make everything else work around that. It makes decisions much easier. The priority is always clear. I have been lucky to always have the resources (supportive family, friends, financial resources) to make things work. Sometimes I have to miss a paper deadline or skip a conference. I don’t feel guilty about that. It took a while to arrive at this position, but I am incredibly happy with my balancing principles.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone who might wish to follow your career path (or other career path advice)?
Enjoy and love what you do. Have passion. It will take you where you need to be. You did not expect more practical advice, did you?