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Inventive professor talks inspiration, publication

Professor of computer science and engineering Nagarjan Ranganathan is best known for his work in Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) research, which is the development of special purpose computer chips designed to carry out specific application functions. He has also served two consecutive terms as editor-in-chief of IEEE Transactions on VLSI Systems, the most prominent journal in the field.

n Oracle: What is VLSI, in your own words?

Nagarajan Ranganathan: Very Large Scale Integration means integrating millions of transistors in a computer chip. The transistor acts like an on/off switch; using these transistors is how the computer does logic and arithmetic. It is similar to the basic cell in the human body. The transistor is the most fundamental element in a computer.

n O: You have seven patents to your name – have any been considered for use by computer companies?

NR: One of my recent patents is a methodology to make a computer consume less power, resulting in longer battery life. Intel has been communicating with the University about this product, but they haven’t really committed to anything as of yet.

n O: You’ve had 67 referred articles published in IEEE Transactions. How did you get these papers submitted and published?

RN: Writing good papers is not easy. It’s one thing to do the research, but you have to write it well and go through a long arduous process to get it published. When you work on a project, you implement your new ideas and solutions, obtain experimental results, make sure the original ideas work well and also yield better results than the prior work already reported in the literature.

You have to convince a panel of reviewers that your work advances the field or builds upon previous research. Then you have to write to make a convincing argument that shows, through experiments, how much better your work is compared to others working in the field.

It’s a long process: You submit your paper to a conference, receive feedback from the reviewers and then make revisions based on what they have pointed out. After everything is corrected, the paper is resubmitted and analyzed and reviewed by peer scientists, all of which may take about a year and a half, at least in my field.

Publishing in archival journals is very hard. That’s why when you are finally published, it carries more weight than writing something and putting it on the Internet the next day.

n O: You are a professor, but also lead a number of research projects. Which do you prefer?

RN: I am working on projects related to computer design both in terms of hardware and software. I like all the projects that I work on. Research and teaching are typically integrated in a faculty’s career. Research satisfies the intellectual curiosity, and also by working on state of the art topics, it helps keep you up to date with current issues within the field. Therefore when you teach in the classroom you can discuss the latest topics instead of teaching from an outdated book. I believe that one helps the other.

n O: You’ve brought more than $6.5 million in grants to USF from the National Science Foundation and other private organizations. What is the process of receiving grants?

RN: It is very tough in computer design to get grants. Industries such as Intel and Motorola would rather hire Ph. D.s to do research rather than fund universities. So in my field it is extremely competitive; most of the funding comes from federal agencies.

The funding rate for the last five years in computer design is less than four percent. This means if, say, 400 proposals get submitted, only 10 or 12 get funded. I have funding right now from Semiconductor Research Corporation. They had 495 potential proposals, but invited only 45 to submit final proposals and funded only seven. There is more funding in certain fields at certain times; however, it’s a challenging and competitive process to write proposals and win funding, which is a major task of research faculty.