Tawfik brings a global perspective to designing trustworthy hardware

Posted: June 16, 2022
Dr. Eslam Tawfik photo

Eslam Tawfik is designing efficient and trustworthy hardware for use in the global supply chain. As a research assistant professor at The Ohio State University ElectroScience Laboratory (ESL), he is educating the next generation of innovators in hardware security, Internet of Things (IoT), cryptography, high-speed digital circuits, 3D integration, and more. 

Bringing a global perspective to his role, Tawfik has worked in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America, as well as different academic and industrial organizations. This exposure to diverse experiences offers him “an integrated and clear vision when doing research.”

Tawfik arrived at ESL after serving as an assistant professor at Benha University, Egypt. He earned his Ph.D. in micro-nano electronics from INPG, Grenoble, France, and his master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Benha University, Egypt, in microelectronics and data security. Along with various academic positions at leading international universities, including Zewail City of Science, Egypt, and The American University in Cairo, Tawfik held research engineering roles at the Information Technology Institute (ITI) and Mentor Graphics. 

At ESL, Tawfik leads the Secure Microelectronics and Artificial Intelligence Circuits (SMART) Lab. He recently took the time to discuss this research focus and share insight into his path to ESL.

ESL: First, can you tell us more about your research and its impact on society?

Tawfik: Most of my research focuses on information security and building hardware that is secure. 

For years we focused our security on the software level, such as security on operating systems and countering viruses. Today, we take our hardware and computational resources into the public, such as mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. Our hardware is more exposed. In the 1990s, research was published on extracting information from the hardware itself, similar to how viruses work in software. Just being near the hardware or interacting with the hardware, you could bypass the security of the software and retrieve sensitive information, such as passwords. 

More hardware is exposed with the rise of electronics – specifically those used for healthcare, like pacemakers, or electric vehicles that are essentially computers on wheels. Being able to retrieve and control this hardware can create catastrophic problems in the private and public sectors. This is why industry and government are prioritizing hardware security. 

Reducing vulnerabilities is the motivation behind a significant portion of my research. We are working in my research group to build innovative solutions to secure hardware and create secure hardware through construction so that it is not vulnerable and leaking important information to the public.

ESL: Why did you choose The Ohio State University and the ElectroScience Laboratory?

Tawfik: Ohio State is a very respected university in general, and it has a lot of activities related to microelectronic design in different fields. 

We have faculty, including Professor Waleed Khalil, that have established a full infrastructure with access to technology. One of the more challenging things that researchers in this area can face is a lack of access to technology. We are working with very advanced technologies, and we need to have an infrastructure well established, including access to computer-aided design (CAD) and process development tools. We have to have access to the technology the foundries are creating, which involves a lot of legal and contracting work. 

I came to Ohio State and the ElectroScience Laboratory to find this well-established infrastructure. That was a great motivation to join ESL. 

The other, more important part is that researchers at ESL are working in different areas related to system security engines. That diversity covers a lot of different systems, and I can see a lot of collaboration possibilities within ESL, which represents an excellent opportunity for me and my research to grow while tackling a lot of different problems that I wasn’t able to tackle before.

ESL: Who have been some of your mentors throughout your career?

Tawfik: I was fortunate to have someone – either a professor or senior colleague – who was always mentoring or inspiring me. 

One person in my undergraduate studies – Prof. Khalid Talat – understood microelectronics and system-level things and explained them in a way that made me very excited about understanding the different perspectives of system-level microelectronics. 

And then another professor – Prof. Nabil Sabry. This person taught me another perspective on CAD tools. The most challenging thing in IC design is that you have to understand the hardware and the algorithms behind the software you use. I always tell my students that tools are like the horse. You can ride the horse if you know how to ride the horse – otherwise, you will fall. That is what happens if you try to use the wonderful tools we have for IC design without understanding what is happening. 

The third person – Prof. Marc Renaudin– was my supervisor for my Ph.D. He also was the person who gave me a lot of knowledge and vision – to be honest, not only in science but also in life. This is where I was taught how a professor should be to a student. He should teach them his wisdom, not only in science but in all areas he can. 

ESL: What advice do you have for students interested in IC design and other technology fields?

Tawfik: I think good advice for students is to do what you love and love what you do. 

When I started my career in microelectronics, computer engineering, and IC design, I was in love. When I start to design an integrated circuit, I feel myself sitting inside the architecture, looking at each transistor, and seeing what is going on. The more students love their career and research, the more innovative and efficient they will be. 

The second thing – it is very important to have a vision of where you are heading. It is great to know something about everything, particularly if you are looking to develop a career on the system level. It is also extremely important to focus on one thing and know everything about it. So, know something about everything, but have something that you know everything about.

ESL: How does your extensive international experience – both with academia and industry – positively impact your research?

Tawfik: Diversity is something great from all perspectives. When exposed to different visions, not just academic but industrial vision, it gives you an integrated and clear vision when doing research or product design.

You can see how the technology should advance and how the market will use the technology. Working around the world and looking at different systems, from education, research, and industrial perspectives, was a plus for me. 

ESL: Tell us about some of your key collaborators. 

Tawfik: We have very good collaborations under the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) umbrella, which is a very competitive and prestigious program. One of my projects was selected as a research program under this umbrella, and I have a close collaboration with ADI and Intel. We have had regular meetings and exchanges of information under this project. 

That’s one direction, but another is my collaborations with the United States Department of Defense, particularly the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). I have multiple programs funded by AFRL. 

With the kind of discussion we have with our sponsors, we can see real-life challenges. They start to explain problems to us, and we can work together to find solutions. 

The other collaboration I have is with one of the key players in field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), a technology related to microelectronic design and programmable hardware. It’s called QuickLogic, and we have very close collaboration in developing open-source solutions. There is a movement related to making the hardware and software open source, and I am a member of this community on behalf of Ohio State. Through my research group’s collaboration with QuickLogic, we have gained tools, experience, and time with their engineers to implement real solutions for making our design tools efficient in the open-source forum. 

ESL: You mentioned working with Intel. What are your thoughts on the news regarding Intel’s investment in Ohio higher education and plans for two new leading-edge Intel processor factories in Central Ohio?

Tawfik: It is great to hear the kind of investment Intel is making and building its infrastructure in Columbus, Ohio. I don’t just think this will change Columbus but also possibly the entire Midwest.  Intel fabs will will open new opportunities for the job market and research. Intel is also a magnet that will bring in a lot of other industrial activities and support. I imagine Columbus will be a completely different place in 10 years from the activity in the area of microelectronics. I’m just lucky to be at Ohio State and will have an excellent opportunity to expand my research and open a new horizon for my students.

ESL: What do you enjoy most about living in Columbus, Ohio?

Tawfik: I love Columbus. I have lived in two neighborhoods here, and everyone has been welcoming. It’s a clean, green city – not polluted. I’ll be happy to retire here in Columbus – that would be great.

ESL: What are your interests outside of work?

Tawfik: I love first to read. With limited time, I usually get audiobooks. Playing chess is also great for me – it’s a beautiful game. I am also in love with strategic computer games. It is hard to admit that at my age, but it’s true.

Category: Faculty