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Featured IEEE Bangalore Member: Dr. Gaurab Banerjee, Associate Professor, IISc Bangalore

Gaurab Banerjee (S’98-M’00-SM’05) received the B.Tech. (Hons.), M.S and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Auburn University, and the University of Washington, Seattle in 1997, 1999 and 2006, respectively.

In 1999, he joined Intel Corporation in Hillsboro, OR (USA), to design analog and mixed-signal integrated circuits for the first Pentium-4 microprocessor. Between 2001 and 2007, he was with Intel Labs, working on CMOS based analog, mixed-signal and RF circuits for wireless and wire-line communication systems. Between 2007 and 2010, he was with Qualcomm Inc. in Austin, TX, working on RFIC design for mobile broadcast video applications. Since May 2010, he is with the ECE department at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, where he is currently an Associate Professor. His research interests are in analog and RF integrated circuits and systems for communication and sensor applications.

Between 2008 and 2010, he was an Associate Editor of IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON CIRCUITS AND SYSTEMS I. He has also served as a reviewer for many IEEE journals and conferences. Dr. Banerjee is a National Talent Search Scholar of India.

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Your expertise is in the area of Mixed-Signal and Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits and Systems. What training in your undergraduate and graduate studies prepared you and was especially helpful for you as you began your career?

In some ways, the “training” started much earlier. I was an electronics enthusiast in high school. I put together an FM radio transmitter on a bread-board in eighth grade and my ninth-grade birthday gift was a soldering iron! I was also very interested in Amateur (Ham) Radio as a kid, but it was only during my undergraduate days at IIT-Kharagpur that I was able to earn my Ham license with call sign VU2GBQ. It was my passion for electronics in high school that drove me towards pursuing electronics as a lifelong career.

During my undergraduate days at IIT-Kharagpur, we had inspiring teachers like Prof. S. K. Lahiri and Prof. R.C. Ganguli, who kept the fire burning, and encouraged us to learn things by being “hands-on”. Going to graduate school in the United States helped because of the culture-shift. In the US, most engineering schools emphasize hands-on learning, which is extremely important in an applied field such as engineering. Both my graduate advisors, Prof. John Cressler at Auburn and Prof. David Allstot at the University of Washington had spent significant amounts of time working with the industry and were very inspiring with the way they encouraged their students to approach engineering problems. Many things can be learned from textbooks, but much of the preparation for real life comes from being in a good research group, and from being under the guidance of a great advisor. I was really lucky on that front!

However, there is a common misconception that we learn all of our engineering in engineering school. We learn a lot, but for me, a deeper understanding of real-world engineering problems came much later, when I joined Intel in Oregon, USA and worked on my first product, which was the “Willamette” Pentium-4 microprocessor.  As a rookie engineer working under tremendous pressure and six months from tapeout, I was told by my manager that I was being “baptized by fire”.  That training was perhaps the best that I have ever received!

You have worked in the industry and in academia. What kind of training is required for building a career in either of them? What are the qualities one needs to have/inculcate to be successful in these careers?

Generally, people think that jobs in the industry and academia are completely different and require different mindsets.  However, in the field of integrated circuits, which is extremely applied, there is almost no difference in the mindset or training required to work in the industry or academia. What you learn in graduate school, will continue to be useful in your career, although, you will need to stay updated by reading the latest journals and attending conferences. In the chip design industry, it is quite necessary to spend three to five years on schedule-driven projects to be a good engineer. At the same time, almost all of these projects bring out the creativity in an engineer, which also results in papers and patents.  While schedule-driven engineering projects make you a good engineer, if you are not in touch with your creative side, you will find it very difficult to switch to academia and do research. Some people, however, are passionate about teaching and they switch to academia in the later part of their careers — only to teach. If you make an early or mid-career switch to academia, you will have to do funded-research, mentor Ph.D. students and continue to publish and patent as if you are in the industry with a few more responsibilities. As a few Indian universities (including IISc) have a US-style tenure review process, the level of commitment needed to do an academic job is very high, and requires hard work and perseverance.    

What are the up and coming areas of research in your field now? How do you stay abreast with the vast amount of research happening all over the world in your and allied areas?

I work on Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits, or RFICs, which are an integral part of modern communication and sensor systems. Two key emerging areas are 5G and IoT, and both require different kinds of radios. While 5G requires high performance radios with data rates running into several Gbps, the IoT radios need to operate at extremely low power levels. The circuit techniques and trade-offs are very different for these applications. My research group has looked at many of these trade-offs in the last nine years at IISc, and we continue to do so. Another very exciting area of research is the design of radars-on-chip. The entire mindset required to fabricate radars is going through a dramatic transformation around the world, driven by the economics of semiconductor chip fabrication. As we move towards a world that will be more connected and mobile, we expect radars to play a very important role in applications such as self-driven cars and drones, distributed weather monitoring and healthcare. The next decade is going to be very interesting in terms of what we do!

In order to stay updated with the latest developments, I try to do what every researcher in academia does, which is to read papers published in the latest journals and attend conferences. However, the identification of real-world societal problems, sometimes, in close collaboration with the industry or industrial research labs, is a very good way to stay updated.

What is your advice to students or younger colleagues who at the threshold of embarking on their careers? Especially regarding choosing to go for Master’s and Phd vs joining the industry?

Higher education is not incompatible with an industrial career, in fact, most of the times, it can be complementary. Having a Ph.D. opens many doors for you. A Ph.D. requires working on a problem to advance the state-of-the-art, with a structured approach. This training will stay with you and make you very valuable to any company that you work for. This is the reason many technical leaders in the industry (though not all!) have Ph.Ds, and many have a master’s degree. Having a Ph.D. is also a minimum requirement to be a faculty member in a university.

Many people choose to take a break between their master’s and Ph.D. (I did!), and this generally helps a lot in understanding real world problems before defining a problem-statement for a Ph.D. It is also possible to do a Ph.D. in many institutes (including IISc and IITs) as an external candidate. Such “external registration” programs provide a certain amount of flexibility to the candidate in balancing their responsibilities between their job and their university.  

What is your most satisfying accomplishment to-date and why?

I have been working on integrated circuits for more than twenty years now, and I was very fortunate to work on different types of problems. So, identifying a specific accomplishment is very difficult. The first chip I worked on was the Pentium-4 microprocessor, where my contributions as a designer were in terms of designing small (and perhaps insignificant) building blocks. However, it is extremely satisfying to know that Intel sold tens of millions (if not more) of units of that chip. At Qualcomm in Austin, I was the engineer who led the inclusion of Analog/RF built-in-self-test or BIST in a product for the first time in our industry, which dramatically changed the economics of chip testing. This was also an extremely satisfying endeavor. As a Professor, the most satisfying part of my job is always to see my students excel in their research while they are with me, and excel in their careers, when they graduate. 

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The TechICON series in an initiative of the Industry Relations Cell of IEEE Bangalore Section.