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Faculty Spotlight: Tawfiq Musah

As a child growing up in an artisan community in the Republic of Ghana, West Africa, Tawfiq Musah found his path toward engineering in the most unlikely place - inside an aluminum pot.

Recently joining the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at The Ohio State University as assistant professor, Musah spent his early years learning how to make kitchen wares: designing molds using clay, smelting and pouring aluminium to create handmade cooking pots and utensils. 

“It was a rich lab experience all around,” Musah said, “with lessons ranging from principles of design, to the chemistry of manipulating aluminium.”

Entering high school, Musah followed this passion of working with his hands. He sought out ways to keep it going, with studies focused on physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. 

His parents wanted him to be a doctor, Musah said, but his heart wasn’t quite in that. Instead, he took his gift of creating and turned it into a career in electrical engineering.

“I loved the math more than anything else,” Musah said. “I was drawn more to engineering for that ability to create and innovate, to play with things, to be able to mathematically conceive of something and be able to build it and see it realized.”

To further his goals, Musah saw more opportunity in the United States.

“I decided to come to America for higher education because I wanted to be at the frontier of engineering innovation. I wanted to have the ability to study under, and potentially work with, the best people in engineering,” he said.

Realizing his gift for circuits at Columbia University during his undergraduate years, Musah stuck with electrical and computer engineering all the way through his doctoral program at Oregon State University. 

“Electronics allow you more ability to tinker,” he said. “You play with a few devices and you create something new.”

After a stint at Intel for eight years, Musah made the move to the Midwest and Ohio State. His current research is a combination of his Ph.D. studies and his industry experience. 

The academic work focused on data converters like analog to digital converters (ADCs), and at Intel, he dealt with improving the speed and power efficiency of high-speed communication links. The research led him to find new realms to expand upon. 

By creating a mostly digital design, he said, devices can make more significant leaps in the future, allowing for easier control and delivering more efficient power than current designs.

“What I want to spend time on is to see: can we redesign the ADC to make it specific for these communication links?” Musah said, in terms of his Ohio State research. 

This work is being studied by other engineers. However, Musah is looking into a relatively unexplored area of this new design. 

“If I’m able to build a circuit interface that is more digital in nature, I can also make it multi-modal,” he said. “I don’t have to make it for just wireline communication, I can use this approach for optical communication and possibly even wireless. What I’m thinking is a convergence of the circuits.” 

Engineers working in different communications systems already have designs they are comfortable with, Musah said. He hopes to create a new design that is general enough for for any communication system, but provides competitive performancw by adapting to the specific system in which it is applied. 

“If I can come up with something that is easy to program to meet any application, then you just have one circuit,” he said. “Depending on the system where you need to use it, then you just program it for the system.”

Since techniques at the circuit level are thoroughly explored, he said, innovations at the systems could open up new capabilities and enable cost and power-efficient approaches to meet current and future device specifications. 

With his new role at Ohio State, Musah is hoping to reach out and find students interested in prursuing similar paths. He made it a point to be at the 2018 MakeOHI/O, held in Knowlton Hall at Ohio State in March. 

“I loved watching the [students] come up with several ideas,” Musah said. “Some of them were a little bit ambitious, and then you can see as they actually start to build it and see they have to keep making adjustments, and then realizing something very beautiful at the end. I loved it.” 

Engineering is not always about success, he said.

“That’s what makes it interesting. You have some idea, maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work. Either way, you get a reward that propels you to move further,” Musah said. 

Article by Ryan Horns and Lydia Freudenberg