ECSE Remembers Prof. Jack McDonald

Posted March 2, 2020
Jack McDonald and colleagues
Front Row: l-r, Russ Kraft, Peter Curran, Jack McDonald; back row, l-r: Jong-Ru Guo, Okan Erdogan, Aamir Zia, Paul Belemjian, Philip Jacob, Jin-Woo Kim, and Chao You
To honor a professor who changed the lives of so many who walked the halls of RPI, the ECSE faculty share their memories of Prof. Jack McDonald.

Jack joined ECSE and RPI in 1974 as an Assistant Professor.  He was a dedicated teacher, researcher, and colleague for 46 years until his passing in 2020.  Jack graduated more than 70 Masters students and 45 PhD students. He had over 300 journal and conference articles in high impact IEEE journals and conferences. He was able to acquire 40 SUN stations 20 years ago to make ECSE/RPI one of few schools nation and worldwide that offered industry-grade CAD tools such as Cadence tools and design kits from chip manufacturers such as IBM (now managed by Global Foundries) to our students taking VLSI classes. Jack came to RPI with experience in coding, started moving towards computer hardware design, Very Large Scale Integration, 3D heterogeneous integration, and in the last few years, was brave enough to embark on a new research journey into Cryogenic Computational Complexity, Josephson Junction, quantum computing, and new silicon integrated devices that can switch at terahertz frequencies (300Ghz – 1THz) (picosecond scales). He cared deeply about each and everyone of his students, took great pride in their work and the careers they pursued post graduation. He inspired them and inspired us his colleagues with his dedication, commitment to high quality research, teaching, and vision on the future of electronics beyond Moore’s law.


These are the fond memories the ECSE faculty have of their longtime colleague, mentor and friend:

Russ Kraft: Walking into Jack’s office was just like walking into the Library of Congress, except that he had more books! To top off the experience it was also a museum of technology with relics of some old technologies on display or tucked away under tables, wedged into the back of bookshelves, stashed in cardboard boxes, or odd corners of his desk and any space on a flat surface low enough to be reached. If you stopped by to get an opinion or answer to a simple question for which a “yes” or “no” would suffice, you undoubtedly would be waylaid for hours while you would be obliged to listen to a detailed recitation on the history of the original topic as well as a little circling around into almost every ancillary related topic. No one could walk away from any of these encounters without a feeling of having been truly enlightened.

When it came to just the budding of new ideas Jack was a moth attracted to light (or maybe more appropriately, enlightenment). He had no fears or trepidation and relished the chance to learn something novel and a cutting-edge challenging technology. Jack never read an RFP he didn’t like (so sorry about that, RAF). It gave him an excuse to buy more books on the subject, usually around 10 to 20.

Geologists and paleontologists use rock strata to determine the age of critical events in the history of the earth. Historians studying Jack’s legacy and achievements will use just where in the towers of books appearing everywhere, on the floor, windowsill, tables, file cabinets, chairs, and elsewhere, to determine the age of a particular research topic or proposal writing effort by noting how far down in the piles the books on those given topics appear.

As much as Jack thrived on the bleeding-edge of technology, at the same time he resisted almost any change to his routines and normal practices. He hated it every time when his 15-year old desktop Macintosh computers would begin to fail because the hardware was old and all the software was obsolete and no longer compatible with the rest of the world. Moving his millions of archived files to a brand new computer along with having to learn updated versions of all his old software utilities and operating system was just short of Armageddon. It would be a necessary evil that he would try to avoid as long as possible. Being proactive was not an option and sparks, smoke, and grinding noises emanating from the case were about the only signs that could force the unwanted upgrade. Jack was a dedicated Apple Macintosh user to the end. He had a major issue when Apple went to the dark side and switched processors from his long-trusted Motorola chips to the devil-conceived Intel chips.

Jack McDonald and colleagues
The 3D IC group. From l-r, Jack McDonald, Russ Kraft, Jay McMahon, Yongchai Kwon, Anurag Jindal, Kriss Lee, Annie Zeng, David King, Ron Gutmann, and James Lu.

During his tenure here in ECSE Jack has had 5 different offices. Each later move became a more stability-endangering situation. Moving his first office from Russell Sage Laboratories to the brand newly constructed Jonsson Engineering Center was the easiest by far since he only had a couple of hundred books and a few filing cabinets. Later, the move to the Watervliet Norton facilities was more difficult but acceptable since it would put him closer to his latest research endeavors in VLSI design and EDA tools alongside the available cleanroom. Next came a major disruption after the completion of the Low Center for Industrial Innovation and the class-1000 cleanroom where he could step up his VLSI research program in high-speed processor design right on the main campus. It took several weeks to move thousands of books, papers, files, and now computers. The final transition was for his own safety, moving from a standard small CII sized office to a larger multi-person room due to the fact that the towering of stacks of books everywhere except the narrow path from the door to his desk in the old office was an occupational safety hazard. So this final new office, just around the corner in the CII, was almost a paradise. There was room for all the books neatly place on large bookshelves, more file cabinets for his papers, records, publication, and anything else he had collected. But fortunately or unfortunately, Jack now had room to triple his collection of textbooks, references, and manuals, which he immediately took advantage of for the next 15 years.

Although there is plenty to joke about and retell favorite Jack anecdotes, no one can doubt his extremely high standards for research, passion for teaching, and extremely lofty ability to work hard and unceasingly. Jack has set the bar so high that few can ever hope to approach it by comparison. His demand for perfection from his graduate students is reflected in their highly placed careers. Jack has left a hole in the ECSE department that can never be filled. He will be deeply missed for many years to come.

James Lu: Jack and I started working together closely in late 1990s. We dreamed together for the 3D-IC architecture and technology, leading to a series of "more than Moore" technologies. Today almost every cellphone has at least one component made by 3D-IC technology, not to mention computer chips used in the data center.  He has contributed significantly to the 3D circuit design, architecture and technologies, besides many others, such as interconnect impact in ultra high-speed circuits, SiGe and GaAs circuits design and technology.

Just at the beginning of this year, we were discussing a proposal for 3D-integrated quantum chip based on his current work using Josephson junction circuits.

We have debated a lot for many topics. I often stood at his office door to talk with him for a long time; I stood there because his office was filled by many, many books from the floor to the ceiling, though occasionally I could clean up a chair to sit. We didn't always agree on everything, but we have jointly submitted a number of proposals and published many technical papers.

Jack was not only an extremely passionate researcher, he had tremendous insights in the computer circuit design, architecture, and technologies.  He always learned something needed, that's why he bought so many books. He was never afraid to step outside his comfort zone.

Jack inspired me so much and I've learnt a lot from him over the past two decades. He was a great friend and an incredible colleague. Jack will be dearly missed.

Joe Chow: I am very sad to lose such a kind-hearted and dedicated RPI professor.

In addition to his research on computer chips, Jack had elevated the VLSI and computer engineering education at RPI to an unique position. About twenty years ago ECSE was building studio classrooms. After the circuit lab and then the LITEC room were built, Jack told me that we needed a studio classroom to teach computer design.  He suggested that we installed Sun Microsystem computers in that classroom to run Cadence.  I couldn’t recall how we got the funds but Sun Microsystem was so excited about Jack’s idea that it donated all the computers needed in the classroom, together with the “annex” room across the hallway for overflows.  Ed Zander (Sun CEO) was at RPI for the ribbon cutting. Very few schools had this kind of investment and provided computer-aided design experience to the students.

Michael Shur: Jack was an inspiration for me. I admired his dedication: he continued working even when he could not drive and walked on crutches. He was devoted to his students, excited about his research, open to new ideas. Jack talked to me and not only about physics. Even after living most of my life (nearly half a century) in the United States, there is still a cultural gap that Jack helped me to shrink. He was honest, direct, passionate, and patriotic. I will miss Jack a lot. But it is easy to remember him. . Most of my gadgets have NVIDIA graphics boards – courtesy of Jack’ s former graduate student. Jack was an RPI Professor at his or her best. People like him make me proud to be an RPI faculty member but set a high bar.

Jack McDonald in his office.
Jack McDonald in his office.

Paul Chow: I first met Jack when I was a graduate student, taking a course of Fundamentals of Logic Design (FOLD) (now called CoCo). He offered clear and lucid lectures with detailed technical explanations and I feel that he was a good teacher from that moment on. I joked with him occasionally that if I would like to restart my career again, I wanted to study computer hardware design under him.

Jack was tireless in his research pursues, constantly searching for new and emerging trends and paradigm shifts. He eagerly anticipated technology trends and pushed the technical boundaries for the next frontier, whether it be wide bandgap semiconductor devices, 3D IC integration, fast RISC processor, with enthusiasm and energy. He always maintained a core group of graduate students on computer processor design and demonstrations, as well as collaborating inside and outside RPI in his various sponsored projects. Jack’s research interests spanned from semiconductor devices and processes, to circuits and systems. His collection of technical textbooks truly shows his limitless perusal of new knowledge and ideas.

He was always passionate, direct, unpretentious, and tenacious. He typifies a generation of great RPI professors who were excellent in both research and teaching. We really need to thank Jack deeply for all that he has done for RPI over the decades. As a colleague and friend, he will be greatly missed for a long time.

Tong Zhang: Jack was one of the most smart, knowledgable, passionate, dedicated, and hardworking people I have ever known. Very few people can match the breadth of his research career: starting from signal processing, through digital system design, 3D integration, digital circuits, to JJ FET. He is always open to new ideas and willing to explore new things outside comfort zone, which has been a true inspiration to me. I still vividly remember many long and lively conversations with him on the hallway and in his office. I will miss him a lot, and feel truly honored to have colleagues like him. The legacy he left at ECSE will be with us and continue to benefit many young students to come. “

Hussein Abouzeid: I have known Jack as a passionate colleague for over 19 years now. Even though I am not working in Jack’s research area, I got to know him more closely since the time I was at NSF in 2010. In that year, I introduced my colleague Krishna Kant at NSF to RPI’s computer hardware design group. Krishna visited RPI and came back impressed with Jack’s research, to the extent that he awarded Jack an EAGER award a few months after. As you know, NSF EAGER awards support exploratory work in its early stages that has the potential to transform research ideas or approaches, and are awarded only to really exceptionally innovative ideas that do not yet even have a regular NSF program to fit in. That level of innovation is very typical of Jack’s research. The award was about pushing the limits of parallelism of multicore processors through the development of a 32 GHz RISC Computer using 3D and SiGe emerging technologies Since then, Jack has taken it upon himself to regularly visit my office to update me on his research ideas and where the field is going. I will miss him dearly.