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Date: June 09, 2000

Prof Fights "Brain Drain" While Advancing Computer Design

Despite the so-called brain drain --Canada's best and brightest minds leaving for the money and opportunities of the U.S. --there is still a cadre of world-class researchers who call Canada home.
Dr. Micaela Serra, of UVic's computer science department, is one who has made a conscious choice to live and work in Canada. An internationally-known expert in fault-tolerant testing for computer chips --used in developing stable and robust computer components --she is also an outspoken advocate for women in computer science. Originally from Italy, Serra earned her degrees at the University of Manitoba and UVic. In 1987 she became the first female faculty member in UVic's computer science department.
Although many Canadian computer scientists have emigrated to Silicon Valley or Redmond, Serra feels a sense of obligation to the taxpayers of Canada. "I am very aware that taxes-- my taxes --are paying for my research," she says.
It's a sense of obligation her students seem to echo. Most of Serra's graduate students --even the exchange students --spend at least a few years in Canada, returning the value of their taxpayer-subsidized education through innovative technological research.
Supported by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Serra and her graduate students have been conducting research on hardware-software co-design since 1994. This relatively new specialization encompasses some of the most ground-breaking research in computer science today. Instead of slow programs (the software) telling the fast machine (the hardware) what to do, this emerging field blurs the line between program and machine, resulting in faster configurations that are cheaper to produce and easier to customize.
Most research on hardware-software co-design has focused on its use in embedded systems --the miniature computers that run everything from your car's fuel system to your microwave oven. "There are up to 1,000 microcontrollers or microprocessors in an average household," notes Serra, "and these implementations are based entirely on hardware-software co-design principles."
In addition to embedded systems, hardware-software co-design is used to develop chip accelerators for power-hungry processes such as graphics cards, games and video boards.
Serra and her students also act as co-design consultants for local technology-based industry. One local company uses specialized digital signal processing and microprocessors to develop digital audio products for the professional/commercial music industry. Another works with the ever-widening field of "smart card" technologies. A smart card --which is like a credit card with an embedded computer chip --can acquire, store and use both cash and data. Popular in Europe for everything from transit cards to medical records, their use here is expected to skyrocket in the next few years.

Media contacts:
Dr. Micaela Serra, (250) 721-8789

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