Computer engineering pioneer remembered as dedicated scholar
Guang Gao, an internationally recognized scholar and Endowed Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the University of Delaware Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, passed away on Sept. 12, 2021.
Dr. Gao was an award-winning researcher, an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) fellow and Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) fellow who excelled in the areas of compilers technology, high-performance computing, dataflow models, and architectures for supercomputing and parallel systems. But it was his deep passion for education and research, met with his unmatched enthusiasm to pass on his love of learning, that left a mark on his many colleagues and students.
“Prof. Gao lived an incredible life that impacted and enriched everyone that had the opportunity to meet him,” said Ken Barner, Charles Black Evans Professor and former chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). “He told me incredible stories about his life’s journey from a young boy to a premier scientist. He was a kind soul who wanted the best for everyone. His energy and curiosity were unbounded. My life is better for the times I spent with this gentle giant. Prof. Gao will live forever in the hearts of those he touched.”
Dr. Gao paved the way as the first person from mainland China to receive a computer science doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986. Prior to that, he received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Tsinghua University in 1968 and his master’s degree in computer science from MIT in 1982.
Throughout his accomplished career, Dr. Gao served as an endowed visiting professor at Tsinghua University and a visiting professor for several top Chinese universities while also completing over 600 publications and advising more than 30 Ph.D. students, 60 master’s program students and hundreds of undergraduates, including notable alumni such as Wang Xing, CEO of Meituan-Dianping, and Alan Emtage, who is the creator of Archie, the world’s first Internet search engine.
“Prof. Gao has been an exceptional mentor and a constant source of inspiration and motivation,” said Siddhisanket Raskar, the last Ph.D. student he mentored. “In addition to my Ph.D. adviser, he was a fatherly figure for me. I enjoyed every research discussion, insightful conversation, motivational speech, inspiring stories as well as interesting discussions on world history, politics and geography! When Prof. Gao accepted to mentor me, he told me: ‘Now you are under my wings,’ and I always felt I was. Though his support and guidance will be missed, his legacy shall continue in the field of dataflow model of computation.”
The legacy of Dr. Gao’s work has also been associated with his entrepreneurial effort applying his dataflow R&D results for real-world applications through ET International Inc. (ETI). A unique achievement of Dr. Gao’s team at ETI was its critical role in the now-legendary supercomputing system project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and IBM, known as IBM Cyclops-64 Supercomputer. The success of the Cyclops64 was recognized by ETI as a winner of the supercomputing disruptive technology award at the 2007 Supercomputing Conference as one of the largest supercomputers built on many-core chip technology at that time and in use in the real world.
Most recently, Dr. Gao was a Named Professor Emeritus and the founding director of Computer Architecture and Parallel System Laboratory (CAPSL) in ECE. This past August, Dr. Gao was interviewed as one of the early pioneers in parallel processing at the 50th anniversary of the International Conference of Parallel Processing. Little did anyone know that this would become a very precious recording.
“To me, Dr. Guang Gao always sounded like the last of a generation of ‘old school’ professors—the kind that always took his responsibility as an ‘elder of the village’ very seriously,” said Babtunde (Tunde) Ogunnaike, former dean of the College of Engineering. “Gao, as he was known by everyone, always treated contemporaries with respect, and junior faculty as colleagues. He was universally respected and admired in the community at large, and one of my deepest regrets is that, try as we might, we were never able to get him a well-deserved election into the National Academy of Engineering. His generosity of soul enriched our community, and we will miss him greatly.”
In 2007, Dr. Gao was elected as both an IEEE fellow and ACM fellow, and in 2013 he won the Overseas Outstanding Contribution Award of the China Computer Federation (CCF). He also was the recipient of the 2017 IEEE Computer Society (CS) B. Ramakrishna Rau Technical Award “for contributions to compiler techniques and microarchitectures for instruction-level and thread-level parallel computing.” In addition, he won the Gauss Award, which honors the most outstanding research paper in the field of high-performance computing (HPC), in 2011.
Beyond his professional accomplishments, Dr. Gao was dedicated to reaching out to new generations of undergraduate and high school students, constantly encouraging them to pursue STEM careers.
“For me, Gao was more than my adviser,” said Jose M. Monsalve Diaz, one of the last students who graduated under Prof. Gao. “He was a close friend that I highly admired. He completely shaped my professional development, encouraging me to always think outside of the box, even if that meant to go against mainstream ideas in the field.”
Diaz said Dr. Gao always offered excellent advice and could recall papers and references from many years past when answering questions, as if he were a walking library.
“To this day, I am surprised by how deep his thoughts were, and how much he cared about answering the most difficult questions in our field,” Diaz said.
Dr. Gao’s extensive knowledge in his field would often lead to complete history lessons on a topic, until those asking would have to say, “No space, stop!” said ECE Associate Prof. Xiaoming Li.
“He was also an exceptionally warm adviser to his students,” Li said. “Over the years, I had never seen him show frustration around students. Even long after graduation, many of his students are still close to him. And I know some always see him as a fatherly figure.”
Prof. Gao spent his last days doing what he loved, working on his lifetime book on dataflow, counseling students, discussing research topics with colleagues and spending time with his two granddaughters.
“He never relented,” said Rudi Eigenmann, professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Long after his retirement and only a few months before his last breath, he still asked us to write new NSF proposals with him.”
Dr. Gao’s impact was felt deeply not only by the students he taught or the research colleagues he mentored, but by anyone who was met by his genuine kindness as he walked through the corridors of Evans Hall. Previous and current staff members recalled many different instances when his kindness and concern for others was the first thing on his agenda. Whether it was scheduling time for an appointment to talk about work issues or just to say hi, his first statement was usually a gracious “I don’t want to take too much of your time.”
“Dr. Gao was a luminary at the University of Delaware who shaped our department and activity in computer engineering. He did what he loved, and a large part of that was mentoring students and faculty over the span of decades, and well beyond retirement,” said one of his newest colleagues, ECE Chairperson Jamie Phillips. “As I started as department chair, I sincerely hoped to get perspectives of alumni and emeritus faculty to help guide future directions. Not only was he eager to lend a hand, but he arranged a call 11 days before my start date to introduce himself, wish me luck in my new role and to ask, ‘How can I help you and the ECE department?’ I explained how much I would value his input, and within a few hours, he sent me a copy of detailed meeting notes of our conversation and some suggestions going forward. Since that time, we continued to engage in regular conversations to share news on department activities and to hear his perspectives. That gives a brief window into Dr. Gao’s enthusiasm, dedication and selfless way of helping others.”
As the engineering community mourns his loss, a common thread continues to emerge: That even with his international recognition for his science and intellect, it is Dr. Gao’s kindness, gentle manner and perseverance that will not be forgotten.
“Dr. Gao was a kind man who truly cared about his many graduate students,” said Gwen Looby, academic adviser in the department. “It was always a pleasure to interact with him. The affection and respect that his students had for him was obvious.”
For details on Dr. Gao’s memorial service or to leave condolences online, visit everloved.com/life-of/guang-gao. A campus memorial service will be held at a later date.