Lebanon Made Me Unstoppable: How I Designed My First Integrated Circuit at USC

By Michella Rustom

In 1975, a civil war broke out in my home country of Lebanon and my parents were both forced to drop out of high school. Never having the opportunity to go back to school themselves, they always taught me and my brother to value education and make it a priority. We were always told: “Education is your passport for your entire life”. This year, almost half a century since the war and halfway around the world, I had the opportunity to design from beginning to end my first integrated circuit (IC) chip. I would like to share what I have learned along the way.

In 2019, I left Lebanon, my family, and friends in pursuit of my dream, while preserving in my heart the great faith my people are known for. I was the first one in my family to embark on studies abroad, taking with me memories of my village Memneh-Akkar in North Lebanon. I made it to a new country, and I was ready to start a new chapter in my life as a member of the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at USC Viterbi.

We can tell where the pill is inside the body within 1 millimeter of precision. The result is quite simply the most precise smart pill ever designed!

I joined the Analog/RF Integrated Circuits, Microsystems, and Electromagnetics Laboratory (ACME) under the supervision of Professor Constantine Sideris, working on projects for wireless and biomedical applications. My first year was challenging but soon, my research began to take off. I started working on our lab’s smart pill project. Traditionally, when a smart pill travels through a patient’s digestive tract, it collects real-time data and transmits it wirelessly off-body. With this technology, the patient can be diagnosed anywhere and anytime without having to undergo invasive, time-consuming procedures such as colonoscopies or radiation-based imaging tests.

But my chip gives these pills a capability they have never had before. We focused on improving the localization aspect of the pill - how easy it is for doctors to find the pill inside the body as it is being digested. The more precisely the pill can be localized, the better and more accurate the diagnosis that can be achieved. The new localization technology we developed is the lowest power and most precise localization scheme ever for smart pills. In fact, with the chip I designed, we can tell where the pill is inside the body within 1 millimeter of precision. The result is quite simply the most precise smart pill ever designed!

Designing IC chips is a complicated and time-consuming process, but one I have come to love. It starts with a system-level design of the main circuit blocks constituting the chip. Following this are schematic, layout, post-layout, and top-level simulations. Out of these, the layout phase is for me the most enjoyable part of the process. I consider it an art by itself which requires a lot of patience and creativity. Finally, the chip is ready to be sent to the foundry for fabrication.

This project has provided me with a huge amount of experience and a variety of skills in system-level, schematic and layout design of analog and mixed-signal blocks, Electromagnetic (EM) simulation, Printed-Circuit Board (PCB) design, and testing and verification skills. These are all practical skills that are not only important to our future, but are also in high demand. Thinking about the fact that this pill has the potential to enhance point-of-care testing and diagnosis is very motivating. To me, this is the true value of electrical and computer engineering: the ability to address and impact many of the problems facing humanity.

But it is not just the research that motivates me. For me, there is much more at stake.

In my homeland, there is almost no integrated circuit industry whatsoever. My goal is to use my extraordinary learning experience to support young Lebanese students and help my country. Life in Lebanon can be challenging and unpredictable. Being Lebanese taught me how to be strong enough to deal with any challenge and flexible enough to roll with the punches. But I am not alone. There is a whole generation of young people in Lebanon with the same mentality. They just need some support and an opportunity to show what they have to offer.

The 2021 Armenian-Lebanese Nobel laureate Ardem Patapoutian has a quote that perfectly sums up how I feel: “Lebanon taught me to be tough, and that really helped me in America, both in life and in science.”

  • Michella's chip is in many ways the most precise smart pill ever designed (PHOTO CREDIT: USC Viterbi)
  • Michella with her father, Boutros, in their home village of Memneh-Akkar in 1996 (PHOTO CREDIT: Michella Rustom)
  • Michella with her parents and brother on Palm Sunday in Lebanon, 1997 (PHOTO CREDIT: Michella Rustom)
  • Michella and her brother Alexios, who is also a USC ECE PhD student (PHOTO CREDIT: Michella Rustom)
  • At the historic forest of Kammouaa in Akkar, Northern Lebanon in 2018 (PHOTO CREDIT: Michella Rustom)

I could never have reached this point in my career without the support of my advisor Professor Sideris. Despite his busy schedule, he is always there to motivate us. I am truly grateful for his confidence and guidance. Without his advice, and clear insightful instruction, my chip would not have reached its final stage. He has fostered a healthy and supportive environment at ACME that supports my work.

Joining USC and the ECE Department was the best decision I have ever made in my life. Besides my personal growth, there is a strong unbreakable bond connecting the Trojan family together. Here is my advice to all students: Be faithful, scholarly, skillful, courageous, and ambitious. Keep going on the path you have chosen, and lead with passion and dedication, until you reach your intended goals. I am looking forward to the future for great achievements and contributions to the research community.  The sky’s the limit. Fight On!

Michella Boutros Rustom is an Annenberg Fellow and third year PhD student in Professor Constantine Sideris’s ACME lab. The two pose below with her chip. Her paper entitled “Wireless Frequency-Division Multiplexed 3D Magnetic Localization for Low Power Sub-mm Precision Capsule Endoscopy” was just accepted by the 2022 IEEE Custom Integrated Circuits Conference (CICC). She is the recipient of the 2021 Cadence Women in Technology Scholarship which recognizes women who are judged future leaders in technology. She also was a mentor in USC Viterbi’s SHINE program for high school students interested in STEM. 


Published on January 19th, 2022

Last updated on January 19th, 2022

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