Putting the tea in teaching 

By Russ Cooper

Professor Sofiène Tahar (back row, right) sits with students and colleagues to discuss the topics of the day at their afternoon tea. Magnifying glass

Professor Sofiène Tahar (back row, right) sits with students and colleagues to discuss the topics of the day at their afternoon tea.

Each day at 4:30 p.m., Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Sofiène Tahar, his colleagues and students at the Hardware Verification Group (HVG) share afternoon tea – a custom initiated by his former PhD student Behzad Akbarpour after a stint at University of Cambridge in the U.K.

"It's a great chance to compare notes and see what directions we're taking our research," he says. "Many interesting things have come from our informal tea."

Informal perhaps, but it's this type of inquisitive discussion and grounded approach to teaching that makes Tahar, his research and his guidance to his students so remarkable.

"The great thing about him is that he's not pushy. He implies what he wants us to do, but gives us flexibility to choose our directions," says Tahar's former PhD student Osman Hasan. "Technically, he's very sound and has great vision for the future. In this type of research, it's very important to think ahead."

Hasan, who came to Concordia in 1999 from Pakistan, was side-by-side with Tahar when he began his work in probabilistic theorem proving in 2004. By the time he graduated in Fall 2008, Hasan had published his work in 14 reputable journals and conferences, garnering him the title of class valedictorian.

"In my opinion, he's one of the best known researchers in the business," Hasan says.

Magnifying glass

The HVG’s mission is "…the development of methodologies, algorithms and tools for the formal and semi-formal verification of hardware and embedded systems." In a nutshell, the research of Tahar and his HVG team of 25 (four senior and 21 students) uses mathematical equations to precisely identify all probabilities that can cause a piece of hardware or software to fail instead of the current time-wasting simulations that only calculate a tiny portion of the possible outcomes (of which there can be billions upon billions). With applications in nearly all aspects of technology, when implemented, the final product will ultimately improve the safety and functionality of everything from airplanes to cellphones.

Tahar, who came to Concordia in 1996 after post-doc work at Université de Montréal, was recently featured as an invited speaker at this year's Association francophone pour le savoir conference, or ACFAS (renamed in 2001 from Association canadienne-française pour l'avancement des science), held May 11 to 15 at the University of Ottawa.

On May 11, his presentation "Formal Probabilistic Analysis Using Theorem Proving" was part of a one-day event at ACFAS organized by Regroupement Strategique en Microsystèmes du Québec (ReSMIQ), the interuniversity research centre dedicated to linking industrial and academic partners to accelerate innovation.

This marked his second appearance at the summit; he presented similar research in the 2000 edition of ACFAS in Montreal.

But while his research tends to keep him in the spotlight (he's also been invited to speak at NASA and Microsoft), it's the success of his student's that brings him the most satisfaction as a teacher.

In 2006, Tahar's student Behzad Akbarpour became the first Concordia student to be awarded the best PhD engineering thesis in Canada, the best engineering and sciences thesis in Quebec, and the doctoral prize for the faculty of engineering and computer science for his work in formal verification in digital processors. Upon graduation, Akbarpour joined Cambridge as a research associate.

"The thing I'm most proud of as a professor is when I see my students graduate and beginning their own lives as professors or working with companies," Tahar says.

Hasan reflects on the evolving nature of their relationship – one that's seen him develop from student, to researcher to his current role performing post-doctorate work here – all in step with Tahar.

"I've known him for so long. Now, he comes by my office just to talk. That often gives us things to talk about at afternoon tea," Hasan laughs.


Concordia University