Fostering STEM Education Through Roadtrip Nation & PBS

Synopsys Editorial Staff

Feb 23, 2023 / 4 min read

Ron Duncan, senior manager of applications engineering in the Synopsys EDA Group, spends the bulk of each workday leading a team of EDA product specialists who are focused on defining, improving, and supporting physical verification, lithographic simulation, in-design chip finishing, and semiconductor manufacturing closure tools. When he’s not interacting with colleagues or customers, there’s a good chance that you might find him engaging with students and up-and-coming engineers.  

Duncan is passionate about supporting the next generation of STEM talent, so it’s only fitting that he’s one of the engineers to be featured on the upcoming “Chip In” episodes of the popular Roadtrip Nation documentary series, which starts airing March 1 on PBS. Roadtrip Nation encourages students to connect their interests to fulfilling lives and careers, tapping into storytelling and an array of career exploration resources. The Roadtrip Nation crew visited the Synopsys Sunnyvale campus last May to film an interview with Duncan, a 20+-year veteran of Synopsys. 

We recently sat down to chat with Duncan about what fuels his interest in engineering and in nurturing the technical talent pipeline. Read on for some inspiring insights from an ultra-marathoner who begins each morning with a run and a strong dose of optimism and proceeds through the day encouraging his team’s and customers’ success.  

Q: What sparked your interest in engineering and, in particular, EDA?

A: I was always the kid interested in the real answer. For example, I wanted to know what causes the sky to be blue. While attending MIT, I found that I really liked understanding the real answers behind electronics and semiconductors, the physics of semiconductors, and software. The intersection between electronics and software is EDA—the sweet spot. Early on, I found a career area that to this day, I remain extremely excited about. 

Roadtrip Nation encourages students to connect their interests to fulfilling lives and careers, tapping into storytelling and an array of career exploration resources.

Q: As EDA—and the electronics industry—continue evolving, what do you think are some of the challenges and opportunities available?

A: As much as Moore’s law seems to have slowed down, the consumer doesn’t care. They just want a faster phone, more electronics, more integration. While lithographically things are shrinking, there are many other ways to progress in the industry. Engineers are thinking more three-dimensionally; this is just one aspect of change where we’re just scratching the surface. Superconducting electronics is a whole other paradigm, and we’re also just scratching the surface here. We will continue to apply engineering ingenuity, some curiosity, and some stick-to-it-ness to drive innovation.

Q: What are some of your proudest achievements so far at Synopsys?

A: I love working with customers, understanding what they do, and helping them solve challenges. By working closely with our customers, I gain a good sense of how Synopsys is changing the world. As we introduce new technologies, there’s always something we can be proud of. It’s an evolution—just look at how your cellphone has evolved. But things that stand out the most are the people on my team. I’m so proud when I see someone on my team go through their career evolution, when they learn something new, or take on new assignments. 

Q: What was the Roadtrip Nation experience like?

A: The External Communications team at Synopsys reached out to me to gauge my interest. One of my hobbies is talking with students, so I was excited about the opportunity. While the Roadtrip Nation students were there to interview me about my engineering career, I probably asked them more questions than they asked me! After the cameras stopped rolling, I asked the students what they were going to do next. They were headed to dinner, so I asked if I could join them. It turns out, they wanted to ask me along but were mindful of my time. We ended up enjoying a wonderful conversation at a downtown Sunnyvale restaurant. 

Ron Duncan interview for Roadtrip Nation | Synopsys

Q: What drives your interest in engaging with students?

A: I’ve hired lots of students over the years and continue to be engaged with university recruiting and internship programs at Synopsys. One can grow quite cynical over time, but youth are wide-eyed with the mindset that the world is ahead of them. That feeling is contagious—I feel that I gain more and learn more from the youth than they may from me.

Q: What drives your interest in engaging with students?

A: Be curious. Ask questions: Why is it this way? Why can’t it be a different way? If we can’t solve a certain problem, why don’t we take a different approach? Just by being curious, you can come up with novel approaches. 

I would tell new hires, “Don’t worry about what you don’t know. The more curious you are, the more you’ll find solutions to problems you’re assigned…or problems you’re not assigned. I still ask lots of questions. For example, how can we solve one of the pressing problems of the world, like climate change? Our industry uses a lot of compute power, electricity. What if we found a way to reduce that power by 30x but still make compute 30x faster via superconducting electronics? 

If you’re always looking at how to apply what you know, figure out things you don’t know, your career will evolve. Also, many people feel intimidated by tech in general. However, there’s an enormous playing field for people who aren’t technical to contribute. At the end of the day, our products and solutions contribute to the whole culture of the world, so we do need a variety of viewpoints. 

Set Your DVR for Roadtrip Nation

Watch Duncan and his semiconductor industry peers on the “Chip In” episodes of the Roadtrip Nation documentary series. Episodes start airing on March 1 on PBS.

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