Technical Biography

Ryan Kastner is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego. He received a Ph.D. in Computer Science (2002) at UCLA, a Master’s degree in engineering (2000), and Bachelor’s degrees (BS) in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering (1999) from Northwestern University. He spent the first five years after his Ph.D. as a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Professor Kastner leads the Kastner Research Group, whose current research interests are broad but generally fall into three areas: hardware acceleration, hardware security, and remote sensing. He is the co-director of the Wireless Embedded Systems Graduate Program – a specialized Master’s degree targeting individuals working in local industries. He co-founded and co-directs the Engineers for Exploration (E4E) program, which partners with archaeologists, biologists, ecologists, and marine scientists to create unique embedded computing systems to further their scientific research.  Technologies developed by E4E were featured in the 2020 National Geographic Docuseries “Ancient China from Above.” E4E has involved hundreds of undergraduates over the past decade and has operated as a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduate site since 2013. Prof. Kastner has been working in the hardware security space for over 15 years with projects on FPGA security, 3D integrated circuit security, and hardware information flow tracking. He is the co-founder of Cycuity, which develops hardware security verification solutions.

Short Biography

Ryan Kastner is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego. He received a Ph.D. in Computer Science at UCLA, a Master’s degree (MS) in engineering, and Bachelor’s degrees (BS) in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering, all from Northwestern University. He leads the Kastner Research Group whose current research interests fall into three areas: hardware acceleration, hardware security, and remote sensing. He is the co-director of the Wireless Embedded Systems Master of Advanced Studies Program. He also co-directs the Engineers for Exploration Program.

Freakishly Large Headshot

The Life of Ryan1
Ryan Kastner was born in Westmoreland County Hospital in Greensburg, PA — a city in the Allegheny Mountains and part of the Appalachian Mountain Range. He spent the first part of his life not too far from there, playing with crayfish and other creatures in his backyard creek. He got an Atari 2600 for Christmas one year and spent countless hours playing video games while eating iced animal crackers. In the rare moments that he wasn’t playing video games, he watched Scooby Doo and ate iced animal crackers. To offset all of the animal cracker eating, he walked up a gigantic hill in five feet of snow, both ways, every day, to West Point Elementary School. OK, maybe only one way, but it was a big hill.

Ryan moved to Medina, OH in fourth grade. He spent the next part of his life catching blue gill using cut-up hot dogs in his backyard lake. Ohio is flat, so there were fortunately no hills to climb going to Heritage Elementary School, Claggett Middle School, and Medina High School. However, there was five feet of snow 365 days a year. Seriously…no exaggerations here. One year, his parents bought him an NES, which continued to fuel his love of video games. He woke up at 5:30 a.m. six days per week to deliver newspapers for the Medina County Gazette. This enabled him to buy more video games, newer gaming systems, and a bunch of worthless baseball cards that he still has (or, rather, his parents still have).

After many long years of waking up way too early, Ryan took a job as a dishwasher. This was his first “real” (tax-paying) job. He quickly realized how great it was to be a paperboy. After four long months, he found a better job at the Waite and Sons Funeral Home. He performed gardening, cleaning, painting, car washing, and other tasks around the funeral home. The fabulous Waite family showed him that hard work pays off. As he proved his worth, they gave him flexibility and respect. While he didn’t realize it then, this instilled a work ethic that made him successful throughout his life. He is forever indebted to them, particularly Ralph Waite, who provided much wisdom on managing people and life.

All this work allowed him to graduate from video game systems to a desktop computer. He spent countless hours upgrading his family’s home computers in high school with parts from the local Walmart. Don’t ask about how he got those parts. The computer was often not functional, but it was fast and powerful when it was. He also spent way too much time on the Medina County Library FreeNet service. This foretold his later addiction to the Internet.

After high school, Ryan started his gradual move westward across the country. He went to Northwestern University just north of Chicago to study engineering. It was far enough away from Ohio so that his parents could not just drop in unannounced, but close enough that he could have drive home when needed. Ryan’s parents spent way more money than they could afford putting Ryan through college. He will never be able to repay that debt.

Ryan started studying chemical engineering; this pursuit came to a quick halt when he got a C in chemistry during his freshman year. He then switched to Electrical Engineering. He mistakenly thought that majoring in something related to computers would make him hate his passion – building systems involving computers. Eventually, he saw the light and double majored in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering. He continued to play video games throughout his college career. These were typically played in hazy, dark rooms with dear friends, some of whom went on to make video games. One of those friends introduced him to sushi and many other significant life-changing events (more on that later).

A defining life moment occurred during a VLSI CAD class with Prof. Majid Sarrafzadeh. For some reason, Dr. Sarrafzadeh thought highly of Ryan and offered him a research position. Ryan got paid and received class credit to work on interesting and open-ended problems on a crazy topic called reconfigurable computing. Pretty awesome! Several quarters of research convinced Ryan that academia was his calling, and he continued with Prof. Sarrafzadeh as a PhD student. All of his classmates thought he was crazy. Those classmates graduated and made a lot of money during the dot com years, while Ryan pulled in a bit above the poverty line as a graduate student.

In the year 2000, Prof. Sarrafzadeh decided to move to UCLA. Ryan decided to finish up his MS at Northwestern and moved to UCLA to do his PhD in Computer Science. Ryan was probably the only person in LA then without a cell phone or a car, but he still managed to enjoy the SoCal lifestyle. He did have an awesome cat named Dot, who accompanied him to LA. Ryan and Dot will never forget the flight from Chicago to LA. Dot hated it because he was shoved in a carrier underneath the seat in front of Ryan. Dot expelled various bodily fluids in the carrier to let Ryan know how displeased he was with the situation. Ryan was similarly scared and excited (fortunately without emitting bodily fluids) and will never forget looking out the plane window and seeing the lights underneath the smog of his new home.

Ryan spent the next two years researching high-level synthesis and reconfigurable computing. He wrote many technical papers and spent hours playing board games at night with his good friends in the Embedded and Reconfigurable Systems Lab. He spent every other weekend with Karen. He was grateful for her Saab, which allowed him to buy groceries, clothes, and other items not easily obtained using the Big Blue Bus. And it was pretty amazing spending time with her as well.

While he loved life at UCLA, Ryan decided to embark on a new adventure, so in 2002, he graduated, taking only three years to do a combined MS and PhD. For some reason, he was a hot commodity on the academic market and interviewed at 10+ universities around North America. He decided to stay in California, taking a job as an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UC Santa Barbara. He bought a cell phone, obtained a car, rented a small place on the Mesa with an ocean view, and started his career as a young professor. He was so young that he was often mistaken for a student. Ryan misses those days.

Professor Kastner spent the next several years frantically starting up a research lab. He continued his research on reconfigurable computing. He expanded into research topics related to hardware security and underwater sensor networks. The former got him a close friend and collaborator in Prof. Tim Sherwood. The latter got him a trip to Moorea in French Polynesia to test an underwater modem he built with Prof. Hua Lee and Prof. Ron Iltis. This was when he caught a bug for applied research, especially projects that allowed him to travel. All this hard work paid off, and Professor Kastner was given tenure at age 28, making him one of the youngest tenured professors in the UC system2. Another of his major accomplishments during that time was that he somehow convinced Karen to move to Santa Barbara without much of a prospect for a job.

In 2007, Karen grew tired of toiling as a post-doc at UCLA and trying to find a decent job around Santa Barbara. She went out and got professorial offers at many top bioengineering departments. Of those places, UC San Diego was the only place that could be suckered to take in Professor Kastner as well. They moved to San Diego in 2007. Professor Kastner and Professor Christman also got married around that time. 

Professor Kastner’s move to UCSD allowed him to further pursue his passion for applied research. He continued his work in hardware acceleration, focusing on various applied problems, including remote sensing, cell sorting, optical cardiac imaging, fast 3D object reconstruction, and high-speed genome reconstruction. His hardware security work led to the formation of Tortuga Logic (later renamed Cycuity). He continued his scholarly world travel as a founder and co-director of the Engineers for Exploration program. These pursuits have taken him and his students on expeditions to Maya archaeological sites in Guatemala, underwater shipwrecks in Lake Tahoe, and searching for the vaquita in Mexico.

The rest of this story is still being written. It may be updated someday…

1 This was written in May 2014. It undoubtedly will become stale quickly. And it will likely be updated infrequently.
2 According to my very unscientific research via the web, Terence Tao was the youngest I found in the UC system (24!?).