LAKEWOOD — Before the patent, the internships at SpaceX in California and research presentation in China, before all the academic awards, the study abroad in Germany, the 4.0 transcript in computer engineering and distinction of being a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, there was the mowbot.
The idea of a robot lawnmower that could be commanded from the comfort of a hammock was largely a father-and-son academic exercise in engineering.
“We have an initial design,” Ryan Summers said the other day. “Then I got busy with college and it hasn’t really progressed past that.”
Summers, 23, is as busy as he is bright and as curious as he is capable. The mowbot will have to wait. Writing code for spacecraft that could someday be headed to Mars took precedence. So did working on software to speed up DNA analysis of genetic mutations.
His undergraduate years extended well beyond the classroom. They were packed with work in cutting-edge research labs and manufacturing plants. His is the world of pervasive autonomous technology, of turning ideas into ways that allow computers and robots to independently communicate and coordinate with one another. He talks about driverless cars, robotic submarines and swarming algorithms.
Summers graduated in December from Washington State University, where he received the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture’s senior of the year award. He’d also been named the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science outstanding sophomore, junior and senior.
In March, he plans to return to Europe to finish a second WSU degree, this one in German language and culture.
All the while, he’ll be waiting for word on graduate school applications sent to MIT, USC, Caltech, Cornell and Oregon State University.
The Lakewood High graduate is a reminder that big thoughts often come from small-town schools.
To put his achievements in perspective, Summers was WSU’s first Rhodes Scholar finalist in 32 years.
It is hard to know exactly what he will do with his impressive set of skills. He does hope that whatever it is will be meaningful, whether it’s pursuing his deep interest in driverless cars or a small startup among friends.
Summers grew up near Lake Goodwin, spending hours building things with LEGOs and intrigued by robots. He was a Boy Scout, skier and hiker. And, like a lot of other kids, there were lively debates at home about how much time he spent playing video games.
His father figured he had better things to do. So when Ryan wanted a new computer, Kevin Summers said his son could have one — if he built it himself. Kevin Summers, who majored in electrical engineering at WSU, was happy to buy the parts.
Ryan Summers built it on the kitchen table over a few weeks. It didn’t start up right way, and perhaps that was a good thing. He’s learned a lot about trial and error, perseverance and trusting his own abilities over the years.
“I would say that most of the reason that I learn things is because I don’t like the thought of anything being magical or unknown,” he said. “I know there’s an answer out there, and I would rather know exactly why something happens.”
Family of Cougs
Enrolling at WSU seemed preordained.
“I was wearing Cougar onesies before I could talk,” Summers said.
There is a family photo of him as a baby in the arms of Butch, the WSU Cougar mascot.
His dad, uncle, brother and three cousins went to WSU. He received a Regents scholarship and enrolled in the honors program.
In Pullman, he landed a position in the Statistical Genomics lab. There, he worked with researchers studying the effects of genetic mutations.
Once a strand of DNA is sequenced, researchers know which genetic mutations are present. His work with computers is speeding up the process of analyzing results.
“Current methods can take hours and are prone to errors, so we’re trying to improve them,” Summers said.
His work is part of patented DNA-analysis software technology that could someday hit the commercial market.
From underwater to outer space, Summers is finding many ways to apply his knowledge.
He spent four years as part of the Palouse RoboSub Club alongside fellow students building small autonomous robotic submarines for international competition with other colleges. It stretched his engineering and computer skills. Perpetual problem-solving defined their work. So did camaraderie.
He interned over two summers at SpaceX, a company funded by entrepreneur Elon Musk with the goal of reducing space transportation costs and enabling the colonization of Mars. Summers worked with the Embedded Systems Team. He’d write firmware for the Dragon 2 Spacecraft that will take American astronauts to the International Space Station. Among other things, he worked on emergency abort systems. He also wrote firmware — permanent software programmed into computers — for spacecraft that could someday head to Mars.
At SpaceX he’d walk down to the main production floor and watch engines and rockets being built. He’d marvel at the ingenuity and magnitude of the work being done.
“It was pretty mind-boggling,” he said. “I’d think, ‘I’m actually going to be working on this. This is kind of insane.’ ”
Part of his Rhodes Scholarship application included an endorsement letter from WSU President Kirk Schultz who wrote: “Mr. Summers is committed to leading us into a new technological age where computers communicate with each other intelligently and adaptively in integrated systems … he envisions drones communicating with firefighters’ computers on the ground to more effectively and safely extinguish vast, destructive forest fires … he also sees a future where cars not only drive themselves but ‘talk’ with other vehicles and recalculate routes based on traffic congestion.”
Reaching the potential
Summers looks forward to returning to Germany next month to complete his second degree.
He did research on machine-learning algorithms in Germany during the summer of 2015 after being selected for a program for undergraduate students. He presented that research at a conference at the University of Science and Technology in China.
Majoring in German was a chance to exercise a different part of the brain. He made close acquaintances, including his girlfriend, during his travels and has stayed in touch. He continued to sit in on German classes even when he wasn’t formally enrolled — just to keep practicing.
Summers was the Lakewood High School valedictorian in 2013. The only blemish on his transcript was an A- he earned while he was taking a high school class while still in middle school.
“I remember him as being a hard worker — no surprise there given what he’s gone on to do,” said Jon Nauert, who teaches calculus, physics and ninth-grade science at Lakewood. “… I can’t say that I’m surprised that he has gone on to do amazing things, but I am impressed by how much he has accomplished in just four and a half years.”
Mike Fellows, a biology and chemistry teacher, also expected his former student to do well.
“He was definitely a hard worker, who also had a lot of innate talent,” Fellows said.
Summers is thankful to others, including his family, teachers and university professors, and advisers for seeing potential in him he might not have recognized in himself.
He mentions an honors college adviser who constantly pushed him out of his comfort zone and to apply for scholarships he didn’t think he stood a chance of getting. That included a successful bid for a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, considered in many circles as the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship given in the natural sciences, engineering and mathematics.
Somewhere along the line, someone impressed upon his son to treat himself as though he were exceptional, Kevin Summers said.
“I don’t know who this was, but I think that helped Ryan approach what would be daunting challenges for most of us with some degree of confidence,” he said.
It wasn’t necessarily one person, but a mentality that grew inside him from a variety of people encouraging him over the years, Ryan Summers said.
“I don’t think it’s ever a valid excuse to back away from something because it seems too hard,” he said. “Someone has to do it, and if someone else can do it, why can’t you?”