For The Love of Science, Math & A Better World
EJCHS Alumni Ryan Robinett shares his road to MIT to Ph.D
Tropical Storm Imelda had just caused devastation for many in the state of Texas.
The year: 2019.
The storm had record breaking floods and affected Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Ryan Robinett decided he needed to do something to help.
So Robinett and his church took to the state of Texas for disaster relief.
With his knowledge from his world language teachers at East Jackson Comprehensive High School, Robinett was able to lead his team to rebuild a bathroom for a family that lost everything in the storm. The family knew very little English, he says, and Robinett was able to speak Spanish in order to help them.
“Every class that I took at East Jackson was useful. Every class that you are in, rather it is an elective or a requirement, there is something useful to take away from it,” said Robinett.
“Our world language department was extremely strong and helpful. I spent a lot of time with my teachers and peers practicing spanish. My Spanish speaking skills come from my time at EJCHS. I took it for three years in high school and French for one.”
This previous January, Robinett married his wife Candace Ng. He was able to learn another new language from the skills he learned at EJCHS. He read his vowels in her native language at their wedding.
Robinett and his wife met at church in Massachusetts where they both attended universities. His wife was attending Brandeis University, while Robinett was studying computer science at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Before his time at MIT, Robinett was involved in numerous clubs and activities at EJCHS. He co-founded and co-led East Jackson Student Leadership. He founded peer tutoring at the school and participated in tennis, beta club and the National English Society. From freshman to senior year, he participated in band classes; he was on the drumline and even played snare.
“Band was one of the most important outlets that I had during my time at East Jackson. Although my career has nothing to do with music in particular, I was able to find something that brought me joy,” said Robinett.
It was his junior year that he applied for MIT because his drum major in band suggested it would be a good fit for him. Robinett always resonated with math and science because of the thrill of problem solving. It felt great to learn and solve mathematical equations and to apply them to science. This was a dream come true.
Robinett took many Advanced Placement courses throughout high school, but he particularly recalls focusing on math, science, and world language. Those were his favorite classes, besides band.
In May of 2015, Robinett received the honor of being the class valedictorian. He recalls all of his classmates and how lucky he was to have known his peers.
“I graduated with a lot of smart and talented people. There was a lot of strong talent and just because someone’s pursuits aren't strictly academic doesn’t mean you are less honorable than another,” said Robinett.
He highlights the advice for everyone, including current students, that everyone’s journey is different and that you are doing something to be proud of just by following your aspirations.
After graduation, Robinett moved to Cambridge Massachusetts and he quickly found himself immersed within the world of MIT. Although he felt like the only person with the word ‘y'all’ in his vocabulary, Robinett was euphoric about the journey he’d embarked on.
A little fearful of the unknown and how different his hometown was to his new home, he embraced his differences and held his head up to follow his dreams.
“If I were to get cut, I bleed sweet tea,” laughed Robinett, “I just mean my roots are here and I’ll always have certain characteristics and qualities because of my background.”
Originally, Robinett wanted to pursue biotechnology until his first research experience in an oncology lab.
He was studying leverage tools in the human immune system to target certain types of cancer. He felt inspired to create better software tools for biologists. He transferred from computational biology to mathematics and then to computer science, where he was able to combine his passions for math and science.
“During these biology projects, I realized that the mathematical and software tools that were in my lab were actually doing a poor job at understanding what was going on,” Robinett said.
During undergraduate work, he worked with a group at Lincoln Laboratory (a military lab), on mathematical formalisms. During that time, the lab had one of the world’s largest supercomputers and they were able to create the first Artificial Neural Network that was the size of the human brain. That work inspired Robinett, who now has been published in multiple publications.
In 2019, Robinett submitted a grant proposal to the federal government for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. The NSFGRP is for aspiring researchers on a graduate-level and one out of every six applicants receive the grant.
He received the grant, and today Robinett is researching the project that he proposed in 2019 during his application process. He has created a software tool that learns low-dimensional representations of trench-predemic spaces in cells.
“What I do consists of me crying, drinking coffee, writing code and my wife patting me on the back," jokingly, said Robinett.
Now at twenty-seven years old, Robinett is a Ph.D. student researcher at the University of Chicago, in the department of computer science. He says he thoroughly enjoys his project and his career in computer science. His preparation from East Jackson helped him to embrace the future the way that he did.
"I had great teachers all-around at East Jackson, I had a lot of fun getting to know the teachers and students. Every class that I took was useful, everything that I did at EJCHS prepared me for a beautiful thing in the future,” said Robinett.