Ryan Patterson considers himself lucky. As a toddler, he started "tinkering" by stuffing knives into electrical outlets and twisting light bulbs into sockets. He watched his dad wire their family home, and he absorbed the basics like current flow and hooking up motors and switches. By the time he was going off to high school, he had built two robots.
"I feel really lucky because I've always had a natural interest in electronics," Patterson says. "A lot of people don't have that natural interest and might spend their whole life trying to figure it out."
Patterson's passion for electronics earned him the title of "Electric Boy Genius" from GQ Magazine in an article on his victory at the 2001 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. It also earned him his current "dream job," working on aerospace robotics for Lockheed Martin in a position the company let him design himself.
A Hands-On Dream Job
Patterson's gig has him hands-on in the construction of Orion, NASA's next-generation spacecraft. He's been designing and testing docking systems that will allow Orion to connect with satellites, refueling vehicles, or the International Space Station.
"I really like doing internal R&D because I like designing things that haven't been designed before," he says, lamenting one internship where he spent the entire summer determining if a fourcent part could be removed from a circuit. "I didn't want to spend my career taking four months to determine the effects on a circuit if a product is removed. I wanted to be working on much more creative programs."
He's certainly found that at Lockheed Martin. When he's not on Orion, three other space-related R&D projects keep him busy. Since taking the job in June 2006, he's been working on a robotic excavator that will dig up lunar soil.
Robotics has always interested Patterson because he likes working on embedded control systems, and "robotics do a lot of that," he says. Though he currently does everything from software design and engineering to electric circuitry and hardware engineering as well as systems engineering, he started at Lockheed as an intern in the robotics lab - the right place for someone who started building robots when he was a kid.
Cultivating An Electric Boy Genius
Before Patterson knew what Lockheed Martin was, his parents were encouraging his natural curiosity and talent. When his father, an electrical contractor, taught his son all he could about electronics, the search for a new mentor began.
Luckily for the Pattersons, particle physicist John McConnell relocated to their hometown of Grand Junction, Colo., after retiring from Los Alamos National Laboratory. For the next seven years, McConnell spent his Saturdays molding the boy genius into an electrical engineer.
"My dad inspired me to have an inquisitive mind, to want to know how things worked," Patterson says. "He taught me how to learn. John got me started with soldering. After that, my robots became more sophisticated, and then the science fairs started taking off."
Patterson's talents were acknowledged at the 2001 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair when his invention, a glove that could translate sign language into text on an LCD, took first place. Other recognition like winning the 2002 Intel Science Talent Search, taking first place at the 2001 Siemens Westinghouse Science & Technology Competition, and being awarded the Junior Nobel Prize in Sweden made him a hot commodity when looking at colleges.
He toured big-name tech schools like MIT, but found the right match in the University of Colorado at Boulder's L3D (Life Long Learning in Design) program, led by professor Jim Sullivan. Sullivan promised Patterson he would get his hands dirty immediately, a key for someone who approached choosing a college the way he chose a project.
"When I would look for a project to do, I'd have two criteria," he says. "One part is that it's interesting and challenging, the other that it's something useful that will help people."
By senior year, Patterson had designed an ultrasound-based indoor GPS that would help hospitals remotely keep tabs on patients with cognitive disabilities.
Inspiring the Next Generation
After graduation, he says, a lot of his classmates went to grad school because it was tough to find work. FPGA programming was another big draw, as were related fields like semiconductor marketing. While these are great jobs for young engineers, Patterson believes the kind of innovation that will maintain the U.S. as a major player in electrical engineering is lacking.
"I think the underlying problem is that the curriculum is not pushing science," he says. He worries that countries like China, where science is more prominent, will eventually produce more top engineers than the U.S. But he is intent on encouraging science and has convinced the University of Colorado to contribute $30,000 a year to the Colorado State Science and Engineering Fair, which helped launch Patterson's career.
"It had a big impact on my life, so I've become involved in it," he says. "And I plan to stay involved the rest of my life."