Professor’s lab invitation fueled computer scientist’s passion for research
Credit: US Department of Defense
As a computer science senior at The University of Texas at Dallas, Ryan Burchfield thought he had his future programmed. He wanted to continue his education with a master’s degree then look for a job at a local telecom company. But after an invitation to join a professor’s lab, he developed a passion for research that prompted a rewrite.
Burchfield’s new path led to a PhD in computer engineering from the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science in 2011 and a job as a researcher at the Department of Defense Laboratory for Telecommunication Sciences, where he now leads a team dedicated to research into the secure operation of networked devices ranging from fitness trackers to internet routers.
In July, Burchfield received the U.S. government’s highest honor for “scientists and engineers who are beginning their independent research careers and who show exceptional promise for leadership in science and technology”: a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy coordinates the PECASE with participating federal departments and agencies. As part of their award, recipients may receive up to five years of funding to support their work.
Burchfield BS’06, MS’09, PhD’11 said UT Dallas gave him opportunities as a student that opened new possibilities for his future. One of them came when Dr. Subbarayan Venkatesan, professor of computer science, asked Burchfield to work in his Distributed Systems Laboratory, which focuses on the technology behind linking electronic devices to the internet. Burchfield loved working in the lab so much he decided to continue his education.
“My motivation for getting into the PhD program was Venky [Dr. Venkatesan],” said Burchfield, who is from Garland, Texas. “I got the opportunity to conduct research that was not only exciting, but it also turned out to foster a long-term expertise that has served me well and will hopefully serve the country equally well.”
Burchfield said the Jonsson School gave him a strong background in the theoretical foundations of computer science, which has helped him adapt as technologies and programming languages change. Burchfield also gained leadership experience through student organizations and community projects, including a program to spark underrepresented middle school students’ interest in computer science.
“There were opportunities I was able to take that really helped me develop leadership, coordination, public speaking and all the softer skills that allowed me to take off in the government research environment,” he said. “Over the years, what I’ve learned is that I can’t see myself working in a non-public-sector position. Now, I feel a strong commitment to public service and that the value I’m bringing benefits the greater good.”
Venkatesan said he was impressed with Burchfield when the student took his honors operating systems course.
“Ryan was very engaging in class, asking questions and answering questions almost continuously. That’s how I could see he was a different type of student,” said Venkatesan, who became Burchfield’s PhD advisor.
The class didn’t just open the door for Burchfield’s lab experience; it also was where he met the classmate he later would marry. Deana Pennell Burchfield BS’06, MS’07, PhD’11 earned her doctorate in computer science, focusing on natural language processing. She also works as a researcher with the Department of Defense.
Venkatesan described Ryan Burchfield as an ingenious student who was able to solve tough problems without getting stuck. Using sensor technology, Burchfield developed software that could provide feedback to help golfers improve their swing. He also used sensors to create a signature verification system that tracked how a person moved a pen, making it nearly impossible for forgers to reproduce.
Venkatesan said he was not surprised when he heard about Burchfield’s PECASE award.
“I’m sure he will achieve even greater things as he contributes more,” he said.
The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) is intended to recognize some of the finest scientists and engineers who, while early in their research careers, show exceptional potential for leadership at the frontiers of scientific knowledge during the 21st century. The awards are conferred annually at the White House after recommendations from participating agencies. Winners receive a citation, a plaque and funding from their agency for up to five years to advance their research. Individuals can receive only one PECASE award in their careers.
Learn more about PECASE.