Logo: University of Southern California

A Beautiful Mind

A surfing accident left Viterbi School Ph.D. student Ryan Williams a quadriplegic, but his drive and USC’s distance-learning program have allowed him to pursue his academic dreams
By Marc Ballon
April 29, 2013 —

Ryan Williams led a charmed, sun-splashed existence.

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering Ph.D. student found his classes stimulating, professors engaging and research on autonomous underwater robots fascinating. And then there was his California Dreamin’ lifestyle.

Williams, a Roanoke, Va., native, luxuriated in the Southern California sunshine, golfing, swimming and skiing. He even took up surfing, which exhilarated and energized him. “The California mentality was refreshing and, of course, the weather was amazing,” he says.

And then everything changed. On Jan. 27, 2008, Williams went to Santa Monica with friends to catch some waves. As he paddled toward the breakers, he dove under an oncoming swell. In a freak accident, he landed headfirst in a hidden sandbar and snapped his neck. He lost all feeling in his legs and arms. If not for the two surfers who pulled him from the water, Williams would have surely drowned.

At just 26, the former high school pitcher and star basketball player had become a quadriplegic, with no use of his legs and limited use of his hands. Many people in a similar position would have understandably retreated into self-pity and bitterness. Not Williams.

“I don’t feel downtrodden at all,” he says. “I try to say, ‘this is life. This is the way it is. Let’s try to do something with it.”’

And so he has.

After his accident, Williams returned to his family’s Virginia home nearly 2,500 miles away. But DEN@Viterbi, USC Viterbi’s award-winning Distance Education Network, made it possible for him to pursue his academic dreams. Through the program, Williams took three online graduate engineering classes to complete his doctoral program's required course work, including his favorite one on probabilistic graphical models.

USC Viterbi's Distance Education Network, or DEN@Viterbi, allowed Ph.D. candidate Ryan Williams to continue his studies after his surfing accident

Whereas many graduate distance-learning programs use part-time faculty and post pre-recorded lectures online, DEN@Viterbi features tenure-track professors teaching classes in real-time in technologically rich smart classrooms, says Binh Tran, the program's executive director.

U.S. News & World Report recently named Den@Viterbi the nation’s No. 1 online graduate engineering program and USC Viterbi No. 1 in online computer science. 

"With DEN, I feel like I'm getting an equivalent experience as when I'm participating in a classroom setting," Williams says.

Transitions and Challenges
Still, his transition from on-campus to distance-learning student has required some adjustments.

Prior to his accident, he had planned to study underwater robots. However, he changed his focus because of his inability to conduct on-site research and distance from the USC robotics lab.

Today, Williams’ basic research investigates the development of algorithms for multi-agent systems to interact intelligently and autonomously. His work, he said, might one day help satellites, robots, or military drones function more efficiently.

“I want to be able to wake up everyday and do something rare, interesting and novel,” Williams says. “I want to capture creativity and new ideas.”

To do so, he overcomes myriad physical challenges on a daily basis. Williams’ injury has made him prone to extreme fatigue and pain. Just getting out of bed and ready in the morning takes an hour and a half.

Williams' typical workday begins at 9 a.m. and runs late into the evening. Sitting in front of his computer, he corresponds with colleagues via Skype, runs simulations and takes “sanity breaks” to ruminate.

To type, Williams puts his hands into a brace with an attached pencil at the end. He uses his right hand to hunt and peck about 25 to 30 words per minute. His left hand operates the mouse and shift key. This makeshift method causes Williams intense arm and neck discomfort. He could take medication to dull the pain but doesn’t. He worries that pills would also dull his mind.

With an inner fortitude as powerful as his analytical skills, Williams tries to carry on much as he did before.

In the fall, he flew to Southern California for his oral Ph.D. qualifying exam, which he passed. To make the trip, his father drove them in a van for four hours to a hotel near Dulles Airport in Greater Washington, D.C. After spending the night there, his father and an airline employee lifted Williams out of his wheelchair and placed him in a smaller one that could easily go up and down the plane’s aisles.

In May, Williams plans to fly to Germany to the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation to present a paper on how to program robots to interact and coordinate to accomplish a joint mission.

“We’re so proud of his attitude, incredible work ethic and discipline,” says Ryan’s mother, Diane Williams, who holds a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry.

At USC, Williams says he greatly appreciates the support he has received from several Viterbi School professors, especially his Ph.D. advisor Gaurav Sukhatme, Chairman of the Department of Computer Science. Sukhatme has advised him on everything from how to submit and publish academic papers to what to focus on in his dissertation.

Sukhatme characterizes Williams as “razor sharp” and calls him an inspiration.

“He is intellectually a very gifted person who is very much in charge of his life,” Sukhatme says. “I see great things ahead for him.”

Tomorrow’s Professor

At an early age, Williams displayed the creativity and attention to detail he would later exhibit as an engineering student. A gifted child, Williams would spend hours alone with Legos and Lincoln Logs building castles, spaceships and other complex structures. In sixth grade, he won his elementary school’s award for brightest student.

Williams developed into a fine athlete in high school with a muscular 175-pound, 6-foot-1-inch frame. As talented in the classroom as on the field, Williams went on to graduate summa cum laude from Virginia Tech with a Bachelor of Science in computer engineering.

In 2006, he came to USC, choosing the university for its strong academics and topflight faculty. Williams thrived on the “freedom USC afforded me to be creative.” He also fell in love with the campus and quickly felt a part of the Trojan Family.

That USC connection never wavered. When his professors learned of Williams' surfing accident, they immediately came to the hospital to support him. Their message was the same: they would help however they could to ensure his continued academic success.

Williams plans to graduate next year from USC Viterbi and "not a second later."

“Within the next decade, I expect to have an academic research lab at a top university and serve as an adviser to a committed group of graduate students,” he says. “I don’t know that any of this would have been possible without USC."