Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi School's ‘Boy Wonder’ Is a Teenage Boeing Consultant

Ryan Kramer's only 19, but has a master's and a job offer from JPL

February 05, 2010 —


Ryan Kramer was done with high school at 13 and college at 18. Soon after, he was helping Boeing develop mission concepts for planetary exploration on a part-time basis.

This June, Kramer, 19, will graduate from the Viterbi School with an M.S. in engineering management (Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering) and is entertaining a number of options that inspire envy. He could be working for a space science and exploration consulting firm or launching a company of his own with a small amount of seed funding.

Kramer says the clout of USC’s engineering management program — which has attracted many other recent college engineering graduates — helped him secure job interviews with top-flight employers such as JPL. He holds a bachelor's in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder, but opted to pursue his master’s so he wouldn’t be “just an engineer.”

Kramer with his grandmother Jacki (L) and mother Wendy (R)

“The M.S. takes it one step further,” Kramer says. “Knowing how to design a spacecraft isn’t enough if you want to get it into space.”

Indeed, he’s learned among other things, that the best possible technical solution to a specific problem isn’t always the best financial solution for an enterprise. Or, he says, it may not be the best solution in terms of larger systems to which the problem relates.

Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering Chair Jim Moore raves about Kramer and says his contributions to Viterbi include “a legacy of improvement and expanded options for the graduate students who will follow him.”

"Ryan has had more of an impact in the Epstein Department than I think he realizes,” says Moore. “Some of his objectives for his education here prompted us to collaborate more closely with the Viterbi School’s Information Technology Program than we otherwise might have, and I think the Engineering Management Program has benefitted as a result.

Kramer says he chose USC engineering partly for its reputation — Duke University also came calling — and partly for unique benefits such as the Viterbi School’s Distance Education Network.

Through DEN, Kramer joined other students in online, interactive courses from his home in the Boulder area.

Kramer’s mother Wendy says the program gave him a great headstart before he arrived on the USC campus last fall to finish the master’s degree.

“It was also wonderful to have him home a little longer, and ease his way into graduate school,” Wendy Kramer says.

Kramer with Viterbi adjunct Prof. Dana Studer, who teaches Enterprise-Wide Information Systems.

Moore says Kramer realized immediately that there are advantages for any student who makes use of the technology DEN provides.

“Ryan kept us in the loop as he made his choices, and it was enlightening and informative to realize that DEN was viewed as an attractor by a prospective on campus student making the decision to attend the USC Viterbi School,” Moore says. “And the benefits are not restricted to our distance education students.”

It’s no surprise DEN appealed to Kramer; everything about the young man screams efficiency. He scoots around campus on a skateboard because, he says, it’s “unbelievably convenient” and the fastest way to get from car to classroom. He totes his books in a Camelbak hiker’s pack with the water pouch removed, which comes in handy for an impromptu after-class hike.

However, efficiency was not the reason Kramer skipped several grades during childhood. That decision was simply the end result of a series of difficulties in finding the right school for a “loves-to-learn” kid, as his mother always called him.

“Public school in 4th grade wasn’t working,” Kramer recalls, who demonstrated a 181 IQ at an age most kids were pondering clothing options for the junior high school prom.

“I wanted to be challenged academically and I wasn’t finding it. And I was high energy, I’d be singing opera in class and causing a distraction.”

Thus started a years-long journey through one gifted program or alternative school after another, with a second try at public school in between (which also didn’t work).

One day, when Kramer was 13, he says, “it just occurred to us that I had enough high school credits to graduate, and so college was the next logical step.”

Kramer’s years at UC Boulder were not always easy. Indeed, his hometown paper had long ago christened him a ‘boy wonder,’ but there were academic as well as social challenges to starting a demanding aerospace engineering program four years younger than his peers. “People were drinking and doing the college thing and I wasn’t into that,” Kramer says.

Now that he’s on the cusp of completing his formal education and entering the working world, Kramer says he feels lucky for having a life filled with regular international travel, intellectual challenges and a loving mother.

And in recent years, Kramer has been happy he learned the answer to the question: Where did he get the engineering genes? Not from his mother, who studied communication arts and worked as a bookkeeper while raising her son as a single parent.

Kramer with his mother Wendy.

Kramer was conceived from donor sperm, and recently reunited with his biological donor father and was fascinated to learn that he, too, received a master’s degree in engineering management. That’s not all: a donor half-sibling also finished high school three years early and went on to get a degree in nuclear engineering.

“I’m the ultimate experiment in nature versus nurture,” says Kramer, adding that his donor father’s family also includes a Trojan or two. “We do get a lot more than I would have guessed from our genes.”

Inspired by the experience of re-uniting with his donor father, Kramer launched a national nonprofit in 2000 called the Donor Sibling Registry, which helps willing donor offspring connect with others who share genetic ties (such as donor parents or half-siblings).

“My life is full,” Kramer says. “I’ve got a lot of options, and I’m happy.”