By Hannah Newman
AS a rocketship blasted off into space, the acronym N.A.S.A. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) appeared in big bold white letters. Exhaust filled the television screen and captured the attention of an elementary school boy who locked his eyes to the screen and said to his mother, “I want to do this.”
Senior computer science major Rashawn Burrell has allowed his childhood dreams to drive his efforts throughout college and work toward his dream of securing a position as an employee at N.A.S.A.
“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘I want to make that child happy so let’s see if I can put myself in a position where I can say ‘oh I work here now,’ ” said Burrell.
Originally from Salisbury, Maryland, and now residing in North Brunswick, New Jersey, Burrell grew up with a dream of working in the aerospace industry. The more his mother would feed his craving with magazines and manuals from N.A.S.A., the stronger Burrell’s aspiration of working there became.
His interests growing up consisted of wrestling, football and animation technology.
Burrell had a vision of going to college for animation, but found himself picking computer science when declaring his major at Rider, since animation was not an option and computer science was the most similar major.
With a strong and strict dedication to academics, Burrell decided not to go to college for sports; however, he found it imperative to be involved on campus. Having had a friend from high school on the club volleyball team, Burrell took it upon himself to try something new and join. He then became the secretary of men’s club volleyball his sophomore year, and worked his way up to be president his senior year.
“There’s so many people that come in and out of that club and the group that we have here I see as my brothers. Their passions makes you just want to do more for them,” said Burrell.
Coming out of his junior year, Burrell did not have any internships lined up for himself. Burrell’s adviser, Assistant Professor Md Liakat Ali, who works in the department of computer science and physics pointed him in a different direction, which opened the door to a new level of passion for his future career goals: a research opportunity that pays students to stay on campus and research anything they are passionate about.
The Ronald E. McNair research program was designed for underprivileged students with a desire to obtain higher education. Students are required to collect research about a subject of interest and attend conferences to present that research and hear about others.
Burrell, with a hope to obtain his Ph.D, dedicated his research to human interactions with artificial intelligence (AI) and how far it can advance before we can give it more prominent attention.
Burrell’s first conference was in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was introduced to other students around the country who studied all types of sciences, including computer science and biochemistry. He was also exposed to many different ideas from peers which sparked a love for this kind of work within him.
Soon after the conference, Burrell was given the opportunity to present his research at The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and travel to different universities across California to listen and connect with others who study similar areas of interest.
“The McNair program really sparked the travel in me so I’m really hoping that I can go out and see what I can do, because the Ph.D journey for me is more of an experience,” said Burrell.
Ali responded to Burrell’s efforts with encouragement and a foreshadowed feeling of success for his future.
“Rashawn is very hardworking and eager to learn. With his unwavering determination and passion for computer science, especially artificial intelligence, it is clear that Rashawn is destined for great things in his career and foreshadows a successful future in the computer science field,” Ali said. “Rashawn’s positive attitude, ability to adapt with the new environment, willingness to take on challenges and determination to succeed, despite obstacles, make him a role model for those who wish to follow in his footsteps.”
This program has continued to play an influential role in Burrell’s life, both in terms of his career and experiences with others that he gained over just a few months.
“Just getting into the McNair program, the family and the connections that they have with each other is something that is almost like a fairytale,” said Burrell. “You don’t believe it’s true until you can call up anyone in the program and have an old family conversation at any time.”
Burrell’s journey is only beginning as he will soon be receiving his bachelor’s degree. Even today, the little boy who dreamed of working for N.A.S.A. remains present within Burrell and has gained the support of others he’s crossed paths with while proceeding to build the bridge between his childhood vision and his future.
“Rashawn is one of the smartest people you will ever meet and he always accomplishes what he sets his mind to and he will especially when he goes to work for N.A.S.A.,” said senior marketing major and Burrell’s junior-year roommate Blake Oramas. “He’s going to do big things and I couldn’t be happier to know him and have him as a roommate.”
This article is part of the Shedding Light on Black Excellence, a February series by The Rider News to showcase impactful Black figures at Rider University.