Photo by Jim Stroup

Ryan Williams was all about Southern California’s outdoor lifestyle. A PhD student at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering from Roanoke, Va., he played golf, swam and skied with gusto.

Then everything changed. In 2008, while surfing in Santa Monica, Calif., Williams 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, he would have drowned.

At 26, the former high school pitcher and star basketball player had become a quadriplegic. Many people in a similar position might have retreated into 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.’” Williams returned home to Virginia, nearly 2,500 miles away. But through DEN@Viterbi, USC Viterbi’s Distance Education Network, he takes online graduate engineering classes to complete his doctoral program’s course work.

“With DEN, I feel like I’m getting an equivalent experience as when I’m participating in a classroom setting,” Williams says. U.S. News & World Report named DEN@Viterbi the nation’s No. 1 online graduate engineering program.

Still, his transition from on-campus to distance-learning student required adjustments.

He’d planned to study underwater robots at USC, but his distance from the USC robotics lab made him change his focus. Today, Williams develops algorithms for multi-agent systems to interact intelligently and autonomously. These are computerized systems that tackle such complex problems that they need several pieces—like software agents or robots—to work together. His work might one day help satellites, robots or military drones function more efficiently.

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

He’s already overcome a lot: Just getting out of bed and ready in the morning takes an hour and a half.

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

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

He returned to USC in 2012 for his oral PhD qualifying exam, which he passed. In May, he went to an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference in Germany to talk about how robots can interact and coordinate to accomplish a joint mission; conferences in Japan and Italy soon followed.

Next up: Williams plans to graduate in 2014, with hopes for an academic career.

“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.”

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