Engineering the future
Daniel Rico joined the National Research Traineeship program at Nebraska not for the stipend or prestige but to change the world.
“Money is nice, but making a difference is nicer,” he says. “If I cared about money, our NRT stipend is really nice compared to that of other grad students, but that’s not even close to the reason I took it. I’m here to change the world.”
As a master’s student in computer science with a specialization in computer engineering, he sees himself as a problem solver and is passionate about engineering solutions to the world’s problems. He says the branch of engineering used is less important to him than the problem-solving mindset expected of all engineers.
“I learned when I had a co-op in industry working at a power plant as an undergrad that you’re an engineer first, and then an electrical, computer, etcetera engineer second,” Rico says. “You solve problems. The end. You just specialize in certain problems.”
In his undergraduate years, he entered the university as a McNair scholar and went into electrical engineering. He researched abroad in Costa Rica with Duke University, obtaining his first publication, and studied in Iceland and Japan. He took time off from school to gain industry experience working as an electrical engineer at Blattner Energy in New York and at Omaha Public Power District. He then gained admission as a graduate student in the NRT program. In this program, he has increasingly focused on solving problems of the future. His NRT project involves designing and producing a network of tethered drones to be set up in agricultural fields to gather data on crop strains resilient to expected climatic changes such as increased torrential rainfalls.
“The idea is to determine, in the state of Nebraska largely, where we think a torrential rain event will take place in a day or two and then we go out there, set up our network of these drones, and take samples for hours, days, beforehand,” Rico says. “We take them down, let the rain come down torrentially. We go out there as soon as it’s over and do the exact same sampling in the same places, and then over time, through all that data sampling, we will hopefully be able to analyze and pick out individual plants in the crop that actually respond well to torrential rain.”
The DNA of those plants could then be analyzed in the lab and used to develop crops more resilient to climatic change such as torrential rain. Rico says he would also like to develop crops more resilient to drought but drought is harder to fit within the scope of a research project.
“Torrential rain events happen over 24 hours, so that’s something we can actually pinpoint and test a little easier,” he says. “Drought, the time frame is larger. It’s harder to deal with at the moment.”
He looks forward to the challenge though.
“What excites me about any problem, and particularly these ones, is that I become better and more prepared to solve the future’s problems,” Rico says. “Sometimes I look at this as a means to an end. So, drones, computer science, the knowledge I’m getting now, I think they’re all preparing me to solve the future’s problems.”
He says he thinks he can change the world and may even run for political office to do so. “Most people think that is too big a task. Like, when I say I have political aspirations, that I’m not kidding, mayor, state senator, president. Why? Someone’s got to do it. Why not an engineer?” he says.
His hope to improve the world through engineering is exemplified in a Horace Mann quotation he places at the bottom of emails he sends: "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
“I take the world’s problems personally,” he says. “All of these problems should be, could be, will be solved.”
— Ronica Stromberg, National Research Traineeship Program Coordinator