Chad Ramey is an unassuming undergraduate student, as comfortable in his own skin as the loose-fit tee he’s wearing.
He talks casually of some of his popular culture interests, freely admitting that he’s a science fiction connoisseur who doesn’t quite understand why folks find it so imperative to take an official position on the age-old Star Wars-Star Trek debate.
“I was raised on Star Wars first, so it will always be my first love,” he says, “but I don’t get why we can’t love both.”
The person who is part mechanic, part artist, and 100-percent hobbyist finds it difficult to focus all of his attention on just one of his interests. Some call it scattered. He just finds the world of technology too fascinating to ignore any of its facets. He praises his time at Georgia Tech, where he is nearing completion of his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, but admitted it’s a bit like being a kid in a candy store.
“It’s tough for someone like me who is interested in everything,” he says. “There’s just so much going on here.”
While calm and collected at the outset of a conversation, ask him about one of his various projects and, like a pinball loaded in a machine, the spring fires and he is off.
He talks as passionately about the creation of a rigorous blind taste test for steak cooking methods as he does about his development of one of the smallest functional fusion reactors known to man.
“Once I learned the sous vide method,” says Ramey, referring to a cooking method in which the meat is placed into a vacuum-sealed bag and slow-cooked in a temperature-controlled water bath, “I wanted to set up as rigorous an experiment as I could. So I got eight pounds of steaks and divided them up a couple of different ways. I grilled some, I cooked some in the oven, and I sous vide some. I weighed them before and after they were seared, before and after they were cooked, and plotted out all the weights. Then I invited friends over and we did a blind study where we gave them a spreadsheet of columns and rated them on a specific scale to see patterns of what was preferred.”
He pauses to take a breath.
“We declared that sous vide was the best way,” he says, as if announcing the predictable resolution to an otherwise action-packed film.
Born to build
He has a long list of those types of projects.
There was the electric go-cart and the three-pound Battlebot he built at the Georgia Tech Invention Studio early in his time as an undergraduate. And then there was the 3D-printed gesture recognizing light saber or the BMW he refurbished and turned into a drift car.
“I had some money sitting around from an internship,” he explains about the BMW. “I was like, ‘I want to build a car.’ So I bought a cheap one and rebuilt it.”
He’s cooked steak in a dishwasher, attempted to build a jet engine, contributed to a Mars rover, and, recently, set out to prove computers are superior at Connect Four to the casual flesh-and-bone player.
He’s always been guided by a curiosity for figuring out how things work. As a child, his parents allowed him to take apart household appliances like VCRs and investigate the inner workings of vacuum cleaners. By the time he was in middle school, Chad was showing interest in much more complicated topics like jet engines and nuclear reactors.
The latter investigation led to what is likely his biggest project to date: the inertial electrostatic confinement fusion reactor, or IEC fusor, a fully functional nuclear reactor that he built in his garage as a teen.
The fusion reactor
It began like most of his projects – with exhaustive Google research on a specific topic he was interested in. In this case, he was intrigued by how atoms were controlled. If atoms are small, he reasoned, what can humans do to control them?
Like a complicated game of connect-the-dots, he drifted deeper into the bottomless chasms of Google, learning about electricity and magnetism and eventually landing on an online community of people who build fusion reactors. By the time he was 15, he wanted to build his own.
“I was like, you know, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,” dad Doug Ramey recalls. “But he had a history of that kind of thing. In elementary school, he had come home and said he wanted to build a hovercraft. So we Googled it, took a couple electric leaf blowers, and built a hovercraft. It was nothing out of the ordinary.”
Not to Doug, but some others they encountered were surprised to learn someone as young as Chad was engaged in such complicated science.
“We were ordering parts from this surplus company, and I gave the guy on the phone all this technical jargon about what exactly I needed,” Chad says. “He got them all together for me and gave me a quotation, then I said, ‘Great, let me hand the phone to my dad to give you a credit card number.’ He asked how old I was, and I told him 15. He said, ‘You know what, I can write these off as a donation, so you just pay shipping and I’ll send them to you.’”
One of his teachers, Scott Brown, encountered Chad when he was a junior in high school and had already built an early version of his fusion reactor. It was a project Brown had never come across in his 25 years as an educator.
“A lot of times he’d come in and tell me about it and my eyes would just roll back in my head,” Brown said. “He had so much more information than I had because he had done all the research. I’d just tell him, ‘You tell me what you need and let’s do it.’”
The first iteration of the reactor was an odd combination of a salad bowl, a vacuum pump, a neon sign transformer, and a spark plug. Eventually it developed into something much more complex.
“It’s just fun,” Ramey says. “At the end of the day, I really like being able to take something that I once thought was impossible and do it. I know that it’s possible because people have done it before. Just the fact that it’s complicated and I have to figure something out is appealing enough to me.”
A future of endless possibility
Since coming to Georgia Tech, he has served as a teacher for high school students in the Governor’s Honors program at Valdosta State University, been a four-time panelist at DragonCon, where he talked about his reactor and sous vide taste test, and currently works as a student assistant in School of Interactive Computing Professor Thad Starner’s lab working in the fields of wearable technology and human-computer interaction.
Like most of what Chad does, the future of his education and career is still very much a moving target. He wants to spend a semester or two working as an intern, but plans to return to Starner’s lab as a full-time graduate student in the near future. Currently, his interests remain focused on wearable technology and machine learning.
“I think my obsession has been and continues to be making things,” Chad says. “It’s difficult to decide on just one thing. Right now, though, that one thing has become machine learning in wearables. It’s a space where they do a lot of building things, while also working in software. So I get a little bit of electrical, mechanical, and software all rolled into one. It’s a space really conducive to my habit of doing a lot of things at once.”
And as for any advice he’d have for other intrepid students interested in creating things as he has:
“Just investigate,” he says. “There’s so much information out there on Google or Wikipedia or whatever. If you want to know something, just look it up.”