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Machine Learning and Drone Researcher Tarence Rice (standing third from left) spent his childhood watching the Science Channel with his father. Tarence, who is currently in a Master of Science/Doctor of Philosophy in Electrical and Computer Engineering program at Rice University in Houston, Texas, is as curious now as he was when he watched lots of different television shows related to engineering.

Back in Michigan, he took a circuits course during high school that helped him discover electrical engineering. Taking a leap of faith, he went to college out of state. While studying for his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Tennessee State University (TSU), Tarence did several summer internships. His most recent was as a software developer at Intel Corporation. He also interned with TSU through the Department of Homeland Security Scientific Leadership Award, working on machine learning modeling on new approaches for applications.

His other summer internship experiences include Texas Instruments, Lockheed Martin (System/Mission Operations Engineer), Eaton (Industrial Engineer), DTE Energy (Power Systems Engineer), and as a lab technician and assistant researcher at TSU agriculture department.

Upon graduation, Tarence applied for the GEM fellowship and continued to figure out graduate school options by attending conferences like Clemson STEM All in and Georgia Tech Focus. This exposure provided inspiration from black graduates at these institutions.

More recently, Tarence has been focused on machine learning support drone security in a research project.

In 2018, Rice University announced that its researchers, in a collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine, and, Houston nonprofit Technology For All, are developing a fleet of autonomous aerial drones that coordinate with each other to detect, track and model the environment and let neighborhoods know of airborne perils that can be especially hazardous following extreme weather events.

Rice University won a National Science Foundation grant for $1.5 million to enable ASTRO, an aerial system, to gather real-time, high-resolution data about volatile organic compounds released into the atmosphere through explosions or other accidents. The university said the new grant will allow the project team to not only continue to develop next-generation wireless and sensing technologies but to deploy them in chemical leaks, and areas where first responders might face hazards during extreme events like Hurricanes.

Here, Tarence talks about how he got into engineering, selected college after high school; chose internships while maintaining his career focus, and how you can learn from him. The photo shows Tarence, standing third from left, after winning a 48-hr pitch competition held recently. Take a listen.

Inspiration

“I started with engineering at home with my Dad, he is always looking to learn something new. We used to watch the Science Channel a lot and many other shows related to engineering. It spurred my curiosity as a child. I went from being curious to seeking the information. In high school a circuits class was offered, and I thought to myself, ‘I can design a radio, that would be cool.’ I took two years of circuits ending my senior year. Upon graduation, I asked myself what do I want to become? Asking yourself these tough questions is critical. Taking a leap of faith, I chose to major in electrical engineering at Tennessee State University. From there, my curiosity took off. I pictured the future I envisioned, and engineering opened up those doors, positioning me where I wanted to be.”

“When I was searching for colleges, my stepmom guided me to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). It was the perfect match. My HBCU allowed me to grow, develop, and understand more of my culture and gain exposure to individuals that reflected me, Building me up for the world. Now, I have made the transition to a PWI (predominantly white institution) and this has exposed me to a network of people at top colleges and research centers.”

Internships

“Starting off, I wanted to build my repertoire. Early on, I asked myself where do I want to go? What do I want to become? My goal was to test out an internship in the summer to see if I liked it. From there, I was able to fine-tune my vision and re-ask myself the questions of where do I want to go? What do I want to become? What kind of skillsets and industry do I want to go into? My process for getting my internships starts by asking those questions followed by adding them to my vision board. I remember putting together a list of the top companies in the industry, researching them, and thinking ‘how I can navigate the opportunities to get the internship.’ Towards the end of graduation, I had the opportunity to pick the job and industry I wanted to go into.”

Exposure

“My best advice is ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ So, get exposure, see what’s out here in the industry. Then, reflect on what aligns with what you want to do and where you want to go. See where you have an impact. See where you can have fulfillment, and then don’t let anyone put you off your trajectory. You have the power, but you must take a leap of faith and put yourself out there on a limb. Allow yourself to grow, take away from the lessons you learn, reflect, and see how you can navigate future endeavors.

“Often you might not see anyone who looks like you, it may make you uncomfortable, but it is up to us to open doors for others. I look at myself as a pioneer and that others behind me will have the opportunity to have a more welcoming environment. For me, I want to leave a legacy of opportunity and create a pathway at my institution for other people to be able to step through doors that were closed but are now open. It is important to be able to have that foresight and be fearless to stay encouraged and motivated. Being uncomfortable in life is sometimes good. Ideally for me getting a higher degree in STEM is where I want to be and I’m looking to recruit more minority students in my EC department (Rice University Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering). It needs to be more than just me in the masters and Ph.D. ECE program at my school.”

Drones

“Right now, I am working on a drone defense system that uses multiple antenna arrays. This allows you to see more of what’s going on in the environment. The application will help defend the Army, the Air Force, and different entities that want drone defense. This is my first research project at Rice, and I am excited. In the lab, we have big drones and we’re doing sensing of the environment from a pollution standpoint. Here in the Houston area, the problem is air quality from the Oil and Gas rigs, and we want to solve the problem of knowing where those areas are. Eventually, I’d like to find a new application for drones, while seeing how far we can push/design new algorithms for optimal usage. When I graduate in 2024, I am planning to teach and consult.”

Mentoring

“I look at the lack of opportunities in our African American community. For me, I want to open those doors for others. From mentors, I was able to get where I am now. My goal is to pay it forward, being the only African American in the department of electrical engineering. If I got in, I can make it easier for someone else to get in. I want to open individuals’ eyes to the possibilities of what they can do; and what their curiosity can reveal.”

The Future 

“Teaching, consulting and having my own business in engineering, but then also having the capacity to give back; to help other minority students get into STEM. Being a professor will help with this. I’m building the structure to make that happen. They’re the two sides of my vision: now and for the future.”

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