First-year grad student Andres Ramirez-Jaime earns prestigious Laird Fellowship

What do a heavy metal band, soccer-playing robots and lifesaving ventilators have in common? In this case, one rising University of Delaware rockstar scholar: Andres Ramirez-Jaime of Colombia.

This versatile graduate student has already accomplished more than many people hope to achieve in their entire careers, and is now eyeing his next grand challenge: helping the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) better understand the global changes impacting the world’s forests.

“Whenever people ask me about life, I always say life is a little bit about luck,” the 32 year-old engineer said. “But luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” he added, quoting Roman philosopher Seneca.

Ramirez-Jaime, who began his pursuit of a doctorate from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the beginning of 2022, recently earned the George W. Laird Merit Fellowship, which recognizes outstanding and well-rounded first-year graduate students in the College of Engineering. The award comes with $25,000 in tuition funding.

But Ramirez-Jaime almost didn’t even apply because he didn’t think he was qualified. His adviser, Gonzalo Arce, couldn’t have disagreed more.

“He jumps when he sees a challenge,” Arce said. “He just jumps on it and develops it. He’s a leader and a unique student with many accomplishments.”

From working with troubled teens to soccer-playing robots to helping save thousands of lives, 32-year-old University of Delaware College of Engineering student Andres Ramirez-Jaime has already accomplished more than many do in an entire lifetime.

The George W. Laird Merit Fellowship honors the memory of UD alumnus George W. Laird, who earned a bachelor of arts degree at Hamilton College in 1964 and then attended UD’s College of Engineering, where he was awarded a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering with highest honors in 1968, followed by a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering in 1971. On Sept. 6, 1977, at the age of 35, Laird was killed in an accident.

Family and friends established the fellowship fund, which is based on merit, and awarded to students who demonstrate balanced excellence, intellectual capability and qualities such as character, maturity, sense of humor, creativity, ingenuity and imagination along with the practical skills, perseverance and the common sense necessary to execute ideas, according to the selection committee. The award has been granted annually since 1978.

Not only has this year’s Laird Fellow played a role in some major engineering projects back home, but Ramirez-Jaime also plays guitar in a heavy metal band (which is now on hiatus) and enjoys photography, particularly landscape photos, in his free time. He is the official photographer for UD’s Hispanic/Latino Graduate Student Association.

“Andres embodies the diverse mix of talent, intellect, interests and passion that is needed to address today’s technological challenges,” said College of Engineering Dean Levi Thompson. “His accomplishments back home in Colombia and his performance in research and development here at the University of Delaware — plus his extraordinary talents outside of the classroom and lab — give me hope that this upcoming generation of engineers and computer scientists will change the world for the better.”

From humble beginnings to national champion

The South American native began his engineering career in industry, working for an oil company. But the work just didn’t feel right, he said.

So back to academia he went, where he ended up working with troubled teens, teaching them robotics.

“I figured that Colombia is struggling a lot because of many situations. If you want to rebuild the country, you can think about that in several different ways,” he said. “You can think about infrastructure, building schools, roads, hospitals. I realized that if I wanted to help rebuild the country and really, truly help, my contribution was going to be through education.”

But working with these young students, who were impacted by serious violence and trauma, took its toll on this young engineer. He wanted to keep helping his country to become more than the negative headlines many Americans associate with the country of Colombia. He also knew he wanted to stay in the realm of education.

Despite not having his doctorate yet, Ramirez-Jaime soon landed a faculty position at the University of La Sabana in the capital city of Bogota, one of the most prestigious universities in the country. During his first interview, he was asked if he knew about NAO robots — small, humanoid robots that can be programmed to conduct a variety of tasks, such as playing a game of soccer, for example.

Andres Ramirez-Jaime (far left) poses with his teammates from the University of La Sabana (from left to right) Omar Sanchez, Valentina Diaz, Nestor Porras, Andres Coronado, Julian Echeverry, Jenny Robayo and Juan Cuevas after placing second at the world RoboCup in Australia in 2019.

He was hired by the university to lead a team of undergraduate engineering students to RoboCup, an international contest of soccer-playing robots that was launched in the late 1990s. The robots must play completely autonomously, so they must be programmed with artificial intelligence making them capable of making strategic decisions.

He spent a year preparing for the World Cup in hopes that this team from his home country could qualify. In 2019, they became the only Latin American team that year to participate. Ultimately, the team lost the final match against Russia when its goalie got confused and scored on its own team. The final score was 4-3, placing this new team as second in the world.

“People may not think of a South American country as a technologically advanced country, but we did play against these other impressive teams and beat them,” Ramirez-Jaime said. The team returned home proud of its accomplishments.

But little did the team members know what was going to be in store just a few months later as COVID-19 swept the globe.

Playing a role in the pandemic response

Ramirez-Jaime was watching television in mid-March 2020 when the president announced that the coronavirus pandemic had reached Colombia and the country of 50 million people would have to go into a full lockdown.

It was expected by that point, he said, as he had been paying attention to international news of the virus. But that also meant soccer-playing robots could no longer be a priority.

About a week after the lockdown went into effect, Ramirez-Jaime’s boss had another question for him. He sent a photo of a ventilator and asked if he knew what it was. Then he asked if he knew how to make one.

“Then, on Monday, I got another call that said we are making a mechanical ventilator,” he said. The work began on March 25, one day after he turned 30.

Andres Ramirez-Jaime (far left) poses with his guitar alongside his “Divergefull” heavy metal bandmates (from left to right) Nicolas Buitrago, Jose Acosta and Jose Riano in this 2017 photo.

Ramirez-Jaime risked his own wellness and headed to the lab where he toiled for months helping a team of engineers and scientists build the first Colombia-based ventilator to help treat the country’s most severe COVID-19 patients.

“I didn’t sleep for like a month straight,” he said. “Then we started saving lives and realized everything was completely worth it.”

He never thought his expertise and skills in robotics would lead him to design a machine that could automate the human breathing process, literally saving lives.

“I’m truly looking forward to the next three to four years of working with him on his degree,” Arce said. “I think he’ll be a terrific student and a terrific alumni for our institution.”

The next grand challenge

With those major accomplishments already on the books, Ramirez-Jaime decided to get back to his doctoral studies. He began looking for different advisers worldwide, in search of another project that could help even more people.

That’s when he discovered his future adviser Arce, whose focus on machine learning aligned with Ramirez-Jaime’s own interests in the field.

“Everyone’s talking about big data, machine learning, cars that drive themselves,” Ramirez-Jaime said. “I did a bit of that while working on robots and I fell in love working on computer vision, artificial intelligence and machine learning. That’s why I came to UD — so I could study working on what I love, which is machine learning.”

In summer 2021, he came to Newark, Delaware, as a visiting scholar, still holding his faculty position at the University of La Sabana.

“I initially came for two months,” he said, “but I liked it so much I decided to stay.”

Now, as a full-time doctoral student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering working under the wing of Arce, this bilingual engineer is now focusing on the use of LiDAR, or light detection and ranging, to help federal agencies like NASA better understand and study the state of the world’s remaining forest cover.

LiDAR is a remote sensing tool that works similarly to how bats use echolocation to navigate and find food. The sounds the bats produce bounce off of objects, providing the information needed to avoid obstacles or track down evening snacks. But instead of sound, LiDAR utilizes light. By measuring the amount of time it takes for a laser beam of light, for example, to bounce back, scientists and engineers can calculate information about a three-dimensional space.

Using long-range LiDAR to map forest cover will allow Ramirez-Jaime to see much more than what’s now available on Google Earth because those beams of light can travel between the thick upper-layer of forest canopy, down to the forest floor.

Then, they will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to recreate vast swaths of forest cover. So instead of having to shoot 1,000 laser beams to collect data of a small patch of an area, these beams could be first spatially coded and then used to sense a much larger area of the forest. The coded measurements are then processed by deep-learning methods to reconstruct a much broader area of earth with very high resolution, he explained.

“Now we’re helping develop these new technologies that I call ‘compressive LiDAR,’” Ramirez-Jaime said. The idea is to start with the Earth, but the technology could have far-reaching implications in better mapping other planets and celestial objects, such as the Moon or Titan, a moon of Saturn.

But back on Earth, the project is based on the understanding that human-driven climate change, driven in large part by the burning of fossil fuels, is impacting habitats around the world. From deforestation to impacts to the water and land, the new compressive LiDAR technology could produce more detailed information that could in turn help drive more detailed decisions about how to solve an international, intergenerational crisis.

“The biggest gain we will get with this is we will be able to see three-dimensional imagery and topography of Earth at high resolutions and very broad scale, which is impossible today,” Arce said. “It’d be something like watching a television show in the ‘70s with those old monitors in low resolution, then unraveling the kodachrome high-resolution view on a screen.”

It’s a huge task at hand, but also another impactful project that Ramirez-Jaime is pouring his all into.

“In none of the things I have done was I looking for recognition, of course,” he said. “I just did the things that had to be done.”

And his plan is to keep on doing just that.

Article by Maddy Lauria | Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Andres Ramirez-Jaime | Illustrations by Joy Smoker | July 08, 2022