Tar Heel of the Week

Future is bright for science whiz

Staff WriterFebruary 22, 2009 

  • BORN: April 20, 1987, Durham

    FAMILY: Single. Parents: mother, Kathy Dennis and stepfather, Luther "Laddie" Dennis, both of Durham; father, Wayne Going, Grand Island, Neb.

    EDUCATION: Graduated from the N.C. School of Science and Math, 2005. Double major at N.C. State University in electrical engineering and applied mathematics, expected graduation, 2009.

    SCHOLARLY WORKS: "Electrostatic Force and Torque Description of Generalized Spheroidal Particles in Optical Landscapes" in partnership with Brandon L. Conover and Michael J. Escuti.

    HONORS: Member Phi Beta Kappa; NCSU University Honors Program; Astronaut Scholar, 2007; honorable mention, Goldwater Scholarship; finalist for Churchill and Marshall scholarships; Eagle Scout.

    COMMUNITY WORK: Habitat for Humanity projects in Ecuador, Mississippi and Florida; member and past president, NCSU Amnesty International chapter.

    RELIGION: Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chapel Hill

    HOBBIES: Hiking, snowboarding

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The last name of Michael J. Escuti, an assistant professor at N.C. State University, was misspelled in the Tar Heel of the Week story that appeared on the front page of the Triangle and State section Sunday.


When Ryan Going was in elementary school, he asked his mother if he could join a program run by the small non-profit group Science Stars of Durham so he could tag along with a friend. The program exposed children to science, including field trips to N.C. State University's veterinary college and the N.C. School of Science and Math.

Now those little science trips have led to a big one: Going, a senior in applied mathematics and electrical engineering at NCSU, just won a Gates Cambridge Scholarship that will pay the full cost of earning a master's degree at storied Cambridge University in England. He was among 37 U.S. students to win the scholarships from a foundation created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda. A Raleigh woman studying at Mount Holyoke College, Kathryn Greenberg, also won one.

"Ryan has as high a potential as anyone I've encountered to be a significant thinker in engineering science, and to be a mentor, too," says Going's undergraduate adviser, Michael J. Escuti, an assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.

Going's success is also a victory for a constellation of people, groups and institutions that have fought the erosion of the nation's edge in science and math by making sure students get plenty of exposure to the possibilities. At every juncture in his education, beginning with that Science Stars program, there was someone, or something, that offered him a chance to push another step higher.

The Gates scholarships are awarded "on the basis of a person's intellectual ability, leadership capacity and desire to use their knowledge to contribute to society."

Going, an Eagle Scout with a modest background, is 21 but has already begun contributing to society, and not just in science.

Going (pronounced "go-ing") restarted the once-dormant Amnesty International chapter at NCSU to publicize issues such as genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. On each of his spring breaks, he has headed to places such as Ecuador and the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

He picked a senior project helping design a more efficient solar-recharged lantern for Lighting a Billion Lives, a charity that brings lights to poor rural villages in the Third World. A crucial supply of inexpensive light-emitting diodes dried up, but the design work could still be used when the cost of LEDs drops a bit.

Going wants to become a professor at a major research university. He hasn't always felt this way.

Afraid of being fired

Going was born in Durham and raised in Durham County near Chapel Hill. His father had a doctorate in education and taught at UNC but didn't have tenure. When Going was about 3, his father lost his job when the university didn't renew his contract. For a while, he looked for work but eventually gave up, Going says.

He's still unemployed, and he and Going's mother, Kathy Dennis, were eventually divorced. She remarried when Going was in his teens, but for much of Going's childhood, the family lived on his mother's income from her job as a secretary at the university.

"Until I was 10 or 11, I was thinking 'I don't want a Ph.D., because I don't want to get fired,' " Going says.

But then came the Stars program, followed by a special summer program at Duke University for gifted students, which his mother could afford with some financial aid.

Going says he never felt deprived as a child, because if he really needed something, his mother always managed to make sure he got it.

Other crucial rungs on that ladder to the future, he says, were math classes for gifted students at his first high school, Jordan, then acceptance at the N.C. School of Science and Math.

His mother says that being among the state's most talented and ambitious science and math students was a turning point, and Going agrees.

"Kids were doing research, and I was like, 'You can do that?' " he says. "There were all these amazing kids, and their dreams were of getting their Ph.D. and becoming leaders in their field.

"By the time I started college, I knew I wanted to go to a pretty good one for graduate school and that I would have to work hard to get there," he says.

The year Going arrived at the school for science and math was the first under a state law that waived tuition for its graduates at any school in the state university system. He graduated in 2005 and picked NCSU both because it offered a high-grade engineering education and because he could not imagine spending vast sums on an out-of-state school.

Another big boost came from a relatively new university office that helps prepare students for major fellowship and scholarship applications. The Fellowship Advising Office arranged practice interviews and conversations with former winners that he says were crucial.

Meanwhile, Escuti, Going's adviser, got money from a National Science Foundation program that gets talented undergraduates involved in research. That allowed Going to work with Escuti on a major project, which led to a scholarly paper that Going wrote with Escuti and a graduate student for a conference on light-related research, a rare thing for undergrads.

Working with light

Going's main research interest is in making light do useful things, such as moving tiny objects. That has huge potential, for example, in manipulating individual nanoparticles, which can be extraordinarily difficult to move with precision. Nanoparticles are extremely small man-made objects that have become of intense interest to researchers in recent years because of potential benefits in a wide range of products, including drugs, structural composites and electronics.

When he first heard about moving things with light, it struck him that some of the science was both fundamental and relatively new. That told him that there were exciting discoveries to be made.

Going credits that long chain of people and organizations for much of what he has done. He brought formidable gifts to those opportunities, though he was savvy enough to see the options at each step, say friends and colleagues.

His best friend at the School of Science and Math was Ryan Neely of Asheboro. Neely, now a doctoral candidate studying atmospheric science in Colorado, went to NCSU as an undergraduate.

Going, Neely says, is laid-back and nearly impossible to anger, but he has a savage work ethic.

"If he's got a project in front of him, he will work on it until he's exhausted or until it's done," Neely says. "He would routinely work 18 hours a day."

Part of that drive comes from Going's intense curiosity about how things work, Neely says.

At Cambridge, Going will study for a master of philosophy in micro- and nanotechnology enterprise. He has also been accepted at the University of California at Berkeley, where he will study for a doctorate in electrical engineering when he's finished in England.

Then he'll become a professor, he said, to do the research he loves so much and to teach.

"I think one of the reasons I picked this career path is because I have all these people to thank for where I am," Going says. "Without every single one of them, I wouldn't be here, and this is a way to pay them back."

Neely, who has dealt with many professors himself, knows what kind his friend will be.

"Oh, he'll be the kind a lot of students hate at first," Neely says. "He'll expect more than anyone else; he will expect the most.

"And then later they will realize he was one of the best professors they ever had."

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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