National Merit scholar from Hilton Head focuses on robotics

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comMay 15, 2013 

T.J. Melanson

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  • National Merit Scholarship competition requirements:

    The 2,500 winners nationwide were chosen from a pool of more than 15,000 finalists for having the strongest combination of accomplishments, skills and potential for success in rigorous college studies, according to a news release.

    Students qualify through their scores on the Preliminary SAT and are judged on their academic record, school and community leadership, an essay and recommendation from a school official.

At 17 years old, Hilton Head Island senior T.J. Melanson's resume reads like that of a Silicon Valley executive -- a globe-trekking philanthropist and code developer for NASA and the U.S. Air Force.

His latest accomplishment: Last week, the National Merit Scholarship Corp. announced Melanson is one of 31 S.C. high school students -- and the only in Beaufort County -- to win this year's title of Merit Scholar and a $2,500 scholarship in its annual competition.

Melanson attends the S.C. Governor's School for Science and Mathematics, a residential high school in Harstville for academically motivated juniors and seniors studying science, technology, engineering and math.

"He is able to 'embrace the chaos' of developing new ideas and working with both failures and success of that challenge," wrote Elizabeth Bunn, a computer science teacher at the Governor's School, who recommended Melanson for the scholarship.

Last summer, Melanson integrated virtual reality, smartphone programming and robotics to develop a robot at the U.S. Air Force Research Lab in Dayton, Ohio, that can be controlled from any location using an Android-equipped mobile device.

Melanson plans to upgrade the robot, which looks similar to an iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner, to include real-time 3D mapping of its surroundings to help search and rescue operations in dangerous environments.

Also in 2012, he earned a top spot in a robotics challenge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that took his programming talent to space.

Melanson watched from an MIT lecture hall as astronauts on the International Space Station loaded algorithms he and his team developed to operate volleyball-sized free-flying satellites. The algorithms for the satellites are to accomplish tasks relevant to future space missions. The algorithms were then tested, and the best designs were selected to operate the satellites aboard the space station.

"I really love to learn new things and try to push the limits, especially in technology," said Melanson, who lives by the T.S. Eliot quote: "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."

"Each of us has an opportunity to really make a difference in the world and make the world a better place," Melanson said. "I think academics really help set the framework to make this happen."

Just a few days after his internship with the Air Force, Melanson was on a plane to Kenya to combine his passion for service, foreign cultures and running.

The Eagle Scout and 5K runner-up in the 2012 1A State Cross Country Championship raised $250 for the Kamariny Primary School in Iten, Kenya, where he taught English and participated in a Kenyan running camp.

"He has a history of helping others through many avenues," Bunn said. "He has learned how incredible it is to reach out to others, not only to help them, but to ask for help."

Melanson plans to attend Stanford University in the fall, majoring in computer science and specializing in computer engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence. He also plans to intern again this summer with the Air Force Research Lab.

"After Stanford, I hope to work in Silicon Valley or possibly start up my own company," he said. "I also hope to continue to give back to my community, especially by helping kids become interested in science and robotics."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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