By the age of nine, Etienne Ackermann, a fifth-year doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) at Rice University, had lost about 500 Rands — at the time, roughly $1,000 — on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
In the next three years he sold more than 15,000 homemade donuts. Other schemes followed: selling hand-made crafts at school, co-founding a catnip cultivation and distribution business that failed spectacularly when he was 13, co-founding a record-to-CD conversion business and a party equipment rental firm the following year. He even did things as conventional as delivering newspapers and starting an entrepreneurship club at his elementary school.
“I enjoyed selling things and I enjoyed the art of making things. It didn’t always work out but I did learn a great deal,” said Ackermann, 30, who was born and raised near Pretoria, South Africa, and now works in the Realtime Neural Engineering laboratory of Caleb Kemere, assistant professor of ECE and of bioengineering.
The son of a career soldier who had trained as an architect, and a math and science teacher, Ackermann displayed the customary early symptoms of a future engineer, building ambitious structures with Lego bricks and Capsela model kits, and teaching himself how to program at the age of nine. “I always knew I was good at math but I never connected it with building things. I was just playing, like any kid,” Ackermann said.
While investing his savings in the stock market in January 2008, and losing it all in that year’s global financial crash, Ackermann continued his education at the University of Pretoria, where he earned a B.E. in computer engineering in 2008, an honors degree in electronic engineering in 2009, and a master’s degree in electronic engineering in 2011. He came to Rice later that year and received a master’s degree in computational and applied mathematics (CAAM) in 2013.
In Kemere’s lab, Ackermann helps design real-time systems that interact with the in vivo neural circuits of rodents. They enable researchers to explore how information is processed, stored, and retrieved in healthy brains and in models of human neurological diseases and disorders. The lab focuses on researching memory and deep brain stimulation.
“This was not a field of research I expected to find myself in. I really do miss doing something with my hands. I still like the feeling of making things,” Ackermann said.
Earlier this year he married Meilin Huang, a biostatistician at MD Anderson. United States law 212(e) requires that Ackermann, as an exchange visitor on a U.S. Department of State-funded program return to South Africa after receiving his Ph.D. in May 2018, and that he remain there for at least two years. He contemplates a career in academia, but also weighs the possibility of research and “making things.”
“Caleb thinks I’m good at teaching. I’m starting to think I agree,” he said.