Commencement 2022: Where motivation meets inspiration, you’ll find URI’s Raymond Turrisi

Mechanical engineering, computer science major to study robotics at MIT

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 3, 2022 – At the University of Rhode Island College of Engineering, there are loads of highly motivated students. After all, engineering programs are difficult to get into and highly demanding.

One of the finest examples of such a motivated and inspired engineering student is graduating senior Raymond Turrisi.

Turrisi’s jump into engineering five years ago when he entered URI was decisive and intentional, but only after giving it lots of thought. 

“I needed to understand exactly why I was going to commit to attending a university and a program before I applied,” said Turrisi, who is from West Warwick, Rhode Island. “People have different motivations for choosing a career – whether it’s a financial decision, finding value in your work, a combination of the two, or something else. I wanted to study something which empowered me to solve real problems we face today, so I can take them head on.” 

Raymond Turrisi testing a prototype of a multipurpose underwater vehicle in ocean engineering’s acoustics tank.

After considering the military, Turrisi looked into engineering at URI, and made his decision.

“I was the first in my family to go to college. I wanted to be sure that I made the most of it, and I thought I could do that at URI,” said Turrisi.

Finding his place

At URI, Turrisi found that the “small feel” of URI allowed him direct access to his professors. 

“I found so many opportunities from the very beginning. I could engage with my professors, learn from transitioning graduate students, or graduate students finishing their higher education and ask what they’ve learned from their decisions. There were also plenty of opportunities to get involved with research labs, with professors who are always open to motivated students.” said Turrisi. 

One professor he singles out is Musa Jouaneh in mechanical engineering, who Turrisi credits with helping him figure out how mechanical engineering fits into robotics during his freshman and sophomore years and Jouaneh’s enthusiasm for allowing him and another undergraduate student to work with a master’s student.

“Since I met Ray about four years ago, I’ve been impressed by his enthusiasm and interest in robotics, his involvement in extracurricular activities, and his ability to balance working almost full-time in off-campus jobs to support himself,” Jouaneh said. “In my 32-year career at URI, I can only think of a few undergraduate students in mechanical engineering whose capabilities are on par with his.”

Turrisi felt right at home at URI, finding a place to thrive. 

He joined the URI Hydrobotics club, which he soon led. He became a captain of the URI Hydrobotics team, increasing the team from 7 to 29 members. But this was only the beginning.

“From my experiences in undergraduate research and seeing how much I’ve been able to learn, I wanted to bring similar opportunities to the team so underclassmen can get involved early,” Turrisi said.

In Turrisi’s sophomore year, he jumped right into robotics and automation research when he joined the Smart Oceans Systems Lab, or the SOS Lab, under the mentorship of URI Graduate School of Oceanography Professor Mingxi Zhou.

“I developed a differential tilting thruster and found new techniques for thruster characterizations, which resulted in my first academic publication after my first summer of undergraduate research,” said Turrisi. 

“Raymond demonstrated his independent research teamwork skills by helping other lab peers on different projects,” said Zhou. “His enthusiasm and passion in robotics drive him to gain new knowledge at an incredible pace. I believe Raymond has a great potential of becoming successful in robotics and congratulate him on starting his new journey at MIT.”

After working on several projects in the SOS Lab, Turrisi received one of the most prestigious undergraduate awards nationwide, the Barry Goldwater Scholarship. It was while doing research in the SOS Lab that Turrisi began to think about pursuing graduate studies in engineering. URI engineering encourages research at the undergraduate level, often pairing students with graduate students and professors in collaborative research. 

“Undergraduate research is arguably the highest impact practice in engineering education and is therefore a major focus in engineering at URI,” said Anthony Marchese, dean of the URI College of Engineering. “Students who work with faculty in their research labs benefit from direct mentorship from faculty and grad students. Many of our best engineering students do not enter our program with the goal of getting an advanced degree, but after working in a faculty research lab, many of our students such as Ray have gone on to graduate programs at many of the leading research universities in the world.”

Inspiring others

In his fourth year, Turrisi served as vice president of Tau Beta Pi, where he organized tutoring for more than 70 engineering students with that year’s initiates while most of the underclassmen’s classes were online due to the pandemic.

“When I was joining the engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi there was a requirement to tutor an underclassman, but I wanted to test myself in communicating and presenting what I’ve learned in courses more broadly,” said Turrisi. “I organized a tutoring recitation with Dr. Nasim Rahmani for a Mechanics of Materials course which was welcome to all her students, in which we filled the room with about 30 students – much more than I was expecting.”

“When Raymond was a candidate for Tau Beta Pi membership he had to complete our service requirement, which is to normally provide one tutoring session for one engineering student. Raymond asked me if he could tutor a whole room of students,32 to be precise, instead of the one required student. It is this kind of motivation that defines who he is,” said Richard Vaccaro, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Turrisi also participated in the URI Engineering Capstone Design Program, which is a year-long team project in which students produce an engineering solution to a real-world challenge. He worked with Rhode Island’s Sons of Liberty distillery and retired URI plant science professor Michael Sullivan. 

“We developed an automated malting system for small craft breweries,” said Turrisi. “It is a system in which small batches of custom malt could be made autonomously.”

In his senior year, Turrisi was awarded a Tau Beta Pi graduate fellowship. Tau Beta Pi, which includes all engineering disciplines, awards about 30 graduate fellowships each year among the 300 to 400 applicants from engineering schools throughout the United States.

What the future holds

“I hope to dedicate my career to the robotics field, in areas which improves how robots engage in the human world around our ergonomics without accommodation and perform tasks for which humans are unfit. Some tasks require fulfillment in challenging or hazardous environments, and require robust autonomy, such as extraterrestrial and deep-sea exploration,” said Turrisi. “I’m most interested in the intersection of artificial intelligence, controls, and the animation of mechanical systems.” 

In April, Turrisi accepted a full assistantship in the highly selective joint Massachusetts Institute of Technology / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Ph.D. program, arguably the most prestigious underwater robotics program in the world. 

“I’ve always thought that being an engineer empowers us with the tools and knowledge to synthesize and take our ideas to scale – developing solutions to problems which can be truly transformative to large populations,” said Turrisi. “This was a major reason for wanting to be an engineer. It is a challenging program, but it’s easy to find the motivation and enjoy the creative processes when you can see the impact your work will have.” 

Turrisi will graduate from URI in May with dual degrees in mechanical engineering and computer science, and minors in mathematics and robotics. He begins at MIT / Woods Hole in June.