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A Classicist Who Can Build a Computer?

A Classicist Who Can Build a Computer?

Salutatorian and Renaissance Scholar Brent Nash studied computer sciences and classics. His next adventure? A job researching artificial intelligence for NASA.
By Christine Shade
May 2005

Brent R. Nash has been named USC’s 2005 salutatorian, and as a bonus, he’s one of the 10 recipients of a coveted $10,000 prize as a Renaissance Scholar.

Being chosen salutatorian was “a mixture of elation and astonishment,” Nash says.

He earned his Renaissance Scholar award for the breadth and depth of his studies at USC.

“I pride myself on being able to be a little of everything,” Nash says. “I’m an engineer who can write a good essay and a classicist who can build a computer. It keeps me entertained.”

Nash will receive his M.S. degree in computer science May 9 from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, where he achieved a 4.0 GPA. He’ll also be picking up the degree he finished in December, summa cum laude, a B.S. in computer science and computer engineering from the Viterbi School, with a minor in classics from USC College.

Nash, who will be 23 in June, was raised in De Kalb, Illinois. In his youth, he always wondered what he’d end up doing after school and joked with his father that he’d end up being an artist.

Nash doesn’t have to wonder anymore. He has his official hire letter from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where he’ll work on artificial intelligence research and development for NASA.

In July, after a vacation in Greece with his parents—where he looks forward to being their tour guide now that he’s well versed in the classics.

Nash describes himself as “a computer nerd and an academic at heart.” Perhaps that explains this project: a Java Applet to have “intellisense” with a dictionary of Shakesperean words.

He earned the reputation for always ending up first in whatever computer science courses he took from senior lecturer Michael Crowley.

“What’s not reflected in his all-but-perfect grades,” Crowley says, “is that he doesn’t just settle for an ‘A,’ he drives himself to master the material completely.”

Besides being “highly intelligent and highly motivated,” Nash happens to be a very nice guy, Crowley says.

In high school, Nash says he traveled to Greece in a student group led by an inspirational teacher. Then he took a general education course with Vincent Farenga, associate professor of classics in USC College, during his freshman year.

Farenga had recently expanded his “Origins of Western Literature and Culture” course to include questions about the nature of power in different societies. He also broadened his lecture topics to include questions about such things as the environment and politics. But, he says, “I didn't know how this would play to a broad range of undergrads in a GE class.”

Farenga says Nash wasn’t afraid to show that he had come to learn it all. “He wasn’t intimated by my syllabus—to the contrary, he sponged it up.

“It became clear that the ancient world offered Brent an alternative playground for his intelligence and the opportunity to develop what I call a ‘historical imagination’ about the world today and yesterday.”

Farenga suggested to Nash that he look into classics as a minor, and his student with a thirst for knowledge followed through. The seeds for a future Renaissance Scholarship had been planted.

“The education he’s pursued here is that rare hybrid of technological understanding and humanistic intelligence,” Farenga says. “In the classical world, that sort of knowledge would have characterized a philosopher like Aristotle or the scholars of Alexandria.”

Philip Purchase, a lecturer in classics in USC College, taught Nash in two lecture courses, ”Approaches to Myth” and “Ancient Drama.”

“I was particularly happy with the paper Brent wrote in the ‘Ancient Drama’ course,” Purchase says, “in which he looked at the way male subjectivity is represented in Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’ and Chuck Palahniuk’s novel ‘Fight Club.’”

It struck Purchase that the combination of logical constraint and creative imagination essential to Brent’s work with computers was manifest in the way he approached his papers: He combined a strong linear argument with the willingness to entertain ideas that could break the argument yet eventually enrich it.

Purchase says Brent’s success demonstrates the way the classics can play an integral part in a life directed toward the modern world.

When Nash was earning his B.S., he was a Presidential Scholar, made the Dean’s List and was in the Engineering Honors Program. He belongs to three engineering honor societies: Upsilon Pi Epsilon, Tau Beta Pi and Eta Kappa Nu, as well as Phi Kappa Phi and Golden Key.

To illustrate his playful side, in his sophomore year he wrote an article about girls vs. ESPN that was published in Cosmo Girl.

The computer engineering and classics marriage works for Nash.

“It’s a matter of not letting myself end up concentrating so hard on engineering that I become completely one-dimensional,” he says.

Classics gives him the chance to think abstractly, he says, whereas engineering often has much more concrete answers.

Nash chose USC after visiting three schools in California and four in the Midwest.

“For some intangible reason, I just knew it was the right place for me,” Nash says.

Nash was captain of one of USC’s intramural soccer teams for three years and found a way to mix sports and technology when he helped build and program a LEGO robot to play goalie in a robotic soccer game.

Nash says he found sports were an excellent way to get better at communication and teamwork.

“It’s something you need in just about any engineering job,” Nash says.