Several years ago, sophomore Konrad Ludwig was a skinny kid from California with a self-described “discipline problem” who wasn’t sure if he was going to make it through high school.
Since then, he has served in the U.S. military, authored a book, and become a NASA-recognized computer programmer.
Back in 2005, American troops were fighting in two wars in the Middle East and the army’s recruitment and retention was at an all-time low. The army needed men, and Ludwig wanted to do something “big.” He enlisted at age 17.
In 2010, Ludwig was medically discharged as a sergeant with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He had traveled across the world, faced death, and was home before most people graduate from college.
“I’m not saying what we did was perfect. It was war,” Ludwig wrote in his autobiographical book, “Stryker: The Siege of Sadr City.” “But at least now I can point to a place in the world where something I was a part of made a difference for the better.”
Right after his discharge, Ludwig began writing his account of the war with a focus on his unit’s efforts in Sadr city. In the epilogue, Ludwig confesses that he began the book partly as a way to communicate to his family what happened to him during the war.
He used the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to finance editing and publishing of the account, and raised over $37,000 in pre-orders of the book. The book is available on Amazon in paperback and kindle form.
The income from the book gave Ludwig the freedom to renew one of his interests from high school: computer programming. He eventually acquired the skills of a full-stack web developer, which means he had the ability to code for both the user interface and the servers behind the scenes of a website.
“Programming is just a whole other side of my brain. Thinking through a problem in pure logic, mapping everything out, it’s just — it’s therapeutic,” Ludwig said.
Ludwig and a team of his friends from high school who were also skilled in computers began preparing for the 2016 NASA Space Apps competition. Space Apps is a worldwide, 48-hour hackathon where teams put together innovative programs and technology based on NASA’s data.
“NASA basically says, ‘Here’s 48 hours, here’s all of our data, here are some prompts on things we think will be valuable. Make it work,” Ludwig said. “All you have to do is make a proof of concept or use their data to show that there is this thing you can do with the resources you have.”
During the hackathon, Ludwig and his friends proved you could create a program that would warn people about health risks resulting from atmospheric conditions. They called the program Scintilla, and it combined atmospheric data from a satellite with a program that provided real-time access to consumer sentiment about air quality in different areas.
Their project won the “Best Use of Data” award out of 1,287 submitted projects. They also won the “Best Use of a Physical Component” award which earned the team a 4-month paid research and design residency at the Supplyframe design lab in Pasadena, California to further develop the program.
At age 29, Ludwig decided he wanted to go to college to get a stronger background in formal math to pursue his passion for machine-learning and data science.
“When I’m programming a web application, I have to think out everything and how it works,” Ludwig said. “But that’s not at all how machine learning and neural networks work. There’s an art to putting together layers and you hope it works and converges.”
He chose to come to Hillsdale despite the fact that Hillsdale does not offer a major in computer science. He is now a sophomore and is double majoring in applied mathematics and economics.
“I have enough skills and experience with programming that going to an actual computer science program would hurt me,” Ludwig said. “I’d spend 4 years learning about things that are 5 years old, and those are things I already know.”
Ludwig said his time in the army prepared him to take on heavy workloads, and it’s something he enjoys doing. This semester he is taking 21 academic credits at Hillsdale for the sake of the challenge.
“I was redlining myself because I wanted to see how far I can push it. I’ve never been in an academically rigorous environment when I’m really taking it seriously,” Ludwig said. “Now I know, and I won’t be doing that again.”
Ludwig is a member of the Shooting Sports team and is the president of the Veterans Honor Society of Hillsdale College. Ludwig said he is committed to improving the reputation of the veterans on campus and integrating them more into student life.
In an effort to involve themselves more in student life, the Veterans Honor Society created and worked the Warrior Dash, an obstacle course that students run in teams.
“Konrad really went all out for this,” said Joe Thistleton, a member of campus recreation who worked the event. “He worked way harder than he really had to.”
“Konrad is hard working, really well spoken, and a true warrior at heart,” said Lionel Armstrong, one of Ludwig’s friends in the Veterans Honors Society. “That’s a really good combination in a leader and I think that’s why he became president.”