Technicians At Sea: Computing Resources

“Yeah, it’s one big adventure, to travel the world, that’s cool and all – but the rewarding aspect I didn’t know until later was seeing the research I assisted with on the news. I felt proud to be part of something greater.”

Computer tech Daniel can often be found near the main lab’s wall of monitors,
keeping an eye on the countless systems he’s in charge of maintaining.
Photo by ROV tech Doug Penny.

Daniel Yang first started working for Shipboard Technical Support at SIO as an undergraduate student, programming applications for the Oceanographic Data Facility. Later he became one of the department’s Computing Resources (CR) technicians and in the last ten years has traveled around the world on Scripps research vessels, spending anywhere from a few days to a few months away from home. The techs are in charge of making sure everything digital onboard is working, including data collection and processing from all the sensors onboard. There are also ship networks to maintain, servers that the scientists use to share information. You’ve seen pictures of R/V Sally Ride’s “wall of monitors” in other posts – fifteen screens all showing readouts from different instruments  – and the CR techs are in charge of keeping them all up and running. 

Along with the resident technicians (restechs, see intro in a previous blog post here), the CR techs act as a liaison between the scientists and crew. No matter what the science objectives, every research cruise on R/V Sally Ride requires setup, tracking, and assistance from the computer techs. The coring group needed singlebeam echo sounder data to reliably collect sediment samples, the ROV group used an acoustic positioning system to track the submersible’s location, and many trips require CTD sensor data and bottle samples. In addition, there are many systems that run by default unless they interfere with primary science operations, like the seafloor mapping system and current profiler. Daniel works with the scientists in advance to make sure their needs will be met. “What the scientists want versus reality can be challenge, but we always try to accommodate the science,” he says, adding with a smile “We can’t break the laws of physics, but sometimes we’re asked to.” And if nothing else, no one can function without internet access these days, and Daniel is in charge of keeping that running as well.

Daniel gears up to climb the mast of R/V Roger Revelle to make repairs.

But he’s much more than just an at-sea IT guy. Daniel has had standard desk jobs in the past, and says “I probably wouldn’t want to go back to that. No, I don’t think I could sit in one place.” Trouble-shooting equipment on a research vessel can be “like a stair master when things go wrong,” he tells me, as there’s gear on every deck of the ship, not to mention up the three-story masts. The computer techs are also in charge of launching XBTs (eXpendable BathyThermographs), temperature probes used to determine the speed of sound in seawater, which can vary due to many factors and are needed to calibrate measurements made by onboard and deployed instrumentation. For this, Daniel dons the work vest necessary for any operation involving something placed over the side of the ship and makes his way to the fantail. For some reason, it seems to be tradition to prank a new scientist into helping with an XBT deployment and telling them how dangerous it is, loading them up with unnecessary protective equipment (see Twitter picture below). 

There is often only one computer tech on a research cruise, which means they may be called for assistance at any hour of the day. Without the routine of a work shift, Daniel adapts his hours to when he is likely to be needed. But that doesn’t mean he won’t get a call right after he’s hit an REM cycle or just gotten to the best part of a movie or book.

Daniel launches an XBT off the fantail of R/V Sally Ride.

Though it’s more likely to be interrupted, Daniel lists the same downtime activities that the other techs and crew members have mentioned in their interviews. “I read a lot of books, watch movies, rinse, repeat, eat, workout, that’s about it.” He also gets asked to help people with their personal computers, and is ready to help. It’s always good to be known as a helpful person and to make friends with the crew. “We’re stuck with each other for a month or more at a time, so it’s good to help each other out.” 

When asked what he would recommend for people who are interested in a job like his, he says “Practice being handy, even if you’re a programmer, knowing some basic things like soldering, hands-on stuff away from the keyboard, maybe build an RC car. Those skills really do come into play out at sea.” On one trip aboard SIO’s R/V Roger Revelle, the MET sensor stopped working. Short for Molecular Electronic Transducers, the gyroscopes, tilt sensors, and accelerometers are vital to both crew and science missions. Their location on the ship’s mast makes troubleshooting quite an undertaking. Daniel geared up with safety equipment, including a harness and hard hat, and made the climb. It turned out to be a short in the wire, which he cleaned up with a pencil eraser and then repaired – all while about nine stories above the ocean surface, in the middle of nowhere.

Having a brand new ship to set up and work with has been exciting for everyone at Scripps, but especially the technicians who are expected to know everything about keeping a research vessel running. R/V Sally Ride is now a passion project for those of us lucky enough to have been involved from the beginning, and one that Daniel is excited to be a part of for a long time coming.

“The ship is the most advanced in the world, and I really want to keep it that way.”

See more from Daniel at the R/V Sally Ride gallery at Birch Aquarium’s Explorations at Sea exhibit! Thanks to aquarium staff for the interview, taken for the “Meet the Crew” feature.

Technicians At Sea: Resident Marine Technician

“I get to work with the world’s smartest people, the top scientists. I ask a lot of questions, I try to learn what they’re doing just for my own insight. These are the professors I could have taken grad school classes from. Over dinner I can learn the grand scheme, the big picture, over a napkin instead of a textbook. That’s all I need.”

R/V Sally Ride off the coast of Matt’s hometown of Santa Barbara for a science personnel transfer.

Resident marine technician (restech) Matt Durham is one of those people that has always been ocean-minded. R/V Sally Ride pulled in close to his hometown of Santa Barbara a few days ago, bringing him back to the place where, “…I grew up splashing in the ocean, got tar on my feet, cruised around the tidepools. Except for one year of my life (in Lake Tahoe), I’ve never lived more than five miles from the coast.”

As part of his duties to make sure both science goals and
ship’s capabilities are considered, Matt runs cable from
the starboard side handling system to the stern A-frame.

His first job after moving to San Diego after college was as a dive master, taking tourists out for scuba trips in La Jolla Cove. “At some point during all that hard work, you find yourself underwater – breathing, flying in three dimensions, cruising around with critters that most people never get to see in real life. Makes it all worth it.” Now he dives on vacation before and after research cruises all over the world.

Matt also had a short-lived job in a lab at the Scripps Research Institute (an unaffiliated biomedical
company also founded by Ellen Browning Scripps). “It was an indoor job, and I’m an outdoor cat.” Soon after, he interviewed for a restech position and has been part of the group for almost ten years now. The job at SIO has turned Matt into a seasoned traveler. He’s now been to more countries than states. Work has taken him to all seven continents, though he’s claiming eight now that Zealandia has been “discovered. The restech group works on Scripps research vessels, but occasionally they get sent out on other cruises. Matt recently went to Antarctica on the US Antarctic Program’s icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer, and he’s been to the Arctic on the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy

As part of running deck operations, Matt gives hand signals to the winch
operator, ensures the equipment is secure, and everyone is safe.

The restech group consists of technicians that bridge the gap between the ship’s crew and science party. No one knows better the limits and uses of all the ship’s equipment better than its crew, while the scientists are often focused on their goals. Being the line of communication between the two is the restech’s main job, one that is necessary to formulate and execute a plan that is compatible and safe. Sometimes there’s two restechs, each working a 12-hour shift to cover operations. But often they go out solo, in which case Matt tells the science party “I can work any hour of the day, but not all the hours of the day.” There’s always some newbies onboard, and every operation is different. From setting up the CTD to handling tag lines to tying knots, Matt begins each trip by making sure the scientists are ready to work on deck. By the end of the trip, he says, “People may think my job looks easy, and that means I did a good job getting everyone trained – when we’re running like a well-oiled machine, everybody’s staying safe.”

After a successful net recovery, Matt (right) stops by the
wet lab to learn about the samples that scientists collected.

Matt’s ability to take a step back from any situation and see things from all angles is clutch at work. Running deck operations requires him to know where all the moving parts are – people, equipment, potential hazards. That situational awareness is part of his personality to begin with, and it makes him good at his job, which then feeds back into his personal life. From understanding other people’s politics to getting the crew and science party to understand each other’s goals and limitations. “From ship to life, it’s important to understand different perspectives.” Click to see a 360 view of Matt running the deck during a mooring deployment. You can always find the restech in photos because they’re giving hand signals.

Marine technicians work hard and have to make sacrifices for the job. On average, Matt spends roughly 1/3 of the year away from the comforts of home. He laments time away from friends, family, surfing, snowboarding, and riding his bike. “Every once in awhile when I’m laying in my bunk and it’s been a rough day, I wonder if maybe I’d prefer a ‘normal’ job. I start thinking about what that job would be…wearing nice slacks, collared shirts, a tie, driving a fancy car to work every day at 7am and doing that forever. And ever. And ever. And then I say, ‘I’ll get back on a boat.’” That’s a sentiment many marine technicians share – despite the sacrifices, the missed events, the time away, we keep coming back.

Technicians At Sea: My Story

“Not all those who wander are lost.”  – J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring

If I’m going to write a series of blogs about technicians at sea onboard R/V Sally Ride, I may as well start with myself. If you’ve read the brief intro in the About the Author section on this page, you’ll know that I have always been drawn to the ocean and dreamed of being an explorer. When I’m in the ocean I feel like I am where I’m meant to be. Sometimes that makes this job harder – crossing oceans, sometimes for months at a time, but not being able to actually get in the water until you reach port.

In my natural environment, on the ocean.

I came to San Diego for undergrad, getting a degree in biology from UCSD, and have been here ever since. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, and working on the La Jolla campus, coming over the hill and seeing the cove spread out before me, doesn’t get old. I didn’t make ocean sciences a focus of my studies or of my career for a few years, and just wasn’t satisfied. So I followed advice I’d been given many times, and now tout myself – no one’s going to pay you to get experience, so get out there and volunteer, make yourself valuable, and go from there. I volunteered at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps for a few years and through that, was chosen as a volunteer on a research cruise run by SIO grad students. I was immediately hooked – a laboratory on a ship, collecting samples and analyzing them 24/7, was such a different and exciting environment. It was living, breathing science and I was part of it.
Within six months, I was working full-time at the SIO Oceanographic Data Facility (ODF) as a sea-going chemist, analyzing water samples for nutrient and dissolved oxygen concentrations, and salinity. I’m also being trained in restech duties, so can help run deck operations and equipment. I enjoy working as a technician – I get hired for different types of projects all over the world, rather than just focusing on one area. I’ve never been tempted to go back for a postgraduate degree, but I really like working with different groups and learning about their science goals. I spend about 100 days a year out at sea, working on vessels from SIO ships off Southern California to Coast Guard icebreakers in the Arctic. I’ve crossed every ocean and been to the North Pole, but still have yet to get to the 7th continent, Antarctica. 

Running the crane onboard R/V Sproul (left), at the North Pole with icebreaker Healy (top right),
and launching floats from Australian vessel Investigator (bottom).

Since June of last year, I’ve been assigned to outreach duties aboard R/V Sally Ride, and it’s been amazing. Getting to be part of bringing this beautiful new ship to its home at SIO, and getting the public and scientific community involved, has been an honor. Going out on the science verification cruises has also been a great experience, and a very different one. As a chemist, I mostly participate in hydrography cruises, water sampling using a CTD rosette. So the ship may be different every time, but the deck and labs are often set up very similarly for those operations.

Coming in to my favorite port, San Diego,
on R/V Sally Ride. Picture by Gabriela Chavez.

Here on Sally Ride, I’ve been part of back to back cruises with completely different science goals. Being onboard as the ship goes through those transitions is very interesting, and gives me a great respect for her capabilities. From net tows on CalCOFI to seeing the seafloor with ROVs to launching drones to seafloor mapping to coring, R/V Sally Ride is ready for anything. 

My love for the ocean is now intertwined with my love for Scripps. Working for an institution where everyone is interested in knowing more about the ocean and its influence on our lives and the world is inspiring, and makes me feel like I’m part of something worthwhile.