So, This is Ocean Tech?

By Viviana Castillo, APL-UW

The humid air penetrates my pores as I sit over the bridge on a massive ship. The sun is setting, I can hear the engines roaring as the water splashes the sides of the hull. I put my headphones on to try and drown out the noise. It doesn’t work, but I pretend it does. I’m exhausted.

I boarded the Maersk Launcher in early August to spend the next eight days aboard with about 40 others for an at-sea test of a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) maritime project supported by my organization, the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington (APL-UW). The Maersk Launcher is a 300-ft. anchor handler/offshore supply vessel of Danish registry that was chartered for this cruise. In addition to the Maersk Launcher, the project employed two other vessels: a 110-ft research vessel and a 34-ft pleasure craft conscripted for logistics support.

I went in knowing I would be one of two women, one of the youngest on the ship and the only Latina. To say that this didn’t intimidate me would be a lie. But it was also extremely exciting. The DoD-funded project was supported by a number of different organizations and agencies supporting a cutting-edge concept to deliver unconventional capabilities to the U.S. Navy.

The first day on the ship was spent in mobilization, and it showed. It seemed a new person crossed my path every other second. Heavy boots hit the deck, everybody was moving quickly and swiftly to stay on schedule and get the ship out of port as planned. The sun was harsh, and sweat was no stranger to anyone onboard.

When we finally sailed away from port at 9:00 p.m., the city lights grew dimmer, and so did my cell phone reception. But, the air also grew fresher, and the night sky grew brighter with the twinkling of every new star that became visible. This was it, there was no going back at this point. I would have to live on a ship with a mix of new colleagues: a few familiar faces among several dozen people I had interacted with sparingly, if at all.

When I woke up the first morning at 5:30 a.m., I couldn’t tell which way was north or south. Not only was I disoriented physically, but my internal clock was in disarray. Half way through the day, I walked outside and stood in complete awe of my surroundings.

There was nothing but a vast mix of hues of blue and green. The sky was clear and wide, and the Santa Monica Basin glowed in shades of dark blue. Pods of dolphins zoomed by as we rushed to the railing in an attempt to capture their beauty in pictures. Living on the ocean is a humbling experience, and the events that transpired on this cruise were not nearly as effortless as the marine life swimming gracefully in the distance.

Hard at Work in the Sea

Our job was to assemble an end-to-end system test, and the stakes were high. The project was unique, and its components were complex. Three years into the project, this was only the second time that all the different organizations involved were brought together, and achieving a successful demonstration proved even more difficult than expected.

It seemed that a last-minute development requiring schedule adjustment was made every few hours. One change was the necessity for more at-sea personnel transfers than expected. Taking part in one of these transfers one morning at 6:00 a.m., I crawled my way down the side of the Maersk Launcher. It was a four-hour transit, and we were unable to travel back to the Maersk Launcher that evening. We woke the next morning at 4:00 a.m. to travel back to the ship. Upon our arrival, the team was ready to start deploying more infrastructure. We were weary from our trip, but it was “all hands on deck”.

Throughout my time on the Maersk Launcher, I saw first-hand the progression of issues that could come up in research cruises that involve both hardware and software. Weeks after the cruise, it was still hard for me to fully process all the successes and failures; the scope of the project was too big to take in every detail in real time. For example, after a full day of software debugging, a large portion of the next day might be spent fixing hardware issues, and neither issue was given as much time in the initial planning as was actually needed once we were at work. This generated increased stress levels. However, although independent aspects of the project were difficult, I was impressed with how well every individual handled specific complications. I even surprised myself.

My role in the demonstration was to provide the electronics and associated software housed in the gateway buoys that provided communications between the ship and the project infrastructure. One critical application was the network time protocol (NTP), which provided an accurate time reference for attached components. In addition, my electronics needed to establish and maintain reliable communication between the ship and the two buoys. In the months leading up to the demo, I knew from experience that even something as simple as moving equipment around could cause functioning hardware and software to fail. Knowing this made me nervous when it came time to deploy the buoys. I was delighted to see that, with the exception of one minor glitch, we were able to successfully deploy the buoys, and they worked as planned.

After days spent working 12 hours or more, we would all come together on the port side of the ship to watch the sun set before recharging for the next day. It was clear that everyone was exhausted but ready to continue in the morning.

How Did I Get Here?

Going into an environment in which I would be the only woman, the only Latina and one of the youngest people on the team was nerve-wracking. But I went in feeling prepared to tackle various scenarios thanks to support from people with first-hand experience on research cruises: my colleagues and mentors at the University of Washington (UW) and its Applied Physics Laboratory (APL-UW), who helped me feel prepared and confident going into my first real research cruise.

But how did I end up on that ship? That’s my story to tell.

I moved to Seattle five years ago from eastern Washington. My family migrated from Mexico 22 years ago, fleeing poverty. Once in Washington, my family made a living by working endlessly. I grew up in a single-parent home, never seeing my mother and being raised in large part by my older sister. My family tells me I was a quiet kid, always keeping my head in a book. When I was eleven, I told my mom that I was “out of here” as soon as I finished high school. I decided I would do anything possible to make that happen, to land somewhere else. Somewhere good.

I am the first in my family to attend college and one of the first to move away and live on my own. Education was my way out, and my way of providing for my family. Like the many incredibly bright, relentless, inspiring students of color that I have had the privilege of calling my classmates and friends at the University of Washington, I pushed through the barriers that stand between first-generation college students and successfully navigating a large institution. The difficulty of fitting in and feeling like I deserved my place in this highly-ranked university seemed nearly impossible to overcome.

When I arrived, I had come from a background in which my mother always encouraged me to stay in school, but I didn’t have the support at home that many of my peers did. I did not have a family member to turn to when I need help with homework, applications, or had questions on the ACT/SAT or AP classes. But I decided to take charge of my education. I enrolled in a program called Running Start that would allow me to complete my last two years of high school through courses at a local community college. Despite encountering pessimism at school from people who didn’t think I could do it, I stuck with the program, and I graduated with an even better GPA from the community college than I had achieved in my first two years in high school. My good grades were a huge factor in my admission into the University of Washington, and it was with a sense of achievement, drive and undying work ethic that I entered the university environment.

But, even with my energy and enthusiasm, my undergraduate experience was extremely difficult, from worrying about how I was going to pay for classes to struggling with feeling like I belonged and deserved the seat I occupied. For the first three years, I dreaded going into every classroom, because there weren’t very many students who looked like me. It was difficult to make friends because I didn’t feel like I belonged. I was suffering from imposter syndrome. I was overcommitting myself, because I was doing what I love, but sleeping three hours a night wasn’t working. I felt split in six directions. I really needed to find a place where I fit in.

In those moments when I felt completely out of place and alone, I realized that it was the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program in high school that encouraged me and kept me going. Then, in my freshman year at UW, I discovered the College Assistant Migrant Program (CAMP), which pushed me if I started to fall behind. It was the small community of people of color at the university that inspired me and convinced me that I had, indeed, earned my place there and showed me that I was not alone. It was the many nights at Latinx Student Union (LSU) meetings where we discussed the hardships we faced in our classes, with our peers, and in this country, that uplifted me and ultimately brought me to APL-UW.

A Career in Ocean Technology

I began working at APL-UW in October of 2017, two months after finishing my undergraduate studies in oceanography at the University of Washington. I had worked abroad with my professor and research scientist Rick Rupan. He suggested that I get in contact with Sarah Webster at APL-UW, which is an independent department at the university and a Navy-recognized University Affiliated Research Center (UARC), one of only five in the country. I met with Sarah and Pete Brodsky the first time I stepped into the APL-UW building. Sarah and Pete are engineers at APL-UW, specializing in autonomous underwater systems. They took a chance, offered me a position, and the rest is history.

It is fair to say that I came to APL-UW with a fair amount of internship, work, and volunteer experience but with little to no experience in the critical technologies of ocean engineering: programming languages, embedded internal sensors, and network configuration, to name a few. The first three months were exceptionally difficult. Learning everything I needed to know about software and electronics in just a few months was dreadful. But it was also the first time that I was able to focus all my attention on one thing and really give it my all. As difficult as it was, learning a new technical language and a new field was thrilling and rewarding.

The light-hearted, flexible, yet rigorous environment that I walked into on my first day at APL-UW was exactly the kind of place I felt I could succeed. If it wasn’t for the remarkably bright APL-UW employees, I would not have learned as much as I did in such a short period of time. As much as I wanted to learn, these experts wanted to teach.

I have now been at APL-UW a year, and in that time I have had the opportunity to work with more technologies than I could ever have imagined when I first started working at the Lab. I have developed extensively in the open-source Linux operating system and have used the Python programming language to write numerous applications. In addition, I’ve been using Matlab to analyze data. I learned a variety of communication protocols, such as serial, Ethernet, and I2C. In addition, I’ve developed interfaces to internal sensors and actuators, such as inertial measurement units (IMUs), the global positioning system (GPS), and other devices such as pressure sensors and stepper motors.

I have also learned how to establish a reliable network time protocol (NTP), and I have worked with submersible Iridium-based, remote, autonomous locating beacons. I also now have hands-on experience wiring and soldering boards for embedded single-board computers (SBCs) such as the Raspberry Pi, and I have worked with high-bandwidth data links using fiber optic cables, connectors, and switches.

Then, after one year on the job, I found myself boarding the Maersk Launcher research ship.

Back Onshore: What’s Next?

Since returning from my August 2019 adventure at sea, I have been asked several times if I would go on a research cruise again. My answer is, absolutely. Even given the complexities and stress I experienced on the cruise, my advice to a newcomer would be: If you ever get the chance to live with your co-workers in such a challenging, exciting, exhausting and rewarding environment, do it. There’s nothing like eight days at sea to stress you out, make you miss those at home, and also help you get to know your colleagues and yourself better.

I look forward having the opportunity to spend more time at sea—and to another intense, nerve-wracking, exciting, and rewarding experience—hopefully in the near future.

Viviana Castillo is a research scientist and engineer at the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington (APL-UW), where she completed a Bachelor of Science Degree in Oceanography in 2017. She began working with autonomous marine systems while studying abroad at the Queensland University of Technology. Her trip in August 2018 onboard the Maersk Launcher was part of a U.S. Department of Defense project facilitated by APL-UW.

All images courtesy of Pete Brodsky.

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