What is it like to work in a STEM career? Meet Lieutenant Laura Gallant. She is the Deputy Chief of Operations at the NOAA Marine Operations Center – Pacific where she helps coordinate logistics and support for NOAA vessels in the Pacific Fleet.
Oregon Coast STEM Hub: How did you get interested in this career?
Laura Gallant: I was always interested in the natural world around me and how that all fits together. I realized as I grew up that meant I was interested in science. When I went to college I majored in Natural Resources. While I was there I did a semester abroad with Sea Education Association. We spent six weeks learning about nautical science, oceanography, and marine biology; and then we spent six weeks at sea in the Caribbean on a 120ft long tall ship. We learned to sail and conduct science experiments at sea. It was hard, I was always tired and sea sick; but it was also beautiful, exciting, and interesting. We had a captain who was a real inspiration to me. She was jack-of-all-trades. She had a Ph.D. from Harvard, but could also sail a tall ship and had travelled extensively. She took the time to explain things to me when I wanted to get deeper in to the “why” than our textbooks or lessons included. She also had such authority! I mean command at sea is not something we often see women depicted doing in movies and books. I was fascinated.
When I got back to college I wanted to study the sea, so I added a second major in Ocean Sciences. It was during those new classes that I found out about NOAA Corps. I had nearly joined the Navy or the Air Force when I started college because I loved the idea of serving my country, but I wanted to serve in a scientific capacity. The NOAA Corps is science and service. It was such a perfect fit! But even then I decided to go to graduate school. I thought I wanted to get a Ph.D. and be a researcher. I ended up getting a Master’s Degree in Biology and then decided it was time to join the NOAA Corps.
OCSH: What exactly is the NOAA Corps?
LG: NOAA stands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The NOAA Corps is one of the seven uniformed services. It is also the smallest, with just 321 officers. We staff NOAA’s fleet of research vessels and aircraft. The NOAA Corps officers are the bridge officers and pilots. We work with civilians who serve all the other roles you’d need at sea: engineers, deck crew, shore support, etc.
OCSH: How do you get into the NOAA Corps?
LG: We are a direct commission service. That means to get in you need to finish a bachelor’s level education first. We require a certain number of credits in math and science, so most of us are science or engineering majors. There is an application process that is a lot like a college application with essays and an interview. Once you are accepted we go to a 4-5 month officer training program at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. After training we go out to the fleet. It takes about six months to a year at sea to get trained underway and qualified to drive the ship without direct supervision. Our ships range in size from 170 to 270 feet long, with anywhere from 21-52 people aboard. So when you are in charge of the vessel you are also in charge of everyone’s safety at sea.
OCSH: As a NOAA Corps officer, what do you do?
LG: In addition to driving the ships, officers also conduct and interpret science. Our ships have three main missions: seafloor mapping, fisheries research, and general oceanography. On the seafloor mapping ships, officers collect the data and then use computer programs to clean and convert that data into new nautical charts. On the fisheries ships, officers consult with the scientists aboard and serve sort of as intermediaries between scientist and ship’s crew. Oftentimes the scientists know what sort of data they want to collect but need specialized input on how to get the ship to best collect that data. Same goes for the general oceanographic vessels. They might be deploying buoys, collecting water chemistry data, or observing whales.
Officers spend about two to three years assigned to a vessel and then rotate into a three year land assignment. Ashore we might work in a NOAA laboratory or in a logistics and support type position. There are a lot of different types of assignments.
OCSH: How is your career related to STEM education?
LG: It’s important to have a STEM background because we are constantly using science, technology, engineering and math. We have to calculate speed/distance/time equations to figure out how fast we should go to arrive on station at a specific time. We use math to interpolate tidal data to figure out the best time to enter or leave a harbor. We analyze surface current and wind vectors to determine the best way to orient the ship for stationary operations. We also use our scientific education to interpret weather data we receive so we know if it will be safe to conduct operations. We are trained in radar and radio technology and learn how to use the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. Some of our ships have sophisticated computers that maintain dynamic positioning, so all the ship’s engines and thrusters are controlled from one console. We have to understand technology and its integration in the ship’s systems to able to use that system safely. It’s a career that relies heavily on STEM.
OCSH: Although normally we can find you living and working in Newport, last April you were on board NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer as it conducted its mission to explore Puerto Rico’s seamounts, trenches and troughs using the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Deep Discoverer. What were you doing there?
LG: I worked on Okeanos Explorer for about a year and half as Operations Officer. In April I went back to help train the new officers in ROV operations. It’s the officer’s responsibility to safety deploy and recover this 10,000lb ROV. It isn’t a task we take lightly! The whole crew needs to work together. The ROV supervisor directs the operation, the NOAA Corps officer drives the vessel, and the deck crew works the crane and other rigging.
Learn more about Okeanos Explorer‘s expedition on the website oceanexplorer.noaa.gov and read Laura’s mission log post: “A Day in the Life of a Watch Standing Bridge Officer” to find out more about her life and duties on board Okeanos Explorer.
Laura Gallant is actively involved with the Oregon Coast STEM Hub. She has served as a science mentor for the Newport Schools Science Fair, a mission judge for the Oregon Regional MATE ROV Competition, and she is a member of the Oregon Coast STEM Hub’s Communications Committee.