When I was a child in Seattle, I liked to do a lot of different things. I really liked school, I liked to get good grades, I liked to please the teacher. But I also liked to run around after my brother who was a year and a half older than I. When I got older, I ended up doing my own repair work on cars like my big brother did. He was a big influence on me.
When I was a kid I had two little golden books. I just loved these. One was about the Earth. It had little cutaway sections of the Earth and showed the mantle and all of that. The other one was about physics.
I also remember my Dad taking me to slide shows of NASA missions to the moon. I wasn’t sure why he was dragging me along to those instead of my brother, but I must have been interested in that stuff. I’d go along with him and watch the moon launches. The space shuttle was fascinating.
When I first became a student in college, I was more interested in humanities. But after a couple of years, I found the science classes to be more compelling. I got so fascinated by physics and chemistry that I switched my major. At the same time, I had friends who were mechanics. I had a boyfriend who was a mechanic, and we rebuilt a Volvo. I worked on my own cars too.
I went to graduate school in physics and got a masters in physics at the University of Arizona. Afterwards, I was in Arizona waiting for my husband to finish a Ph.D. in physics. I wasn't interested in a Ph.D in physics but since I was stuck at the University of Arizona for a while, I decided to pick my favorite field and get a Ph.D. in that. I took classes in atmospheric science and aeronautical engineering, but I hit it off much better in the atmospheric sciences department.
I worked halftime in the atmospheric sciences department with a professor I consider a genius. It was a wonderful opportunity. I did a lot of work in his lab. That was my favorite part, really. It wasn’t so much what I was studying, it was being able to play around in the lab with these gizmos, build stuff, and do lot of electrical work. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences.
My husband and I then moved to Seattle and I couldn’t find a job in atmospheric sciences right off. I had another baby. I now had two little kids. I took some time off and took care of my kids for a couple of years. Then I was called by my advisor at Arizona in atmospheric sciences, and he said that he had an experiment being done on a ship, a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) ship. I worked on the NOAA ship running atmospheric sampling equipment. That job turned into a postdoc [post doctoral position] at the University of Washington.
The first time I went out on a ship, we went off the Washington coast for a couple of weeks. That was fun. There was a storm. I just loved it. It amazed the people I worked with because a lot of people get very seasick. I was chosen for a postdoc mainly because I didn’t get seasick. I went ahead and worked at the University of Washington and went out on several NOAA ships after that.
Every time I went out on a ship I would be more interested in the engineering. I talked to the captain all of the time about all of the equipment, how everything runs, the electrical system, and the facility problems on the ship.
When my postdoc ended, I was trying to think of something practical to do in Seattle that would provide a good wage. I was at that point fascinated by ships and being out at sea. I decided to work on a ship. I decided that there were enough ships around Seattle that my skills in machining and electrical work that I picked up as a scientist should be worth something.
I went to school for a year [at the Seattle Maritime Training Academy]. I went through this program [Marine Engineering Technology] and worked with the community college after I completed the program. That was fun, but I started to want to go back out to sea. It’s one of those things. It gets in your blood. So I applied to work with NOAA, and three days later I was on my way. I went from being a scientist on a NOAA ship to a grunt in the engine room.
I was wiping the oil out of a ship's bilge up in the Bering Sea and trying not to get seasick for a few days. That was probably the low point of my career. I was working on a fishing research boat that was looking at the population of fish in the Bering Sea. I knew I had to do something like that to prove myself, but I didn't want to do that for very long.
I looked around a little bit more and was told that the University of Washington was hiring. I was called by the marine director and he said that this ship [R/V Thompson] was leaving here in a couple of months. I would be flying to Cape Town and going from Cape Town to Tahiti. How could you turn that down? That was a great trip. I worked on the ship as an oiler. One of the oilers was on vacation. I filled in for three months. Then I was called back two or three months later when another oiler went on vacation. Once you have been called back once or twice, you are pretty much in the door. When a permanent oiler was needed, they offered me a permanent job.
I didn’t really have any idea what being an engineer would be like. The people who worked in the engine room were all sweaty and dirty and wearing Harley-Davidson t-shirts. I didn’t think I’d fit in there as a middle-aged mom with two kids. I didn’t know how it would happen at all, but I figured times are changing. My Mom told me that I could do anything I wanted to do, so I figured I’d just give it a try. I never really thought that I would get this far."
I never thought that I would be so accepted being a woman. This place [R/V Thompson] is so accepting of female engineers. It's very comfortable here. But that's not always the case. There are places I definitely wouldn't want to go back to. You are treated with a mixture of bewilderment and contempt.
Yeah, I’ve seen it all. I’ve been ridiculed by people, even former friends who were scientists. It’s just “You’ve got to be kidding. You are too old to be an engineer on a ship. Shouldn’t you be doing something else?" I got it from so many different angles. Some people didn’t think I should be leaving my kids. Some people thought that once you have kids you should never leave home. I’ve had a few incidences where I have had engineers say that women don’t belong on a ship.
You do have to pick where you work. This has worked out pretty well. The only thing I run into now is that sometimes a temporary crew member will be introduced to me and after a few sentences will call me “darling.” That just doesn’t work because I want to be able to be looked at with respect. It’s necessary for my job. If some guy is being patronizing like that, it just won’t work.
I haven’t gotten tired yet of watching the ocean. When the sun comes out right after the storm. When there are huge waves. They can be forty feet tall. And you are on a ship that isn’t more than forty feet from the water line up to the top of the bridge. Some of the waves are towering over you. It’s beautiful. The light shining through the crest of the waves, the different colors.
I also enjoy seeing what the scientists are up to. You get to see the science work in progress. I feel like I’m supporting it. The subjects that are being studied are fascinating.
I also like doing my engineering work and building things and seeing them work immediately without having to wait to see the results. With engineering, I can make something work in a couple of hours. I can see the fruit of my effort and get that reward immediately. I like that.
One of the things about this job is that I can take time off - from a few days to a few months. So I get a lot of vacation time. I can do anything I want to. I don’t have to worry about the office calling me. I’ve done some traveling with my kids. I spend a lot of time with my kids. One is in middle school, one is in high school. One winter we went to Hawaii. I also do a lot of reading in the winter because it is so rainy and miserable.
I think you have to keep your eyes open and talk to a lot of people and find out what other people are doing. Try working on a ship. Even if you are just out of high school, you can get a job doing something. Maybe helping out in the galley. Maybe doing something where you work on the deck. You can try out different things on a ship without committing a whole lot of time.
You can take some engineering classes at a community college. You can look around at ships. I get on any ship that comes here and go down and look at the engine room and see what the people are like. You get a feel for what is out there. You just have to go out there and try things, absorb what you can, assimilate all of the data. Then pursue that particular direction you are going in or maybe you will decide you have to do something completely different.
- Third Engineer, R/V Thompson
- University of Washington
More about Debby
More Remarkable Careers
- Kathryn Kelly
- Professor (Affiliate), Physical Oceanography
Kathryn Kelly studies how changing ocean currents affect the climate. And she does all of her research from the comfort of her office.
- Maya Tolstoy
- Research Scientist, Geophysics
Marine seismologist Maya Tolstoy helps find active volcanoes on the seafloor by listening for their eruptions.
- Ashanti Pyrtle
- Assistant Professor, Aquatic Science
Ashanti Pyrtle studies the fate of radioactive material that enters rivers, lakes, and oceans. She also advises minority science students on how to navigate through graduate school and prepare for a career afterwards.
- Emily Klein
- Professor of Geology, Geochemistry
Emily collects rocks from the deep seafloor. The chemicals that make up the rocks provide clues to how the oceanic crust is built.
- Melanie Holland
- Faculty Research Associate, Microbial Ecology
Melanie Holland studies the microbes that thrive in scalding temperatures surrounding hydrothermal vents. These amazing organisms not only reveal important information about the vent communities, they may also provide insights into the origin of life on Earth and the possible existence of life on other planets.
- Dawn Wright
- Associate Scientist, Geography/Marine Geology
Master Lego-constructor and former bicycle-racer Dawn Wright has immersed herself in two disciplines. As a geologist, she is studying the cracks that form in the seafloor along the mid-ocean ridge. As a geographer, she is developing software that oceanographers are using to interpret seafloor data.
- Amy Bower
- Associate Scientist, Physical Oceanography
Amy studies the interactions between ocean currents and climate. These interactions are very complex.
- Wen-lu Zhu
- Associate Scientist, Geology and Geophysics
Wen-lu Zhu studies the properties of rocks found deep in the ocean crust by recreating those conditions in the laboratory.
- Jo Griffith
- Principal Illustrator, Scientific and Oceanographic Data
Technical illustrator Jo Griffith hasn’t picked up a pen in over five years. Instead she uses a variety of computer programs to create graphs, maps, and illustrations for researchers.
- Kathryn Gillis
- Professor, Earth and Ocean Sciences
Kathryn Gillis dives to rifts in the seafloor that are as deep as six kilometers to learn about the processes taking place within the ocean crust.
- Claudia Benitez-Nelson
- Assistant Professor, Chemical Oceanography
Claudia Benitez-Nelson uses radioactive isotopes to study the complex world of nutrient cycling in the oceans.
- Rose Dufour
- Ship Scheduler and Clearance Officer, Ship Operations and Marine Technical Support
Rose Dufour and her job-share partner Elizabeth Brenner create the schedules for four research ships. The challenge is to keep the scientists, funding agencies, and foreign governments happy.
- Lauren Mullineaux
- Senior Scientist, Marine Biology
Lauren Mullineaux’s research group studies a side of benthic organisms (animals that live on the seafloor) that until recently has received little attention.
- Margaret Leinen
- Assistant Director for Geosciences
As a scientist, Margaret Leinen studied sediments that have accumulated on the ocean floor. Now as the Assistant Director of Geosciences at the National Science Foundation, she oversees programs in Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean, and Environmental Sciences. She is also working on initiatives to bring more women and minorities into these fields.