What were some of the things that interested you as a child?

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.

How did you become interested in science and engineering?

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.

What did you do after college?

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.

How did you make the transition from science into engineering?

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.

How did you get your current job?

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.

Has there been anything about your job that has surprised you?

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."

Any particular challenges you have face as a woman?

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.

What continues to inspire you?

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.

What other things do you like doing?

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.

What advise would you have for people considering a career as a ship engineer?

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.

Debby Ramsey

  • Third Engineer, R/V Thompson
  • University of Washington

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