Amy Kukulya: SharkCam, Glaciers, and Aha Moments

Scientists wanting to investigate beneath the water surface turn to Amy Kukulya. She’s an ocean robotics engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who designs underwater robotic architecture; docking, navigation, and communication systems; and tracking technology for seagoing robots. Her autonomous underwater vehicles have tracked sea turtles, whales, shipwrecks, glaciers, and oil spills. Most visibly, her work with REMUS (Remote Environmental Monitoring Units) SharkCam has given marine biologists—and Shark Week enthusiasts—an up-close view of the great whites on the hunt. Here she explains what inspired her to go into engineering, what continues to inspire her, and how future engineers might find inspiration.
Q: You grew up with an ocean loving family. Was it always obvious to you that your career would involve the sea in one way or another?
A.K: I never went to camp as a kid. Instead, I spent my summers on the Jersey Shore, mostly with my grandparents who retired there. Much of my time with them was spent observing the depths of an estuary ecosystem that involved turtles, sea birds, minnows, crabs, clams, and even eel grass. I learned about the marine food web and my family taught me how to be a knowledgeable hunter gatherer. With that came learning how to operate boats and how to fix old outboard engines with my grandpa. But to answer your question, it was not obvious then, but looking back it was clear that I followed a path that I was passionate about pursuing. I always stuck to my environmental roots and it always involved water.
Q: You decided to switch from biological science to engineering when counting plankton under a microscope. Can you tell us how that moment pushed you over the edge?
A.K: Aha moments are usually preceded by long periods of experiencing something but not really understanding the point of, or the end goal of, what you are doing. Like, figuring out what you want to be when you grow up. By being a research assistant early on at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and working for a biologist who was a tinkerer, I got a chance to see that it was possible to cross disciplines, and found a niche that was massively untapped. That niche for me was to be a liaison between science and technology, and the path to that was using underwater robots. I think the aha moment was figuring out that I didn’t want to focus on such a specific science question like plankton ecology, but wanted to diversify and enable other scientists to have aha moments hopefully with the help of innovation that I could offer.
Q: As a woman you have been outnumbered by men throughout your career. How hard was this, and how did you overcome it?
A.K: When you are the one that looks different, whether it be race or sex, you stand out. The job was very challenging as it was, but knowing that you were working under a microscope made you work harder and smarter. That might not be fair, but the flip side is that today I’ve overcome so many roadblocks with the system and people, that I have been able to accomplish much more personally and professionally. I didn’t quit—although I wanted to several times—I just suited up day after day and always remembered the goal: to have purpose and passion. And that’s just it, I always believed that the work I was doing not only had a positive impact on our planet, it offered inspiration to kids of all ages, male or female.
Q: You’ve worked on a number of amazing projects. Can you tell us about one that made you feel “I’m doing exactly what I was put here to do”? 
A.K: An expedition to Greenland was the first science project that I worked on in more than ten years that was led by women. These women were awesome and inspirational and we had a blast together. We literally had to helicopter all of our gear to a landing next to a calving glacier. We camped for ten days and foraged for a lot of our own food—this reminded me of my childhood with my grandparents. We also worked closely with locals who did not speak English or use modern technology. The trip was an incredible combination of going back to our natural roots of foraging, communicating by drawing pictures in the sand, and being surrounded by natural splendor. Plus there were very high-tech robots swimming around us trying to understand how fast glaciers were melting from the inside out.
Q: What would you tell a young woman considering going into engineering or science (or trying to decide between the two)? 
A.K: Well, I am a bit biased and believe that people need to be well rounded and multi-disciplined. So I would encourage women to do their best at understanding problems whether they be technical or scientific. You don’t need to figure out what you want to be when you grow up right away. Most adults still have no idea, so take a deep breath and think about what makes you happy. Because there is nothing more fulfilling than finding something you love to do and then get paid to do it. But no matter what it is that you decide on, the most important aspect of your professional lives are the relationships you build with people. Take care in finding people that bring out the best in you. And take lots of math classes and learn a software language or two! Go get ’em!
Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in New Jersey.
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