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Harper Umfress

Science/Data Team, ASV Operator
Pacific Field Support Liaison - Hydrographic Systems & Technologies Branch
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Tell us about your work/research. What kinds of things do you do?

I support NOAA's coastal mapping mission in two main ways. The first way is direct assistance with technical issues with hydrographic systems in the field. The second way is through testing and validation of new tools and technologies before they are rolled out to the fleet. In addition to that, I also periodically go out to sea to support ships with survey work and bridge watch. I'm an officer in the NOAA Corps which means I rotate between sea assignments and land assignments every 2 to 3 years.

What sparked your initial interest in your career?

I joined the NOAA Corps because it offered a unique blend of operational and technical opportunities. Even before I started, I knew that I wanted to support NOAA's coastal mapping mission on one of the hydrographic survey vessels. Conducting a good hydrographic survey requires an extensive crew of knowledgeable, capable people both in the field and ashore and I was keen to learn how to be a member of that team. Since then, I've served as a hydrographer, boat driver, ship driver, data processor, and now as shoreside support-- and I've loved it all!

Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?

I'm very fortunate to have a family that has been supportive of this career, even when it's taken me out to sea and away from home for long periods of time. They also instilled in me a strong love of the ocean and coasts while growing up in Southern California, which makes it that much more rewarding to contribute to the teams that map it.

What element of your work/study do you think is the most fascinating?

I've been most fascinated by the challenges of learning and "operationalizing" new skills. This has included driving ships, driving small boats, and operating sonar systems. Every chance I've had to learn a new system and build out my own foundation of understanding has been really rewarding.

How did you get involved with the TBNMS project with OET?

I am participating in this expedition on NOAA's behalf to support the mission and to contribute to NOAA's collective experience with autonomous data acquisition. The opportunity to act as watchstanders and data processors will help us inform and update our own procedures for similar operations.

What other jobs led you to your current career?

Before coming to NOAA, I studied aerospace engineering and worked briefly in both space and aircraft industries. In those roles, I was exposed to a variety of mission stages, from planning to testing to operation. A love for the testing and operation phases, combined with a growing desire to work at sea and support hydrographic survey, led me to NOAA.

What are your degrees and certifications?

Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering - University of Washington 2017.

What are your hobbies?

I love biking, paddling, or otherwise getting outside when the weather is suitable. When the weather's not cooperative, I like to read and watch re-runs of Jeopardy!

What advice would you give someone who wants to have a career like yours?

I would encourage anyone interested in this path to pursue a technical discipline-- anything under the umbrella of science, technology, engineering, and math. One of things I like most about this field is that my professional peers come from a wide variety of academic backgrounds (biology, chemistry, ecology, geology, oceanography, physics, engineering, etc.). For those of us, like myself, that came into the field of hydrography with no mapping experience, the most important things to have are an open mind and a willingness to learn. Experience with GIS software and basic coding have also helped.