The first time Debby Ramsey went out to sea, the ship encountered a big storm. Giant waves crashed around the small research vessel, and most people onboard got seasick. But Debby, who at the time had a master’s degree in physics, a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences, and two young sons, was hooked. She is now third engineer onboard the Research Vessel Thomas G. Thomson operated by the University of Washington.
Debby at sea with an iceberg in the background.
For eight hours each day, Debby’s job is to make sure the ship’s engines, propulsion systems, refrigeration systems, freshwater-making systems, winches, galley (kitchen) equipment, and most things electrical—in other words, everything on the ship with moving parts—are running smoothly. If something does go wrong, she needs to figure out how to fix it.
The R/V Thomas G. Thompson is a powerful ship. It has six diesel engines—three 2,100 horsepower engines that run the propulsion systems and three engines half that size that run the ship’s services such as the lights, computers, and air circulation systems. Usually only one large engine and one small engine run at a time. There are three propulsion systems—two motors in the back that propel the ship forward and a bow thruster in front that is used almost exclusively to maneuver the ship. The ship has no rudder. Instead, the rear motors, called Z-drives, have propellers that can rotate 360 degrees. The combination of the two Z-drives and the bow thruster enables the ship to make extremely tight maneuvers.
Each cruise carries a third, second, first, and chief engineer and four oilers who assist the engineers. Debby works two four-hour shifts each day from eight to noon and from eight to midnight during which she and one of the oilers monitor the ship’s systems or work on maintenance. Debby enjoys the electrical work the most, so that has become her specialty on the ship.
Debby checks gauges on the seismic air compressor system. Gauges allow engineers to monitor air pressures and temperatures at different stages of the compression process.
Because there are so many safeguards built into the ships and the engineers and crew are so well trained, true emergencies are extremely rare. Debby has never had to face any dire crises, although she has had situations that required quick action. One time a pipe broke and filled the engine room bilge with 1,000 gallons of water. Another time a huge ball of krill blocked the intake of water used to cool the engines. Both problems were caught in time and easily fixed.
With so much at stake, the U.S. Coast Guard requirements for getting an engineering license are rigorous. To qualify for third engineer, Debby had to take a physical exam, go through a background check (including fingerprints), pass first aid, CPR, and advanced marine fire-fighting courses, take a five-part written exam, get letters of recommendation from a captain and a chief engineer, accumulate three years of documented sea time, and fill out lots of paperwork. The license is honored worldwide and enables Debby to work as an engineer onboard any ship, even a supertanker.
Debby stands next to R/V Thompson in drydock at Bellington Bay shipyard.
Despite so many options, Debby is happy where she is. Even though she is out at sea and away from her family about six months each year and as much as two months at a time, four months of leave each year more than make up for that. She enjoys keeping track of what the scientists are up to and how the field of oceanography is progressing. She likes the people she works with and the freedom she has to pursue her interests and use her engineering skills. And of course she loves being at sea, even during the storms.
- Third Engineer, R/V Thompson
- University of Washington
More about Debby
More Remarkable Careers
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Maya Tolstoy
- Research Scientist, Geophysics
Marine seismologist Maya Tolstoy helps find active volcanoes on the seafloor by listening for their eruptions.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Claudia Benitez-Nelson
- Assistant Professor, Chemical Oceanography
Claudia Benitez-Nelson uses radioactive isotopes to study the complex world of nutrient cycling in the oceans.
- 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.
- 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.