Richard Conway is Chief Electronics Technician on the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. Read the full text of Richard's interview below to learn more about his job.
What is your title?
Chief Electronics Technician (CET) – NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer
Where do you work?
My base of operations is the Electronics Technician (ET) shop on the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, but I work throughout the ship. I even have equipment in engineering areas that I need to work on.
Do you travel often? To where?
Yes, to wherever the ship goes.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
Technical school and/or military school/training.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
The starting salary is around $40,000 a year and it goes up from there depending on responsibility, equipment type, area (consumers electronics, medical electronics, etc.), and experience.
How many hours do you work per week?
Normally I work 40 hours per week in home port, 48 or more hours when in other ports, and 56 or more hours when at sea. The extra hours are because when the ship is in port things can be shut down for maintenance, especially on weekends, while at sea, the equipment doesn’t keep set hours.
Tell us about the types of things you do.
It is the Electronics Technician’s responsibility to make sure all the electronics equipment that is non-propulsion or engineering department-related is in working order. The electronics equipment on board that ETs are responsible for can be broken down into five groups:
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
There are a bunch, but the most unique and the one that a minute percentage of the human population has ever experienced is being hit by the shock wave of an earthquake while in a submarine. We are talking about a 19-ton moving object, 600 feet long, being brought to a dead stop. Dishes crashed, things fell over. Some people were falling out of chairs. The person next to me came out of his seat, but he was okay. The crew started automatically moving to general quarters, making the sub internally water tight, before the alarm was given. We thought we had collided with another submarine. The sonar supervisor was yelling at us to find the contact we collided with. The Executive Officer came into the sonar shack wanting to know “who we hit.”
It took a few seconds for the submarine to start moving again. We could not find or detect anything. There was nothing around or near us.
It was a week later that we found out what hit us. There was a big earthquake about 45 minutes before we got hit. When we reanalyzed the recording tape from the sensors, we saw the band appear and disappear at the time we got hit. That was the signature of the earthquake shock wave.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
Knowing that what I do helps the ship accomplish its mission, which is the exploration of the world ocean.
How does your work benefit the public?
In this particular case, the devices I work with and maintain are the vehicles which gather, analyze, and provide the information used to gain knowledge of the ocean.
What else could someone with your background do?
Wow, there is so much you can do! You can work in space exploration, medicine, public services, consumer electronics (I used to work with cell phone research and development), and the military, just to name a few. The problem will be which field to choose.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
I am one of those people who started down one path towards an occupation, then veered off towards another path, then ended up not on my original path but on a different path in the same community. I have a degree from Oregon State University in Zoology, yet my job is in electronics working on an oceanographic research vessel.
When I was little, I always liked water animals. I caught tadpoles and fish and kept them in jars. I watched a tadpole turn into a frog. When I was in high school, a modular program on the ocean came to our school. Being from the Midwest, I was fascinated by what it showed. The module covered biology, geology, and chemistry. Upon graduating, I packed up my bags and went to Oregon State with the intention of getting a zoology degree.
While working on my Bachelor’s degree, I had the opportunity to go on some oceanographic cruises. I also talked to some of the scientists that were in the field, and one asked me if I liked doing the work or did I like observing and writing about what I saw. I told him I liked doing the work. I liked getting my hands dirty, so to speak. He said that the he noticed that my energy level changed. It was really high when I was gathering the samples and running them. Then it dropped when I was the recorder. I never forgot that. So after graduating, I managed to get a job with the School of Oceanography working with zooplankton for Dr. Charlie Miller.
During the early 1980s, environmental science research took a big hit in the funding department. I was laid off and took a job with the U.S. Forest Service and became an insect dietician. This meant I made artificial food for groups doing research with insects. After three years and the drafting of a lab procedure, it became so that anyone could run the lab. In fact, to test the procedures I had written, I had one of the secretaries walk me through making a batch of diet. I knew then it was time for me to leave.
My decision was to get re-educated in another love, electronics. That led to another decision. Did I want to pay my way through school or did I want someone to pay for me to go to school? The answer was someone else to pay me, of course.
I joined the U.S. Navy and served six years as a sonar technician on board a submarine. After getting out, I tried to get a job with NOAA but there were no openings at that time. I went to work for Motorola at a Research and Development facility as an electronics technician for 11 years. Motorola closed the facility and I worked a few other places before trying NOAA again and getting hired.
I served three years on the NOAA hydrographic vessel, the Fairweather, before getting assigned to the NOAA ocean exploration vessel Okeanos Explorer, where my job contributes to the understanding of the ocean.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
My mother encouraged me the most. I am told I am a happy person, and she is the reason I am that way. She always told me that I was the one person she knew that, if I set my mind to do something, I could accomplish it.
She also believed in education. We were a low-income family. She bought an entire set of encyclopedias, and there were two volumes written for kids that contained science projects. I know financially it was a big burden on our family, but my mother thought it was important. I read every book from cover to cover. We used to sit down at the table and read parts of the books, especially the science section.
My mother liked to say to me, “Do your best. If you do your best and fail, then there is nothing to be unhappy about.” The other thing she'd say was “No matter what bad thing happens to you, there is always someone that has it worse.”
I believe I am her legacy. Any of my accomplishments are her accomplishments.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
I would like to say get an electronic engineering degree, but when I think about it, if I did, I would not be out here. Some of the experiences that I cherish would not have happened, and I would never have met a lot of the people who have become my lifelong friends. So I would not change anything.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
Educationally, I was behind my fellow students. A lot of the educational background I was supposed to have had in high school I did not get. I was from a low-income family, and during the 1960s and early 1970s, there was no equality of schools. The school I went to had limited educational classes. In some cases we had to make a choice such as biology or physics. You couldn’t take both because they were given at the same time. This was because of limited space and teacher qualifications to teach the classes. Another example was math. The highest level of math offered by the school was Algebra I. A teacher voluntarily came in during the morning before school just to teach Algebra II to those of us planning on attending college.
What are your hobbies?
I’m a big Seattle Seahawks football fan and am a season ticket holder. It has been hard to attend games since coming to NOAA because of the ship’s schedule. Another of my hobbies is graphic design. One example is the EEB logo on our department computer monitor. I also fly RC electric helicopters. Right now I have five.