The Final Piece – Looking Forward to the Future

Before the TREET project brought the Inner Space Center and its telepresence enabled scientific research to new highs and lows, before better practices brought new evaluated methodology, before the culture of at-sea science began to craft a new image for itself, Chris German, PhD, and his team were already getting after it. What’s “it?” Read on.


In 2011, Chris German was the Chief Scientist during a cruise at sea that enhanced the broader impact by utilizing an at shore team, which he assembled, located inside mission control of the Inner Space Center (URI). In 2012, Chris, and others, directed America’s flagship exploratory vessel, the NOAA Okeanos Explorer from shore. Chris and the team designated tasks and objectives for NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer as she displaced waves off the Mid-Atlantic States. The shore team used telepresence to work with an unmanned and untethered vehicle named Sentry.

EX 1205 L1 ISC Group_v2
Chris German, with his team of experts and undergrads surrounding him, stand in front the main screen inside Mission Control (ISC,URI) On the screen the AUV Sentry is recovered for the final dive of that cruise.

Basically, the team inside the walls of the Inner Space Center sent computer programming and objectives to Sentry while it was thousands of miles away. Sending course changes and new commands while it was traversing inside the dark parts of the Ocean. Then, after Sentry would come up for a breathe of air and get back on deck, the download would begin and the processing would occur, still on shore. Sentry and the leading researchers, were hunting for bubble plumes via high res mapping of the seafloor.  The depths of the Continental Shelf off the East coast of the United States was their work site. Once a bubble plume was found the team would act on the data as a trail of bubbly breadcrumbs in order to find gas hydrate sites – a potential, but as yet untapped, natural resource. The at-sea team aboard the Okeanos Explorer performed maintenance on the vehicle while the shore-based side processed photomosaics, high res maps and made decisions for the next day of diving.

Alright, enough background, lets get into it my friends.

Dr. German, with his refreshing wit, delivered through the classic Bond-like British accent, just completed another historic moment in the journey of telepresence enabled ocean exploration. I discussed many things with him during the two week program. Enlightening conversations led the way to even more interesting tangents. Most were over my head, but I still have notes. Upon re-reading, they remind me of the fact that Chris is making every effort to progress ocean based investigations and is already pioneering the projects that are pushing it forward.

Here’s the thing, individuals do great things, all the time. Chris is an example. However, and he would be the first to tell you, nothing he has done, or is doing, can be done by one man, woman, or six-gill shark alone. When you think about it not too much, above the surface, could be done by a six-gill shark.

He understands the benefits of independence and individuality. At the same time, he can act as the adhesive. Bringing elements together. Creating new possibilities in a realm where what is considered “possibility” is mostly formulaic, and resulting changes, slow moving. Allowing different perspectives to contribute value at different levels. Operating like this, in keeping with these ideas, German creates an environment for the proverbial lightbulb to illuminate above your head. Ideas and innovations are only some of the ways Chris leads from the front.

One of Dr. German’s roles in the TREET project was to really find out what really did not work well, from as many different perspectives as possible.

The TREET team (ISC/URI) connects to the E/V Nautilus at sea to talk about the next few weeks.

“Only then can we work out how to do this better. The technology for telepresence exists and is robust but deep ocean science is also a peculiarly unique combination of hard work, perceptive insight, reaction to new observations, and, especially, collaborative social interactions.
Chris commented via an email based interview.

He also mentioned, in order for shore led at-sea research to be truly impactful, not solely for the deep ocean community but also for broader science fields, we would have to take the good and the bad from both realms. That is the ship at sea and the control room on shore. To execute, evaluate and progress, one cannot ignore the other.

“We need to learn how to engender the positives of that – the team work, the mutual support, and, the camaraderie – as well as how to cope with and overcome the negatives, when people get over tired, frustrated. When research doesn’t progress as fast as required, the levels of personal disconnection [resulted] from telepresence could potentially allow the latter to derail us completely if we don’t pay attention to those human aspects of our work” German wrote to me.

Now the TREET team has come and gone, the dust is somewhat settled and the waves have been made. I followed up with Dr. German the very next day after the vehicle came up, dripping from its recent saturation in the salty blue, for the last time. Ripened by two weeks of little sleep, lots of research and even more coordination of an unimaginable amount moving parts I had to ask him for another interview. Well, I fully expected a one sentence reply to my 4 or 5 email questions. I even anticipated no response at all. I would have been fine with that. Within minutes, he got back to me. What he said deepened my respect and hope for what the future of science has yet to discover.

I cannot try to paraphrase the raw emotion he translated into digital text, rather, a parsing of some quotes from the response should do. Remember, this message came in the very next morning following his final exit from the Inner Space Center after two weeks of insanely hard work and dedication.

“For now, I remain even more convinced, more than ever, of the need for the ISC as a national training facility.”

“A specific late highlight was Monday night (11pm) where I had Steve [Dr. Steve Carey, URI, at sea on E/V Nautilus] on watch, holding up an ROV launch while Taylor [Taylor Westlund, undergrad from Univ. Idaho, on shore at WHOI] and I [Chris German, WHOI, on shore at ISC] we’re reviewing video proxies on line, simultaneously, at each location, and, talking on headsets, to compare the potential study sites on a like for like basis, directing each other’s attention to things we thought were important, so we could decide which of them was the one we needed to send the ROV down to…”

“…It was awesome how we were able to add value to what would otherwise have been achieved at sea.”

This is bananas. This is big wave crashing, rumbling, and feeling the sea spray on the shoreline. This kind of work would normally be done at sea. All the while, relatively unaware shore side teams would do their daily tasks and wait for the data gathered at sea to ship home some weeks even months later.

Here is the situation. There were two people separated by a two hour drive, forty-six people separated from them by thousands of miles of land and sea, dozens of researchers tuned in online, strung across the country, and tens of thousands of the general public watching online all over the world. All of this was happening as the main research tool sat on the deck of the ship, waiting. Solely dependent on what the two people (Chris and Taylor) were deciding. They were looking at the same video footage, hearing each other’s conversational audio and analysis in real time via online based communication, and making real decisions. Decisions that would affect all of the people mentioned above. Like I said, this is heavy stuff. It’s on another level.

Lastly, I asked Chris in my follow up email interview. What are you left with in terms of your perspective of telepresence and the ISC?

Chris stated that being Chief Scientist for the TREET project proved even more challenging than being a Chief Scientist at sea. While on a ship you don’t have to bother yourself with meals for your team, accommodations or transport to and from the ‘office’, even though you do have to pay attention to scheduling people on shifts. At the same time you must consider whether the group is getting enough time off to rest. It may seem minuscule but, on shore, all of the extra stuff above must happen as well, on top of the actual research that would normally take most of your time at sea. Each one could be a full time gig, but in this case it all lay atop the shoulders of Dr. German.

With all that weight resting on his shoulders, one question kept getting squeezed out, why was he even using the ISC in the first place? Creating more work for himself and everyone else. This question weighed on his thoughts even more when a subset of the TREET group relocated to the mini-ISC at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where Chris works full time. Ding! The lightbulb flicked on and the weight began to tumble overboard. Chris realized what viable future might look like. One in which, people who knew what they were doing could interact with folks at sea and operate perfectly well from their own private mini-ISC’s. These exist already, we call them Exploration Command Centers or ECC’s.

Now the load didn’t seem so heavy. In fact, there was no more extra weight for one person to carry. The weight could be distributed, handled by the participants themselves, not just by the one Chief Scientist or team-leader.

Here is the real advantage. Contrary to the set up of the TREET program i.e bringing researchers from across the country to the Inner Space Center for extended stays. Scientists from Idaho could have the same experience in Idaho, or Minnesota, or Hawaii, or anywhere with an ECC. This means each could work their watch tied to the ship schedule but then go home, hang with their families, sleep in their own beds, eat normal food they bought from their local grocery stores. These ideas, seeping through the cracks of “how we normally do it” thinking and expanding into a model of less hassle while keeping the aspect of high efficiency work is the real advantage.

Basically, it means Chris would not have to worry about who said pepperoni or olives for pizza dinner.

Actually, there is much, much, more to what Chris pulled from the depth of this experience.

The only reason he could have those kinds of interactions with the remote teams at ECCs and ships at sea was precisely because everyone had been able to train up with all the unfamiliar technology in the “safety-net-provided” environment of the ISC. The true endurance of the Inner Space Center in this vision.

You see, there are as many alien elements of telepresence enabled cruises as there are alien lifeforms in the largest, most diverse habitat on our planet, the deep ocean. Not just the technology but also the detachment from the camaraderie of a ship-board team. Ship teams become family almost overnight. The kind of stuff where everybody is linked by common goals and passions. But we are talking about a big difference here of trying to obtain the same experience without the ship holding it all afloat.

Chris has now had 2 telepresence enabled cruises that have showed him, and others, that a team assembled at the ISC forms exactly the same bonds that happen on research ships. Anyone who has experienced this and “taken ownership” of the idea, Chris, along with myself, believe, will have that bond stay with them forever. Another big concept: making meaning of the work. The type of stuff that required Zara Mirmalek’s involvement in the TREET project.

How can we really expect to make meaning at a large scale?

Chris let me know that if we want telepresence-enabled cruises to be “the new normal” then we have to make the number of people who have had successful experiences with telepresence become more than just a few evangelizing outliers.

Dr. German believes TREET is the tipping point from which he has enough tools to get the word out. This means transforming ideas into reality. An idea that has immense value, directly proportionate to measurable success, at both beginner and expert level science. Sending students out to sea on ships has been the way to realize the idea before, but now, those students could be presented a new idea, worth considering. The idea of a rotation through the ISC for at least one expedition. A practical vision for the future.

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