Amy Kukulya

Current Position: Senior Ocean Vehicle Operations Engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)
Amy Kukulya
Highlight If you want something but the attainment of it scares you, it’s probably the right thing to do.
June 15, 2015Her job: Ocean Vehicle Operations Engineer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Describe what you do in your current work situation? I conceptualize and design innovative autonomous underwater robot architecture for the purpose of advancing science and exploration in the ocean. Systems that I am interested in are underwater docking, navigation, communications and underwater archaeology. My latest passion is developing and operating underwater technology for tracking pelagic marine life in three-dimensional space. I am a project leader on SharkCam which has become a huge success and is changing the way scientists study ocean creatures like white sharks, turtles and eventually whales! This project, funded by Discovery Channel, is also a great way to ignite curiosity in young and aspiring engineers. That just sweetens the overall scope of my job. But, if I had to describe a 'typical' day, it would include some project development/proposal writing (bringing in new work and new imagining capabilities), testing and integrating sensor packages on autonomous underwater vehicles like cameras, sonar and many other oceanographic sensors, then testing them in the waters of Cape Cod in preparation for an expedition somewhere in the world. Several times a year I travel and lead expeditions ranging from under-ice operations, fish and scallop surveys and even many Navy projects.
Why did you choose engineering? I didn't choose engineering, it chose me. I started out studying the biological sciences, particularly plankton ecology. I came to realize that doing good science required big, out-of-the-box ideas that benefited from doing things smarter, cheaper, faster, etc. It quickly became clear to me that engineering was a better fit for my skills and creativity. I didn't find this out in school. I realized it while I was looking under a microscope trying to count individual plankton. There is always a better way of doing things, but I wanted to be part of a think tank of individuals who get paid to be innovative. That is when I ended up working on underwater robots. They are like underwater aircraft carriers that can go places where people can't and they can carry almost anything, often making new discoveries. My job is fun, inventive, challenging and rewarding.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have? I graduated from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey and also studied at University of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and the Spanish-American Institute of International Education (SAIIE) in Seville Spain. I have a B.S. in Environmental Policy.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work? Typical activities may include boating and launching/recovering/operating complex oceanographic equipment in a water environment, programming vehicles and sensors, using soldering irons, oscilloscopes, and multimeters on robotic systems to troubleshoot, analyzing data, writing papers, giving oral presentations, mentoring junior staff and writing proposals.
What do you like best about being an engineer? I love being part of a team that can throw ideas around the table and then take the best ideas and make them into something novel and useable. Then I love taking the component/creation and making it better for next time. There is always a way to do something better and there is always a next time. Innovation leads to new opportunities and it is the constant surprise of what the opportunity may be that makes being an engineer a truly enjoyable and fulfilling job.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of? Making it to the top of my engineering ladder midway in my career and having a ton of fun along the way.
What challenges have you met and conquered in your pursuit of an engineering career? Two things. The first is not studying engineering in school and back pedaling a bit to build the framework I needed. But I am a hands-on learner and there is nothing like being thrown in the fire and also being given an opportunity to be tested. Being curious, driven and tenacious helped get me through the learning curve and thrive. The second greatest challenge was purely just being a woman. I was, for many years, the only female on a job site and being one of only a few that came before me in my job. Actually, I believe that I am the first female to reach the top of my technical ladder, so that says a lot about the oceanographic engineering industry. That said, it is less of a challenge every day.
Please tell us a little about your family. Awesome, supportive, fun, smart people from my grandparents who taught me to love a lifestyle on the water to my parents who supported me in all my endeavors may it be AmeriCorps or Taekwondo -to my incredible spouse and son, plus one on the way! They are my anchor, my everything.
What are your short-term (1-2 years) and long-term (10+ years) goals? My short-term goals are to bring the 3D AUV tracking capability to the next level by shrinking the tag and making it more efficient and compatible with deeper diving animals. I want to help scientists and conservationists get the tools they need to answer questions that will help save threatened and endangered species. I would love to make more science programming for young people. My 10+year goal would be to work more at the upper management level by negotiating more with customers and overseeing large scale oceanographic projects, perhaps even help design a modern hybrid AUV.
What (or who) had/has the greatest influence on your life choices? The desire to be happy, fulfilled and successful has the greatest influence on my life choices. Family, particularly my grandmother taught me to be proud, determined, respectful, and strong.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering? I would say if you are considering engineering, take the courses. Take lots of math, it is the most useful skill/knowledge base you can have in life. Also, get your hands dirty. Learn how to take things apart and put them back together. Be confident. Speak up. Have fun. Remember that the greatest risks often come with the greatest rewards. If you want something but the attainment of it scares you, it’s probably the right thing to do.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book. I am incredibly active, so are my friends and family. I love sleeping outside. I have two boats. One that I use for predawn trips to pick up my lobster pots or to perhaps catch a stripped bas. The other, bigger boat is more of a destination. I can go sit on the boat and hang out on the mooring reading a book or just reflect on the day's events. It also takes my family and me to hidden coves and islands in the Elizabeth's Islands. Woods Hole is the best place on Earth, especially if you love the ocean! I really love foraging for my own food, usually fruits and veggies, fish, shellfish, eggs from our chickens and honey from our bees.