Actual Living Scientist: Patrick Rowe, Science Technician for Science in the Wild

Patrick Rowe is a science technician with the organization Science in the Wild and owner of Midwest ROV, LLC. We spoke about his career, the role of support staff in scientific endeavors, and the importance of everyday citizens in contributing to science.

When you meet Pat Rowe, you are greeted with a beaming smile, welcoming eyes, and a confidence that is energizing and unintimidating. His casual clothing and affability would never lead you to believe just how valuable Mr. Rowe has been to many high-profile scientists, institutions, and projects over his lifetime. Pat has sculpted for himself a career in science that would be unfamiliar to most of us. Without pursuing the traditional doctoral path, Pat Rowe has been involved with enormous scientific endeavors; he completed a work experience program with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, he has provided technical and logistical support in the U.S. Navy, and he was a science technician with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He currently provides his services as a science technician to an organization called Science in the Wild; their research includes the study of glacial lakes in the Himalayas of Nepal. The title “science technician” tells us little of the job itself, but few other terms would be sufficient to account for the myriad of hats people like Pat Rowe wear during science expeditions. As he puts it:

“I don’t do the science; I just make doing science better.”

A science technician may go by other official titles, but essentially they are responsible for planning and logistics. Common themes include designing and building sampling equipment, operating it in the field, repairing broken equipment and computers, learning software, data management, and even sourcing ideas to accomplish a mission. Scientists themselves often do not have the time or the specialized training to learn how to operate all the equipment, programs, and methods necessary to complete their objectives. A technician steps in to provide the technical support necessary to get the job done – be it operating a drone, managing a ship’s on-board recording equipment, or using sensors to collect measurements. Pat explains,“If your geologist wants to collect rocks from the bottom of Lake Michigan, their idea might be to put on fins and a face mask and go swimming. My idea is… let’s use a little technology to make it happen.”

Pat has certainly seen his share of technology, beginning in the the Navy. He was a member of “Operation Deep Freeze,” whose mission was to support science through assisting transport of cargo, transport of scientists, and operational support. Operation Deep Freeze brought him to Antarctica in the 1970s, where he developed many of his specialty skills and first became involved in supporting science.  The Navy trained him in precision measurements and calibration, and he assisted scientists that were working in acoustics; he unfortunately couldn’t elaborate further about this. He jokingly warned, “I’d have to shoot you.”

When asked what it’s like doing science in one of the harshest climates in the world, Pat describes life on the edge:

“[It’s] an environment that can kill you in a matter of minutes. You also develop that unique skill set of reliance, because you rely on everyone to do their job and they rely on you to do your job 100% or more. Because [if] anybody fails, somebody dies. Or could. It’s just that important. It’s a total team effort. And [it’s] people you don’t even know!”

Pat left this environment when his Navy enlistment ended in 1981, but he never forgot his experiences with science. He explored civilian life in the private industry, working for both Hewlett Packard and JCPenney as a specialist in electronics, telecommunications and networking. After over 20 years working in corporate America, the “8 to 5” lifestyle wore on him and Pat dug up his specialty skills to jump back into a supporting role for scientific research. Pat has been putting miles on his soul ever since –  in 2004 he joined Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute as a Shipboard Scientific Services Group Technician, or SSSG. In open ocean research, multiple scientists often take advantage of data that is recorded from the same research expedition. Pat managed all the data recording equipment on the ship for the scientists to use in their individual research efforts. He was responsible for instruments that collect measurements including biomass (total “stuff” living in the water), salinity of the water, temperature, wind speed, rainfall, and precise GPS coordinates to name a few. He would install, test, and calibrate other specialty equipment that various scientists needed to accomplish their individual goals. Working with Woods Hole and operating “remotely operated underwater vehicles” (ROVs) for various other organizations brought him all over the world and allowed him to develop skills working with a dizzying array of equipment. At this point in his career, Pat has traveled on every ocean and continent in the world. He has personally operated underwater ROVs the size of a minibus to examine deep oil pipelines. He has hinted, but can not disclose, that some of his current work, in his words, “may be related to Mars.” We will leave that one up to the imagination.

Four decades worth of adding tools to his utility belt has sculpted Pat into a team member that brings “more bang for your buck.” While he could use those skills to enhance his personal prestige and wealth, he has decided to volunteer his expertise with Science in the Wild. Founded in 2016 by scientist Dr. Ulyana Horodyskyj, Science in the Wild is an organization that utilizes citizen scientists to collect real field data for publication in purely open-source journals (meaning anyone can access it without paying a fee). Key to the philosophy of Science in the Wild is making participation in science accessible to everyone, which juxtaposes the fact that they explore some of the most inaccessible places in the world –  the tops of mountains and the middle of vast deserts.

 

An example of a glacial lake in the Himalayas of Nepal, which is a main subject of study for Pat Rowe with Science in the Wild.

Science in the Wild has a mission to push past the barriers that isolate science from the people and provide an opportunity for anyone serious about exploring “extreme” field research. This includes those who may have a science degree and didn’t pursue it as a career, or simply anyone interested and passionate. Pat tells me, “What we’re targeting [are] those people who have those degrees, or citizen scientists that are just incredibly curious about what it is to do science.”

This may seem like Dr. Horodyskyj is simply after some easy labor, but that couldn’t be further from the intent. Most notably, contributors to Dr. Horodyskyj’s projects get full-name recognition when the research is published. For those unfamiliar with the significance of having your name on a published research paper, think of a scientist’s total pile of published papers as their net worth in the science community. The success of a scientist’s career can often be measured by the number and importance of papers they publish. This currency is almost never paid to anyone outside of the traditional science track, since it’s difficult for someone like a citizen scientist to contribute enough support to a project to justify adding their name to a publication.

The most predominant work Science in the Wild currently performs involves long-term time series that track the dynamics of glacial melt, particularly in Nepal. As the Ngozumpa glacier of the Himalayas melts from climate change, it is creating an ever-growing lake that may someday pose a flooding risk for the Sherpa villages down-valley. Dr. Herodyskyj, Pat Rowe, and their team of students and citizen scientists study this ongoing phenomenon using automated weather stations, unmanned vehicles that use sonar to model the lake bottom, and by examining “dirty” snow, which is darkened from fuel exhaust, dirt or organic waste and therefore warms faster in the sunlight. This information can be extrapolated to inform our understanding of how climate change will affect all glaciers globally. An isolated village in Nepal will not be the only place under threat of flooding in the coming years – as many as 13 million people in the U.S. are at risk from sea level rise due to melting glaciers[1].

Science in the Wild participants prepare an unmanned vehicle, built by Pat Rowe, to deploy in a glacial lake. It will use sonar to map the lake’s structure.

Dr. Horodyskyj prepares a weather station with two participants. It collects weather data that Pat hopes one day could report real-time information over the internet.

Pat Rowe is a passionate advocate of citizen science. He seeks to encourage everyone to go beyond the status quo of science and get involved. Pat would like everyone to know if you search citizen science online, you will inevitably find opportunities to be involved in your area. He offers an example:

“The largest citizen scientist organization is the bird count by Cornell… they’re not doing it by a [having] whole bunch of paid scientists running out in the field with binoculars! There are some people doing bird counts that are in wheelchairs, that sit and watch birds that come to their feeder.”

Pat argues that citizens becoming more involved in science fosters a greater public understanding of the scientific process and helps to eliminate bias in data. A diverse group of everyday people are unlikely to have some unilateral influence that would affect all their data reporting in the same way. Also, the more involved citizens become in the collection of scientific data, the more robust and expansive becomes our ability to collect data. Sometimes, all it takes is having one person on the ground keeping track of their environment. Pat tells a story of a man who lived in a remote area of Alaska, off-the-grid:

Every single day, [he had been] taking meteorological information for this area. Well it turns out he has the only long-term record for over a 1000-square mile area up in Alaska! There’s [sic] no weather stations up there! But he had snowfall, he had rainfall… just as a hobby to keep his mind busy while he was in the field, [he] created these log books on paper. And now they’ve transcribed a lot of that into computers and started to analyze it and they’re seeing patterns… all of his data and his knowledge is now part of the bigger picture.

As someone who found his calling in science by following a nontraditional path, Patrick Rowe sees the potential for science in everyone. For anyone reading who has written-off participating in science because they could never see themselves in a white lab coat pouring chemicals and writing grant proposals, Pat stands as an example of how other skills can still lead you to be invaluable to scientific endeavors in an ancillary role. Along with the work comes the satisfaction of contributing to the advancement of civilization and potentially the excitement of traveling the world’s oceans or standing on top of a glacier in the Himalayas. Even if this amount of adventure isn’t for you, Mr. Rowe provides one last piece of advice:

“Don’t be afraid of science. Science is just collecting information. It doesn’t pass judgement. It doesn’t condemn. It doesn’t glorify. It doesn’t do anything except present the facts.”

Science is not a distant process that only belongs to the elite or those in university laboratories; it belongs to all of us. We can be a part of it, as citizens and non-scientists, by embracing our ability to bring understanding of the natural world into our own lives. Pat Rowe and Science in the Wild are leading the charge to help people find the piece of science that belongs to them.

Written By Brandon Gross for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)


To learn more or get involved as a citizen scientist with Science in the Wild, visit their website:


References:

[1] Hauer, M.E., Evans, J.M. and D.R. Mishra. 2016. Millions projected to be at risk from sea-level rise in the continental United States. Nature Climate Change 6:691-698. Accessed March 10, 2017. [Link]

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