• Mayreni Sweis

A Life at Sea with NOAA Corps Ensign Alice Beittel

Who is Alice Beittel? To me, she is one of my oldest and dearest friends I met on the first day of high school, conveniently because our lockers were right next to each other. Our friendship continued to grow as our kindred thespian hearts participated in theatre plays, navigated high school, and continued to support each other as we went off to our respective universities. In the almost 10 years I've known Alice, one thing has always been apparent: she is a dedicated, intelligent, passionate, humorous, and loyal person. She brings all of these qualities not only to her friendships, but to all the work she does. I feel incredibly honored to have been with her when she decided to join the NOAA Corps. Although the training and work is rigorous, and the career path is seemingly unorthodox to the general public, I had full confidence that Alice would excel in such a high stakes environment. Why, you may ask? Well, because she always finds a way to thrive under pressure and does not cower from adventure. When she puts her heart, mind, and soul into something she believes in, she becomes a trailblazer. . . this time on a ship!

Ensign Alice Beittel

Junior Officer NOAA Corps

What is the NOAA Corps and what made you interested in joining?

The NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps (NOAA Corps) is a uniformed service of around 320 active-duty officers who serve in operational and leadership positions throughout the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The origins of the NOAA Corps date back to 1807 when President Thomas Jefferson established the Survey of the Coast in an effort to chart coastal waters of the United States. While we are the smallest of the eight federal uniformed services, NOAA Corps officers hold a wide range of positions that include operating aircraft, managing research projects, driving research ships, and even collecting atmospheric observations at the South Pole.

I first heard about the NOAA Corps at an American Fisheries Society career job panel during my senior year at UC Davis. One of the panelists described serving as a NOAA Corps officer and working to map the ocean floor; I was immediately interested. An opportunity to learn how to navigate the ocean, drive a research ship, collect data important to the health and safety of our planet, and work with lots of different people sounded like the coolest job ever. As I learned more about the NOAA Corps and spoke to additional officers, my gut feeling to pursue this new career grew stronger. I remember when I first told my parents that I was going to apply and could potentially be living on a research ship for the next two years, my mom said, “That sounds so intense!” and my dad quickly followed with, “Well, you like intense!” Nonetheless, they were excited for me to follow a new avenue of my passion. One of my favorite quotes is from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s first female elected President: “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” I have found her words to ring true as it is only by putting ourselves in challenging situations where we grow and learn the most. So, in January of 2020 I attended NOAA Corps Basic Officer Training with the U.S. Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in New London, Connecticut, and this fall I reported to the NOAA Ship Rainier. The adventure of learning has only just begun!

What exactly do you do at NOAA (job position, the kind of fieldwork etc.)?

As an officer in her first sea assignment, I am working towards my Officer of the Deck (OOD) Qualification, which means that I will be responsible for running a bridge team to safely navigate and facilitate survey operations from a ship operations standpoint. In addition to working towards becoming an OOD, I am currently the assistant officer to a collection of other duties on board including navigation, damage control, public affairs, and various administrative tasks. In these roles, you can find me running fire and emergency drills, updating navigation charts, planning routes, and posting to the NOAA Ship Rainier Facebook Page!

The NOAA Ship Rainier’s bridge, where we work as a team to safely navigate the ship. Photo Credit: Ensign Alice Beittel.

How did your studies at UC Davis or jobs during undergrad prepare you for being a NOAA Corps Officer?

Looking back, UC Davis provided me with an incredibly diverse set of academic and professional work experiences. I worked in a fish behavior lab, assisted with Sierra Nevada meadow restoration projects, studied coral reef ecology, served in student government, and was a coxswain for the UC Davis Women’s Rowing Team. I made an effort to dip my toes into anything I thought was interesting and exciting. As a NOAA Corps Officer, we are often referred to as a jack of all trades. Throughout our careers as officers and even within one assignment, we wear many hats. Being able to jump right into any task or project with a positive attitude and to think critically about how to get the job accomplished, is a skill I became familiar with during undergrad and continue to practice and learn today!

One of the many things that make the NOAA Corps unique is that all officers are required to hold a bachelor's degree in science, math, or engineering. As someone who serves on a hydrographic research ship, there have been many instances where I was able to draw on my academic background in geographic information systems to understand and ask questions about important technical concepts behind our operations.

NOAA Ship Rainier anchored at a survey location. Photo Credit: Ensign Alice Beittel.

You finally came back to land after a few months on a ship in Alaska. What was that experience like, living and working on a ship?

I really enjoy living and working on the ship! Every day is exciting and we operate in some pretty incredible parts of the world that not many people get to see. This past Fall we surveyed through Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage which provided excellent ship handling, navigational, and survey experience. The learning curve as a new officer is steep. Days on the ship are often long and jam-packed, however, I find myself having just the right amount of challenging and rewarding experiences. More often than not, I find myself at the end of each day having learned a whole slew of new things and that is pretty awesome. I wouldn’t trade that for anything else in the world.

Now, as your friend, I know that you’re really into bathymetry. Can you give us a little background of what it is why you love it?

Yes! Bathymetry is a fancy word to describe the practice of measuring ocean depths. I work on a hydrographic survey vessel which means that our primary mission is to capture ocean depths and conditions to create nautical charts used for navigation and habitat maps. We have sonar equipment on a collection of small survey launches and on the hull of our ship. We mostly use multi-beam echosounders that send multiple sound waves to the bottom of the ocean. By measuring how long it takes the sound waves to “bounce” off the ocean floor and return to the ship, we can create highly accurate and precise ocean floor maps. I love that hydrography is a combination of physics, oceanography, chemistry, and ecology! Depending on the type of data we collect and our field methods, we can use hydrographic data to locate navigational hazards, discover shipwrecks and historical artifacts, and identify critical habitat areas.

NOAA Ship Rainier crew prepares for a day of surveys. We use skiffs to survey nearshore areas that are not accessible by our survey launches. Photo Credit: NOAA Personnel.

Do you have any life hacks you can share in case any of us find ourselves living on a ship for a few months?

Shoe closet organizers are your best friends. We have a couple in our stateroom handing down on the bulkhead (a nautical term for a wall) and they are great for securing various items when the seas get rough! I store all sorts of things in them: water bottles, sunglasses, shoes, snacks, pens, and pencils. Speaking of snacks, be sure to bring some of your favorites. Right now I have a not so secret obsession with chili lime seasoned cashews and dried ginger chews.

NOAA Ship Rainier enters Thomas Bay, Alaska for survey work. Photo Credit: Ensign Alice Beittel.

No doubt you’ve seen some incredible sights. Has there been a specific place or a moment while at sea that took your breath away?

There have been so many breathtaking moments! I am constantly in awe of our planet and the animals we share it with. One night on our way through Alaska's Inside Passage, we saw the green glow of the Northern Lights streak across the night sky. Another day we were surrounded by a group of breaching humpback whales.

What is it like being a young female in a usually male-dominated scientific industry?

I most certainly feel that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. In 1845, Maria Mitchel was the first woman to work for the U.S. Coast Survey (a predecessor federal agency to the NOAA Corps). In 1972, Pamela Chelgren-Koterba was the first woman to join the NOAA Corps. Three years later, 18 women followed in her footsteps. Rear Admiral Evelyn J. Fields was the first African American woman to join the NOAA Corps and to become the Director of the NOAA Corps. It is because of these trailblazers and the advocacy work of many women throughout the service and science world, that I am able to step into this role today.

What has been the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of your time thus far in NOAA Corps?

Most rewarding: Being a part of a really awesome team. Learning new skills. Seeing the world.

Most challenging: Learning the responsibilities and tasks of standing a navigational watch is a steep learning curve! I have to remind myself to appreciate the learning process and keep a growth mindset.

Do you have a fun memory about your NOAA training?

Climbing to the top of the royals (the topmost yard on a tall ship) during sunset and watching a pod of dolphins swim around the ship. It was one of those moments where I felt so filled with joy, awe, and appreciation for the incredible world we get to live with. I will never forget it!

A training voyage along the Atlantic Ocean Gulf Stream on the USCG Barque Eagle. Top photo: I am the person second from the right waving down to the camera person on deck. Photo Credit: NOAA and USCG Personnel.

What advice would you give to those interested in joining NOAA in the future?

Reach out to a NOAA Corps officer near you or visit noaacorps.noaa.gov to learn more! The best way to find out if the NOAA Corps is a good fit is to speak to an officer. Joining a uniformed service adds another layer to your job description and personal life. When I was applying I spoke to multiple people and everyone was super friendly and willing to share what serving is like.

How has your outlook on life or environmentalism changed?

Living on a ship has made me even more aware of how many resources we consume. On the ship, we have to budget our water, food, and fuel usage. Every action impacts some type of ship system. The connection we have to each other on the ship is one parallel to the connection we have to each other on our planet. We are inherently connected in all that we do. One of the things I think about is the cost of science at large. What are we, as a society, willing to trade-off in order to collect critical and essential data that can be used to make smart decisions for the sustainability of our future? I hope that our future is a world where we don’t need to make these trade-offs and are able to engineer solutions that can eliminate the carbon footprint of science.

If you could give your 12-year-old Alice any advice, what would it be?

Live boldly, stay curious, laugh loudly, and embrace your authentic self!

*To follow more of Alice's NOAA Corps adventures, check out @alice.beittel

and take a look at the official NOAA insta too @noaa