Box 1. Underwater odyssey

From the following article:

A trip of a lifetime

Amanda Haag

Nature 435, 1018-1020(23 June 2005)



Mark Patterson, now an associate professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Gloucester Point, grew up on Jacques Cousteau documentaries. But he got hooked on coral-reef science when he won a high-school scholarship to take part in an Earthwatch expedition — at that time known as Educational Expeditions International — to the Bahamas in 1974.

Patterson describes his time in the Bahamas as magical. “It was great because we were diving all day long. It was a dream come true for me,” he says. Patterson recalls Rick Chesher, the lead scientist on the expedition, being a good mentor: “He understood the aims of lay-person-driven science very well, and did an excellent job leading all these bankers, doctors and dentists.” He also found time to talk to Patterson about what life in science was like. “I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist from the age of six. Now I knew I wanted to go to college and become a coral-reef biologist,” Patterson says. He went on to complete his undergraduate, master degrees and PhD at Harvard University and became an expert in coral-reef biomechanics.

Patterson also credits Chesher with encouraging him to pursue electronics as a means of making underwater instruments. Patterson first got into electronics when he was caught destroying metal-shop tools with a welder in seventh grade. As punishment, his teacher made him join the hand-radio club. But Patterson loved learning Morse code and got a licence for hand-radio operators, inspiring a lifelong interest in electronics.

“Chesher was talking to me about it at sea and said: ‘You should really keep that up and not just concentrate solely on biology... you'll be able to do something that most marine biologists can't’,” recalls Patterson.

In the early 1990s, Patterson was working with underwater robots and decided he wanted to build an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). He tried to get funding from the Navy, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and from the National Science Foundation, but he says that because he was not a certified engineer, “they told me to go away”. So he and a family friend, Jim Sias, a world-class industrial designer, put together their own AUV, dubbed Fetch, on Patterson's kitchen table. They founded a company in 1996 — Sias Patterson — to commercialize their product.

Patterson is currently using AUVs to study oxygen dynamics over coral reefs and is designing underwater robots with customized sonar that can classify different species of fish. He has now notched up a total of 84 days living underwater, which he says, “would have never happened without having this formative exposure under Earthwatch back when I was in high school”.

Amanda Haag

A trip of a lifetime D. KESLING

Mark Patterson shows off the underwater vehicle he helped to design.