WHAT SHE DOES
Helps build the world's most ambitious cabled underwater observatory.
where She doeS It
Victoria, B.C., and aboard ships off Vancouver Island
Explores exotic subsea environments.
This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.
On 1 September 2010, Lucie Pautet showed up for her first day of work. An empty, light-filled office awaited the new hire at NEPTUNE Canada, in Victoria, B.C., the aboveground headquarters of an underwater ocean observatory.
Ten days later, that sunny space was a distant memory. She was at sea and working the night shift. She'd rise daily at 9 p.m. and walk around the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, an 84-meter-long ship, checking in on the next day's plan for installing instruments and cables on the ocean floor. Then she'd settle in at a workbench in the low-ceilinged control room and watch the footage transmitted by ROPOS, a remotely operated submersible vehicle.
ROPOS went out for almost daily dives that lasted between 10 and 30 hours. Its front camera's saucer-size lens, protruding like an alien eyeball, fed the NEPTUNE crew a high-definition view of the submersible's pincerlike arms. Pautet and her colleagues literally worked in the dark; they spent a month at sea with the lights turned off, staring raptly at a screen at the front of the control room as the submersible explored the water, manipulated tools, and used its graspers to gently position new data-collecting instruments.
"One night we had an amazing moment," Pautet gushes. "We were in a hundred meters of water, and all of a sudden we were surrounded by a school of sunfish." Then she catches herself—there is no "we" down there, only a robot puttering through the water below. "You kind of identify with ROPOS at some point," she says with a quizzical shake of the brown curls framing her face. "Especially when the room is dark and all you have is the screen in front of you, and it's just as if you were in the vehicle, just looking around."
For Pautet and her crewmates, communing with a roving hunk of metal is a fact of life, a reflection of the inseparability of their duties. Adrift on the Juan de Fuca Plate, off the coast of Vancouver Island, the team of scientists and engineers was tending to an unconventional observatory that sprawls some 3000 meters below them on the ocean floor. Cables from the shore provide continuous power and a communications link to five underwater bunkers, called nodes, that connect 160 instruments over the seismically active plate. But to install new instruments, the crew needs ROPOS. To power them and extract their data, the team needs undersea extension cables. And to lay those cables, the scientists again count on ROPOS.
As the lead engineer, Pautet must pull off the last-minute miracles to make it all happen. "Every day, it's like being MacGyver," she says. "There are so many little problems you have to solve with a little tape, by scavenging a can, by thinking on your feet."
The team had set out to lay three thick cables, each between 4 and 8 kilometers long, to connect a new node on the plate's Endeavor Ridge. The ridge is covered with black smokers, tall and spindly hydrothermal vents that jut like chimneys and spout sulfurous, 300° C water from Earth's crust. While they spew, the black smokers easily melt ill-placed instruments, and when the water eventually cools, its minerals form new rock that encrusts whatever it lands on.
Pautet confronted the ocean floor's geologic jungle gym from her perch at a raw wooden desk in the ship's control room. With ROPOS creeping through a few hundred meters of water an hour, Pautet and her teammates surveyed a route for the cable, mapping the mountains and chasms cut into Earth's crust. She sized up whether the cable could withstand the tension imposed by each slope and drop-off, and she hunted for the flattest, cleanest path to the new node. "Between the surveying of the route, the laying of the cable, and the inspection afterward, you're talking about several days of intensive work," she recalls with a weary smile. "It's intense, but you're also accomplishing this amazing technological feat."
For Pautet, this cruise marked a new chapter in a meandering career in which the 40-year-old has trained as an engineer, a globe-trotting, cable-laying technician, and a coastal waters scientist. Now she's all three at once.