Anna Michel, Ph.D.
Associate Scientist, Department of Applied Ocean Physics
Chief Scientist, National Deep Submergence Facility
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Inner space or outer space? A mom or a scientist? This scientist has the drive to do it all.
The Lonely Only
When Anna was in 10th grade, she was selected to participate in a Jason Project research cruise to the Galápagos Islands. The students and crew flew to the archipelago, off the coast of Ecuador, and when they arrived they received bad news: “The barge carrying all the equipment — the ROVs, the satellites, everything, from Ecuador to the Galápagos, had sunk. They lost everything.” However, the cruise went on — and what happened next provided a lesson in logistics that Anna carries to this day. “They scrambled to get all of the gear from here, there, and everywhere and to fly it in. Now she says that most of her life — as a mother, as a researcher, and as chief scientist for submergence vehicles, involves managing logistics. “In ocean research you’re constantly moving stuff to different locations, trying to figure out how to get people where they need to be.”
It took Anna years of school to figure out where she belonged. “I wasn’t what to study in college. I went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for undergrad and I thought I was going to do chemical oceanography. My end goal was ocean, but I didn’t know the path that I wanted to get there. So I studied chemical engineering and biology, and got into Scripps Institution of Oceanography for graduate school. After a year I left and went to work for a year.” During that time, she thought a lot about what had gone wrong. “I was in a very pure chemistry group at Scripps. I decided I really missed the engineering world and the way I used math to solve problems.” But the work she was doing at Scripps wasn’t that. That year she worked doing information technology for a consulting company. Then she went back to MIT/WHOI for ocean engineering.
Anna used National Science Foundation funds to create a career and education program called Girls of Engineering and Science (GOES). A diverse group of middle school girls from Cape Cod, which includes the Wampanoag Tribe, did field work with scientists and built ROVs., until the Covid pandemic put a halt to it. Anna is hoping to get the program funded and moving forward again.
Years later, when I was interviewing for a job as an engineer, the interviewer asked me a technical question and I had no idea, but I commented to Anna that her resume read like a very smooth path: MIT, MIT, MIT. Obviously it skims over the year at Scripps. And, Anna says, “It doesn’t include my divorce and being a single parent! That’s where all the chaos happens.” She adds that single parenthood has been a main issue. “Being a single parent and trying to do a research cruise for a month is not very compatible. Still, long trips are emotionally easier than short trips. “It’s hard for me to be like, I’m going somewhere for two days.” Still, research cruises are planned far in advance, there are grandparents willing to come stay, “It’s just hard,” she admits. “It’s hard to leave your kid for a month. They need you, and they’re not happy you’re leaving.” Positive developments include internet aboard ships. It’s great to be able to zoom. “Internet is key to giving people access to home — and people on shore access to the ship.” Learning to maintain her connection with her son through the internet has led Anna to a new understanding of accessibility. “The internet is key to diversifying ocean science,” she says.
THE LONELY ONLY
In virtually every ocean science meeting Anna goes to, whether it’s a formal committee or an impromptu gathering to plan a submarine dive, she’s the only woman. Nonetheless, Anna says the situation has improved over the course of her career. “My first cruise as a graduate student had four women on it. Lately I’ve been on cruises that were 50 percent women. It’s definitely getting better.” Yet many of the women on recent cruises were young — grad students, post doctoral students. “We’re working on the next generation.”
The Alvin group — and engineering in general —is male dominated. And now Anna is in charge. “Equity is one of the big things we’re working on. I feel passionate about bringing more women in. It’s hard; for women the ‘kid factor’ is hard, and we still have a society where women do a lot more stuff with their children.” She makes an effort to create a working environment . “If you have a female principle investigator, you attract more females to your group.” In her own research group, she has two females, a male, and a transgender student. “We’re working on it,” she says.