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Career Profile: Katy Croff Bell, President & Founder, Ocean Discovery League

Updated: Feb 10

The following are excerpts from an interview with Ethan Altamirano, ODL Communications Intern.

Katy Croff Bell is the founder and president of Ocean Discovery League, where she oversees the organization's operations and is responsible for its success. Her passion for ocean engineering began while she was at MIT, where she discovered her love for the field and knew that it was the path for her.

Question: What sparked your initial interest in your career?

Katy Croff Bell: My first experience with hands-on ocean exploration was on a trio of fishing boats outfitted with sonar and a small ROV (remotely operated vehicle) in the Mediterranean. I used sonar to scan the seafloor for targets and then used ROV to investigate these targets. This was an amazing experience that affirmed my love of deep ocean exploration and oceanography. 

Question: What are some of the highlights of your career in ocean exploration?

Katy Croff Bell: There have been so many! Becoming a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2006 was an incredible honor, and then I became a National Geographic Fellow in 2017. My work with National Geographic has connected me to dozens of amazing explorers around the globe and generated lifelong friendships.

I also had the incredible privilege of overseeing all operations for E/V Nautilus for the Ocean Exploration Trust. I was in charge of the logistics of running a 220-foot exploration vessel with a rapidly rotating crew of scientists and researchers. I worked with a team to oversee expedition planning and our research objectives. I also participated in numerous Nautilus expeditions as Chief Scientist, researching and exploring underwater volcanoes, seamounts, and ocean archaeological sites.

In 2022, a statue of me was placed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as part of the IF/THEN She Can Exhibit highlighting women in STEM careers. Visiting the statue with my daughter and having her learn about so many of my colleagues in ocean science was a delight.

However, starting my own organization and pursuing my passion for bringing the tools of deep ocean exploration to as many people as possible has to be one of the greatest highlights so far, and I'm looking forward to many more!

Question: Where did you learn about building or starting an organization?

Katy Croff Bell: After my first Mediterranean adventure, I was selected to be a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow, where I worked with the newly created NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, the only federal program dedicated to exploring the deep ocean. There, I learned how to build and manage highly effective organizations, which gave me the toolkit to run the Open Ocean Initiative and now Ocean Discovery League. 

Question: How was Ocean Discovery League founded?

Katy Croff Bell: The Open Ocean Initiative was started at MIT Media Lab, where I was hired as a Director’s Fellow and Research Scientist to run the program. I worked on developing solutions for limited access to deep ocean exploration, leading to the development of innovative projects like Maka Niu and Wayfinder, and also outreach initiatives like LILLI, which is now part of the Volvo Ocean Race.

In the summer of 2021, I decided it was time to spin out of MIT Media Lab to continue the important work of the Open Ocean Initiative with Ocean Discovery League. The organization was created, and we continue to build systems that bring more people to deep ocean exploration. My goal is to make deep ocean exploration accessible to everyone and to help people understand the importance of ocean exploration.

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