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Career Profile: Kylie Pasternak, Lead Maka Niu Project Engineer, Ocean Discovery League

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

Kylie Pasternak is the Lead Maka Niu Project Engineer at Ocean Discovery League. 

She has been a submersible vehicle operator and marine technician since 2018 and is currently pursuing her Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Rhode Island.

Question: What sparked your initial interest in your career? 

Kylie Pasternak: I’m from a blue-collar city and learned that after graduating high school, it was very hard to support myself.  So, when I was 24, I started an engineering Associate’s degree program at my local community college. I didn’t know any engineers, and I didn’t really even understand what an engineering career would look like, but I knew that I liked to know how things worked and that I liked working with my hands. 

One of the engineering electives I took was called Ocean Technology. Each week, we learned about the evolution of ocean technology, which has been used since the 1700s. I was left with so many questions: What do we use now to study the ocean? What do we still have to learn? How will this technology evolve in the future? I didn’t grow up on boats, or with any marine experience, but when I found ocean technology, it felt like the right direction to focus my engineering career on.  

Question: What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a career like yours? 

Kylie Pasternak: If you have no idea where to start, start by learning the language—building context for yourself is a great first step. I started with learning the names of tools and hardware. It enabled me to get tools for the people I was learning from which helped me build camaraderie and feel purposeful. And when you have the opportunity to work with others, don’t be shy to ask questions - the goal is to learn!

I also recommend subscribing to a scientific or technical journal to learn what is currently happening in the industry. If you are a student, you can usually subscribe for free. The journals are great because they also act as a bulletin for jobs, conferences, internships, and the like. You can even reach out to companies that you find in journals to learn more about their product, services, or facilities and ask about career opportunities they might have available.

Volunteering is a great means to participate in the industry. The ocean technology industry is a small world, and the connections you make through volunteerism are very valuable. Volunteering with a local STEM group helped me build my confidence in my skills, and the group organizers wrote the recommendation letters that helped me get my first-at-sea experiences. 

Last and most importantly, remember that anyone from any walk of life can have a career like mine. You just have to start. Build your knowledge, seek out opportunities, and establish connections—rinse and repeat. 

Question: What makes you passionate about ocean exploration? 

Kylie Pasternak: I'm a technician at heart, and my formal training is in engineering, but I also really love ocean sciences. So, what makes me feel fulfilled is contributing to ocean research in a way that suits my talents by providing scientists with tools that enable them to access, sample, and investigate marine ecosystems.

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