Women in Science: Dr. Patricia Gruber Scours the Globe for International Partners and Innovative Technology

A childhood fascination with the ocean sends one woman to the top of the Office of Naval Research Global, the international arm of the U.S. Navy’s science and technology office.

 Dr. Patricia Gruber gives the keynote address during the 49th National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS) in San Diego, Calif. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

Dr. Patricia Gruber gives the keynote address during the 49th National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS) in San Diego, California, in 2011. Image Credit: U.S. Navy/John F. Williams

When everyone around her was looking up at the stars, captivated by the excitement embodied in the space race, Dr. Patricia Gruber was dreaming of the ocean. For her, it was watching Jacques Cousteau that pushed her toward science and, ultimately, the ocean.

“Most people my age, if you ask them why did they get into science, they say, ‘Oh, it was the space walk; it was the moon,’” Gruber says. “I’ve heard that more times than I can count. For me, I was just captured by the whole oceanography thing.”

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about 400 miles from the nearest beach, forced her to take a somewhat indirect route to get to the ocean with stops along the way in more than a few physics classrooms before moving on to a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Penn State. Gruber finally got her feet wet when she completed her graduate work in physical oceanography followed by a Ph.D. in applied marine physics, both at University of Miami.

She believes her credentials have opened doors and generated respect from the officers, admirals and generals she encounters in her daily work as the technical director for the Office of Naval Research Global (ONR). ONR is the science and technology provider for the United States Navy and Marine Corps.

“Most of my career, I’ve been the only woman in the room,” Gruber says. “I’ve seen some progress. I don’t think I’ve seen as much progress as I would have expected. I mean, I’ve been doing this for a while now, and there’s still aren’t as many women in the technical areas.”

Still, Gruber says she has never felt out of place and believes she has been treated respectfully over the last decade spent working directly and indirectly with the U.S. military.

Gruber explains her organization’s role: “We foster research from the basic research through applied research to advanced technology development, basically to the prototype or proof of concept stage, and that is any technology that has the possibility of improving the capabilities of our fleet and forces.”

ONR Global is the international arm of the organization. Gruber, based at ONR headquarters in London, spends her time scouring the globe for good science and international partners with which to collaborate. To Gruber, good science can be anything from new satellites and sensors for modeling and understanding atmospheric conditions to materials that reduce corrosion and biofouling or medical developments that can improve the health and well-being of U.S. soldiers and sailors.

ONR Global also has offices in Prague, Singapore, Tokyo, Santiago, and San Paulo. The organization funds research in many more locations. In Vietnam, ONR Global is funding research on interactions between river, delta, and coastal environments. In Taiwan, it is helping expand capabilities in predicting the intensity of typhoons. In Japan and Indonesia, it is working to understand how currents, or throughflow, move through the Lombok Strait.

On the technology side, ONR and ONR Global have funded research on unmanned vehicles, underwater gliders, and autonomous buoys for testing and monitoring ocean conditions. ONR also is investing in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education with programs like SeaPerch, which helps generate interest in STEM studies in K-12 and college-aged students.

“It’s a huge breadth of technology, which is frankly one of the reasons I love my job, because I know a little bit about a whole lot of things,” Gruber says.

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Through ONR Global, Gruber plays a part in helping fund research to expand understanding of issues like Indonesian throughflow, which plays a vital role in global climate patterns. Image Credit: NOAA Ocean Explorer

Gruber discovered early in her career that she enjoyed science and technology management, which ultimately led her to work with ONR and later ONR Global.

She felt her personality was better suited to research management as opposed to field and laboratory work. She explains, “It’s really looking at a high level and understanding: are we investing in the right things, are we taking enough risk, are we really pushing the envelope of technology and advancing technology? Do we have the right balance, in terms of where we’re investing our money?”

This way of thinking plays a part in why Gruber sees value in developing international partnerships and supporting ONR’s work. To her, the areas being studied have far-reaching applications beyond the military – from humanitarian and disaster assistance to sustainability research.

The work has Gruber on an airplane more often than not. She spoke with Earthzine while in the U.S. for meetings and a quarterly presentation at the Pentagon, from there she made stops in Columbia and Brazil before heading back to London.

“I have a love/hate relationship with travel,” Gruber says. “I love going different places. I get to meet really talented, interesting people, and learn about different cultures. I hate the getting there – you just do it. I really believe in the mission.”