Ron Muzzi has led the life of a marine engineer at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) since 1979. Throughout his career, Ron has worked to extend the reach of technology to assist his fellow scientists in their study of the Great Lakes. In leading GLERL’s Marine Instrumentation Laboratory (MIL) team of engineers as well as scientists, he has worked on the development of instrumentation and equipment to monitor the physical, chemical, and biological changes of our freshwater lakes. Some of these monitoring tools have been invented by Ron and his MIL team and others adapted from oceanographic equipment to large freshwater lake use.
So what would lead a 19 year old electrical engineering student at the University of Michigan (UM) to pursue a life-long career as a marine engineer? Ron, a self-professed tinkerer, thinks it’s probably his keen sense of curiosity. Ron recalls that from a young age, “I was constantly experimenting—taking things apart and then putting them back together in the process of fixing things.” He actually built his own computer (known as the COSMAC ELF) while still in high school. It was programmed with a hex keyboard and display, but would also play simple video games programmed by Ron.
Ron launched his career at GLERL as a part time engineering aid when he was a college freshman. In the process of completing his college education while working at lab, he followed the advice of his supervisor by taking courses that built broad foundation in math, science, physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics. This foundation has served Ron well as an electronics engineer, a position that later transitioned into MIL team lead for GLERL.
In doing the job of a marine engineer, Ron describes himself as being a ‘jack of all trades’ as he manages the front lines in delivering real time data from the Great Lakes back to the lab for analysis and modeling. Speaking from many years of experience, Ron stresses that our monitoring systems must be designed and built to stand up to the rugged environment of the Great Lakes. These monitoring systems— made up of integrated electrical and mechanical components—must not only survive working in the water, but also reliably provide accurate data. He identifies one of the most challenging aspects of his job is “knowing what to do when things go wrong in the field and how to solve those problems, including when problem solving needs to be maneuvered remotely from the lab.”
In looking back to the mid-1980s, early on in Ron’s career, lake hydrology was one of the focuses of GLERL research. In a project to predict the fluctuating Great Lakes water levels, measurements were taken in real time of the flow rate (velocity) of the Detroit River. To accomplish this, Ron and his team deployed an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) (left). Ron recounts one of his experiences using the ADCP: “During a strong wind event, the ADCP accurately measured a temporary river flow reversal that occurred throughout the water column. Up until that time, this had never been measured before. The event was observed to occur after a strong south wind pushed the water in Lake St. Clair to the north, making the level of the south end lower and then shifted to a strong east wind that pushed water into the western end of Lake Erie making the level of that lake higher. So until it could re-balance itself, the water level at the source of the Detroit River was lower than the water level at the mouth of the Detroit River, causing the river to flow upstream. For about an hour the Detroit River was actually flowing north!”
Ron recognizes the importance of listening carefully to the scientists to make sure he understands what they are trying to learn about the Great Lakes in their research pursuits. In doing so, Ron is better able to configure the tools needed to monitor changes in the lakes to meet GLERL’s research goals and objectives. Frequently, this involves designing a new instrument or adapting an existing one designed for the ocean for freshwater use.
Ron compares the challenges in his work as a marine engineer to solving puzzles, as he expresses, “I am really inspired by the creative process of designing and putting together innovative monitoring tools that are efficient, reliable, economical, and functional in rugged conditions. Being reliable in the harsh environment of the Great Lakes is especially critical. If our desktop computer crashes, we can easily reboot it, but that’s not an option when the computer is located inside a buoy a few miles from shore on a stormy day.” Ron is also inspired by working as a team in MIL as he knows all too well, “no one person can do this type of work on their own— it takes a team effort, always.”
One important development that Ron has helped advance is NOAA GLERL’s Real-Time Environmental Coastal Observation Network (ReCON) buoys, expanding GLERL’s capacity to monitor the Great Lakes. In working with the MIL team, Ron helped build and maintain the ReCON network—a system of wireless Internet observation buoys positioned at coastal locations around the Great Lakes covering approximately 800 square miles. The system of buoys, powered by solar energy, collects meteorological (Met) data and also provides sub-surface measurements of chemical, biological, and physical conditions. ReCON buoys obtain on the water data in real-time that is accessible to the public and ensures the safety of user groups going out on the water, such as surfers, anglers and boaters, duck hunters, sailors, as well as researchers. See slide show below for ReCON related images.
Ron identifies one of the ongoing challenges in doing research on the Great Lakes is monitoring the five-lake system—massive in scope, covering a surface area of 94,250 square miles with a volume of 5,439 cubic miles. While acknowledging this as a steep challenge, Ron discussed how newly developed technology, such as the Autonomous Unmanned Vehicles (AUVs), has increased GLERL’s capacity to monitor larger areas of the lakes more efficiently. GLERL also does more with cameras images and videos taken from aircrafts to increase monitoring capacity. Ron is optimistic that as robotics and imagery improves, we can continue to expand the scope of our research monitoring work.
Ron’s advice for young people interested in marine engineering harkens back to how he spent his childhood. “Young people need to experiment on their own, play around with science and technology kits, and get a good foundation in the basic sciences and mathematics. You may even consider exploring music.” Ron plays the piano and organ as well as directing his church choir and strongly believes that his musical pursuits have transferred over to strengthening his engineering skills. “Designing requires a creative spirit which should be explored at a young age.”
In looking to the future of Great Lakes research, Ron believes that one of the most significant challenges we face is getting the research done with limited resources as well as keeping the focus to a manageable number of projects. He hopes that the pioneering spirit of GLERL’s scientists and engineers continues in the spirit of developing innovative instrumentation to monitor the Great Lakes. And as a society, we all must take responsibility in being good stewards of the lakes for generations to come.