From Astronaut to Aquanaut – The Winding Career Road of Kakani Katija

By E.C.M. Parsons 

“Sometimes your career path isn't straight. It's okay to change your career path and career interests, which is what I've done, not just out of necessity, but out of interest,” explained Dr. Kakani Katija.

“When I was young, I really wanted to be an astronaut. For me, these were the modern-day explorers. I was also very impacted by watching Star Trek reruns with my dad growing up and I had this idea that what astronauts were doing was close to what the Star Trek crew did. The whole concept of searching for life elsewhere, in unexplored places, was just fascinating and inspiring.”

But what courses does one take in high school if one wants to be an astronaut? “I didn't have anyone in my family who was an academic or understood the pathways to becoming an astronaut,” she said, but she was inspired by her grandfather.

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MBARI Principal Engineer Kakani Katija (left) and cruise participants from the 2019 Bioinspiration Expedition take a closer look at a siphonophore that is being prepared for flow analysis in one of the laser-based lab experiments. Credit: Joost Daniels © 2019 MBARI

Katija’s father was born and raised in the United States, and he joined the Peace Corps after college. While he served, he met her mother's family in Malaysia. Her mother was studying to be a nurse in the United Kingdom, and during her return trip after completing her degree, she stopped off in the United States and ran into her family friend. One thing led to another and they got married. At that time, her grandfather was leading an engineering firm just outside of Portland, Oregon.

“He didn't get an advanced degree, but was always fascinated by technology and science. So, he would have magazine subscriptions to National Geographic and, of all things, the MIT Technology Review. I would go over to his house and he'd always hand me and my brother one of his magazines that he'd already read. So it's really through him that I learned about different types of engineering and what some of the opportunities were in the field.” He ultimately inspired her to enroll for an undergraduate degree in engineering.

“I always had a knack for math and affinity for the sciences, but I was also heavily involved in sports.” In fact, she was a competitive figure skater. With her brother, who was also a skater, they became national ice dancing champions. They were on the US international figure skating team and were even alternates for the Olympics once.

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Field trials for the Mesobot, a new generation of underwater robot developed by engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and MBARI, aboard MBARI’s R/V Rachel Carson. Credit: Kyra Schlining © MBARI

However, her family also believed in getting a good education, and supported her and her brother both in their ice skating and in their academic studies.

When Katija started her undergraduate degree at the University of Washington, she was still thinking about how to become an astronaut: “Aerospace engineering was the most fascinating subject to me, but it was also, so I thought, the closest thing to get me to become an astronaut.”

She also carried on with competitive ice skating until a major injury near the end of her undergraduate program meant that she had to undergo surgery and undertake physiotherapy. It was while she was rehabilitating from this injury that she started getting involved in undergraduate student research. The undergraduate research experience opened her eyes to other possibilities in the field of scientific research, and she decided to go on to graduate school.

Although Katija was hoping to continue skating, she realized that a combination of other skating injuries and the need to focus on graduate studies meant that perhaps it was time to move on from competition. So, when she made the decision to go to graduate school, it also meant ending that part of her life. “The idea that competitive athletes die twice, the first time when they end their sports career, really resonated with me at that point” she said.

She got an offer from the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) for the Aeronautics graduate program, and was invited to go to the campus and meet with faculty and other students there. Later she was awarded an NSF graduate student fellowship. “I was kind of blown away that this was a thing. That you could go off to graduate school and also get paid to do it!”

Before beginning her graduate studies, Katija had also been fortunate enough to get an internship in the NASA Academy at NASA Ames Research Center. As part of that experience, she was involved with systems engineering working on the International Space Station.

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MBARI Principal Engineer Kakani Katija on deck of research ship deploying tracking tag and tether to a sea nettle jellyfish during an experiment in Monterey Bay. Credit: © MBARI

At the time, she realized that there were limited career paths for engineers within the aerospace industry. “If you couldn’t land a job at NASA, you could land a job in the defense industry,” she said. But she really wanted to continue down the research pathway, contributing to knowledge or science. Therefore, while she was in graduate school, she started thinking more and more about her future opportunities. “A professor at the University of Washington, Robert Breidenthal, gave me some of the best advice, which was ‘the best opportunities are the ones that give you more opportunities.’ That really sank in and it was something that really guided me.”

At CalTech, Katija got the opportunity to collaborate with marine biologists Dr. Jack Costello at Providence College and Dr. Sean Colin at Roger Williams University on an NSF-supported research project. They were interested in jellyfish propulsion and what that might mean for underwater vehicle development.

“I think, by a number of lucky circumstances, but also through really wonderful mentors – who, for whatever reason, saw me as having value to either their programs or what they were trying to do – I had a lot of opportunities,” she noted.

For example, working in the lab of Dr. John Dabiri at CalTech, Katija started to learn more about the ocean and some of the big questions being asked by researchers. But she was also becoming acutely aware of the lack of access marine scientists had to the ocean and the lack of technology to allow scientists to study the marine environment.

She became more involved in the field of biomechanics – the study of animals to gain insights into engineering solutions. She also started to realize, like many others in the field, that studying animals in a laboratory environment is not the same as studying them in their natural environment. In nature, one can understand and know the pressures these animals are facing and how they experience life. Katija became very interested in pursuing opportunities in the ocean space and secured a post-doctoral fellowship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

When a position opened up at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) five years ago, Katija applied and ended up securing a fulltime position.

“My career path might seem accidental,” she said, “but really it's a case of being open to opportunities and taking risks with those opportunities when you can. I should say that while I can look back on that time with rosy glasses, it was not an enjoyable lived experience. You didn't know where you were going to be in nine months – that's a hard part of the process. That’s the hard part of becoming an academic, dealing with constant uncertainty.”

“I know I surprised some people at the time,” she said about her meandering career path, “but you know, really at the end of the day, this is your journey and you need to make decisions that work best for you and your family.”

One of the very first grants Katija was awarded as part of her new position at MBARI was an NSF award to study whether artificial intelligence, integrated with underwater vehicles, could be used to understand, track, and observe marine animals for a long period of time.

Her time working on jellyfish had made her realize how difficult it was to tag and track soft-bodied marine species, meaning that scientists were limited to studying large vertebrates like fish and whales. So, she started think about how to track and understand marine species that weren’t large enough, or too soft-bodied, to carry an electronics tagging package. How would that be done?

Brain-storming with other scientists who had been thinking about ways to tackle the same problem led to the NSF-supported “Mesobot Project” – an autonomous underwater vehicle that could video record marine animals autonomously, under its own power, for up to 24 hours.

The project involved the development of computer vision algorithms to focus on moving marine species, coupled with vehicle control algorithms to pilot the vehicle. As a result, Mesobot can follow and record slow-moving marine creatures on its own. However, for one of these autonomous underwater vehicles to follow and identify individual marine animals, and get detailed information on how they live and behave, it takes sophisticated computer software. It requires smarter algorithms to allow the system to learn how to identify and follow marine animals.

There is a saying that “to raise a child takes a village.” To teach an artificial intelligence (AI) how to identify and follow elusive marine species also requires more than computer programmers, engineers, and marine technology specialists. It needs marine biologists who know how to identify species and images of these species to train the AI. It needs a community of collaborators from different fields with different skills. This led to more support from NSF via the Networked Blue Economy awards. These awards are especially designed to foster innovative approaches to solve ocean problems by bringing together diverse communities to work on the problem. The Ocean Vision AI project is bringing together not just engineers and marine biologists, but also video game designers, photographers, and media specialists, as well as ocean enthusiasts. A whole village of experts trains the AI “child” how to identify and follow marine animals.

“I feel that support from NSF has been very timely. It’s allowed me to help kick start these projects with talented collaborators that lead in really interesting, novel directions,” Katija said.

The ocean represents the largest habitable ecosystem on the planet, yet less than 5% of that volume has been explored, and it is estimated that nearly half of all marine species have yet to be even described. If the Ocean Vision AI system is successful, it will be more than novel, it will allow autonomous underwater robots to discover the secrets of elusive marine species in a way that previously would have been impossible, boldly going where no-one has gone before. Dr. Katija is thrilled to be a part of this work.

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