Going Coast to Coast

As voluminous waves rose and flowed more than three miles off the Holland shore, Brian Kieft ’01 looked out over the black-green topography of Lake Michigan and scoured the waterscape. His small boat, as well as his eyeballs, bobbed up and down with each swell, rolling like marbles on a parabolic joyride. The undulating motion alone would make most anyone’s innards sickly; add intense gazing and the task is certainly not meant for the faint of stomach. But Kieft, a water-loving wave-rider, had no problem with either, so his search on the big lake’s surface continued.

Finally, after 20 minutes of unwavering focus, Kieft and his colleagues saw what they went looking for just 100 yards away from their craft. There, coming up from the deep, cork-popped a six-foot, yellow-orange, torpedo-shaped robot. And Kieft was the one who commanded it to do so. From an app. On his phone.

Hope College - Hope graduate Brian Kieft works with Monterey Bay Aquatic Research Institute on Lake Michigan. Using a autonomous underwater submersable called Tethys, Brian and his team have been studying water quality in the great lakes. Photo by Steven Herppich.
Hope College – Hope graduate Brian Kieft works with Monterey Bay Aquatic Research Institute on Lake Michigan. Using an autonomous underwater submersible called Tethys, Brian and his team have been studying water quality in the great lakes.

Tethys—the six-year-old, half-million-dollar AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) invented by the Monterey Bay Aquatic Research Institute (MBARI) with Kieft as one of its software engineers—made its freshwater debut in the Great Lake in August. Prior to its introduction to water without salt, Tethys—of which there are six in the world—had been serving as a deep-sea lab in the Pacific Ocean, monitoring water quality and aquatic life via a suite of sensors for scientists at the University of Hawaii and MBARI, both world leaders in advanced research and education of oceanographic science.

But for that month this past summer, MBARI, in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Great Lakes Science Center, took Tethys coast to coast, and with it came Kieft. The California native, Hope-educated in the liberal arts with a computer science major, returned to the shores of Michigan from the shores of the Pacific much to his nostalgic delight. In the trademark anchor on Hope’s campus and the Big Red lighthouse in Holland’s harbor, a foreshadowing of Kieft’s watery but computer-related career trajectory seems clear now, even if it was not then. Imagination and dreams, and hard work of course, are the vessels with which this even-keeled and confident man has circumnavigated across waters and time—from one home coast to another—all before the age of 40.

Brian Kieft ’01. Photo by Steven Herppich.

A marine biology field trip to Catalina Island while Kieft was a high school student in the 1990s “sold me on the water,” he says. “I still love going back there to this day.” But at Hope, two professors sold him on work with computers. Herb Dershem, professor emeritus of computer science and his advisor, “taught many of my computer science classes, and his advice both in the computer science lab and beyond was essential to my education.” Dr. Jim vanPutten ’55, professor emeritus of physics, “allowed me to take a higher level electronics class early in my Hope career. That really increased my enthusiasm for digital and embedded systems and gave my major an actual space to be applied.”

“He also graciously allowed students to pursue their own projects in the electronics lab when it wasn’t busy, so I was able to blow up many of my own circuits there as well without being graded.” He smiles, and the recollection of what a good education provides—professorial guidance and wisdom, and spaces to fail and succeed—evokes gratitude and affection.

“Our mission statement (at MBARI) promotes combining scientists and engineers to create and try things that have never been done before. It’s this aspect of the work that makes Monday mornings exciting for me.”
–Brian Kieft ’01

After his Hope graduation, the water would wait. The air was Kieft’s first element to software-engineer as he worked for an avionics company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on flight systems for military aircraft. But after five years seated mostly behind a computer, wearing mainly khakis and oxfords, Kieft heard the siren song of California’s coast for his dream job, and he returned home in 2006. On any given day at MBARI, Kieft will move between land and sea—at a desk, in a lab, on a boat. On any given day, he will also make three work-wardrobe changes between a polo shirt, a wetsuit, and a life vest. The work of programming and monitoring unmanned and untethered robots that traipse through large bodies of water makes the variety necessary—in mindset, location and apparel—for holistic systems engineering.

“Our mission statement (at MBARI) promotes combining scientists and engineers to create and try things that have never been done before,” explains Kieft. “It’s this aspect of the work that makes Monday mornings exciting for me. And the people are also amazing. I get to work with scientists from just about every background imaginable as well as extremely talented engineers who manage to do things that completely transform the way science is done. I’m certainly honored to be a small part of such a great institute.”

Bringing Tethys to the Midwest in conjunction with the USGS was Kieft’s idea, says his supervisor, Kent Headley, group lead of embedded systems at MBARI. “He’s a great collaborator and communicator,” says Headley, “and he is someone who wants to solve problems when he knows they’re there.”

Photo by Steven Herppich.

The problem in Lake Michigan has been its water clarity. Typically, water clarity is considered a good thing, especially for tourism promotions, but clearer water actually means less algae and plankton, which means fewer prey fish that eat algae, which means fewer sport fish that eat those prey fish. This circle of water life means salmon have been on the decline in Lake Michigan, frustrating fisheries and sportsmen and scientists alike. So Tethys was deployed to help solve this environmental riddle by trans-secting the Great Lake, zig-zagging between Wisconsin and Michigan in water nine to 150-feet deep for over 1,000 kilometers, giving “a more persistent observing presence than research boats and people can provide,” Kieft explains. “And it has the smarts to do what it has to do (like stopping in areas where data is rich) without a lot of human intervention.”

Of course, Kieft was the one to program those smarts into Tethys. And floating around marine biologists at MBARI has informed that programming, as did a liberal arts education, where cross-disciplinary chatter is a valued norm. “It’s nearly impossible to work on the systems I do without knowing the basic scientific requirements behind them,” he confirms. “Part of what makes MBARI so interesting is that we have scientists learning a lot about engineering and engineers learning a lot about the science.” It’s vital for Kieft, also a United States Coast Guard-licensed captain, to constantly consider the various physical and chemical oceanographic processes—like wind-driven coastal upwelling, a piece of fluid jargon he uses frequently—that affect Tethys’ intelligence.

The six-year-old, half-million-dollar AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) invented by the Monterey Bay Aquatic Research Institute (MBARI). Photo by Steven Herppich.
The six-year-old, half-million-dollar AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) invented by the Monterey Bay Aquatic Research Institute (MBARI).

It should go without saying by now that work on water, saline or fresh, with computers, stationary or swimming, are Kieft’s patent joys. The technology is complex, the days can be long and the water occasionally harsh, but it’s a good day when a whale or dolphins or sea otters provide him company out in the bay. It’s a good day when new environmental advances are discovered with his help. And it’s always a good day when Tethys comes back as commanded.

It’s especially a good month, though, when work and science bring his family—wife Kimberly VanDerWende ’01 Kieft, a Michigan native, and their two young sons—back to a state where currents of fond memories and new discoveries abide. And Brian Kieft, for one good day, was buoyed by the serendipitous flow that sent him coast to coast.

Photo by Steven Herppich