Intelligent Machines

James Bellingham '84, SM '84, PhD '88

Monterey Bay Aquarium chief technologist brings ocean science to the public

In 1994, ocean scientist Jim Bellingham and his research team were plying the Arctic Ocean, working with autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), when a blade snapped off one of them, leaving only one functioning blade—and no spares.

“One of the guys used the remaining blade to make a cast, and then he made a new propeller out of epoxy stiffened with tie wraps,” Bellingham says. “I love working with smart, creative people.”

Fortunately for Bellingham, his world is full of them. As chief technologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, he keeps abreast of emerging questions in ocean science and considers strategies for finding the answers.

“I spend a large fraction of my time learning about new research projects and meeting people with new ideas,” he says. “My day might involve meeting with the engineers who are designing and building our newest [autonomous underwater] vehicle, or meeting with research colleagues to plan an upcoming field program, or just brainstorming new concepts.”

Another great way to stay on top of research trends is to serve on advisory and review committees, he says: “Sounds boring, but I love it!” He is on science advisory boards at the University of Bremen in Germany, at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state, and at MIT’s Center for Environmental Sensing and Modeling in Singapore, to name a few. He also remains active with Bluefin Robotics, the marine robotics company he cofounded in 1997 that is now owned by Battelle, a global research company.

Before starting Bluefin, Bellingham was a founder and lab manager of MIT’s Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Laboratory and a lecturer in MIT’s ocean engineering department.

“This work has held my attention because [the ocean] is such a diverse and complex environment and so very poorly understood,” he says. “The great challenge of this century will be learning to live on an increasingly crowded planet without destroying it,” he says. “And we are unlikely to be successful without a much, much better understanding of our oceans.”

Bellingham and his wife, Deborah, live in Corral de Tierra, California, with their two daughters—Sarah, 20, and Elizabeth, 16. Scientific aptitude seems to run in the family; in science fairs, Sarah has presented a project examining language acquisition and Elizabeth has investigated germs in bottled water.

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