Ocean STEM Careers: Tia Leahman

Growing up in South Florida exposed me to various career paths regarding the sea and its inhabitants. When I was in high school, I enrolled in various marine biology and oceanography courses through the South Broward High School Marine Magnet Program. While in my junior year at South Broward, I was approached by the Marine Magnet coordinator, Ted Davis about a study abroad program in the Great Lakes. This program was designed to educate college students on the pollution of micro beads from various cosmetic products in the Great Lakes. The intriguing catch: was that this program was to be held on a fully functional replica of the US Brig Niagara; a tall ship that sailed in the War of 1812 within Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet. Despite only being a junior in high school, I was fortunate enough to obtain a berth on the Niagara and proceeded to sail on her for the summer going into my senior year of high school.

Once arriving and talking to the Officers onboard the Niagara, I learned that there were institutions known as “Maritime Academies” scattered throughout the USA that offered bachelor’s degrees in Marine Transportation or Marine Engineering, as well as USCG Unlimited Mate/Engineering Officer licenses. While on the Niagara, I learned a plethora of seamanship skills, mostly relating to the deck side aspect of running and crewing a ship of that caliber. I was given the chance to steer the ship through tiller commands, stow and setting sails, and even chart plotting basics. I knew that I wanted a life at sea but wasn’t sure if deck side was a career that I wanted to pursue long term, so I began to research the marine engineering route through speaking with shipmates and getting in contact with engineering cadets from various maritime academies. I wanted a career that would fulfill me at sea, and later in life when I crave to switch to shore side work. In addition, growing up with a father who is incredibly knowledgeable in the world of engineering and mechanics gave me an undeniable love for problem solving and working with my hands.

Through countless conversations with the Officers onboard and with my loved ones at home, I left the US Brig Niagara with a goal of attending Great Lakes Maritime Academy for Marine Engineering in Northern Michigan. During my last two years of high school, I volunteered with some of my classmates and shipmates I had met on the Niagara on a small research vessel based in the Florida Keys. On this vessel partnered with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, we conducted shark research through the process of catching, tagging and releasing various species of shark along the South Florida Coast. Little did I know that this choice to combine my two loves; sailing and science, would come to change my entire life a few short years later.

After sailing on Niagara one final season after my senior year of high school, I moved across the country to attend Great Lakes Maritime Academy. Throughout my time at the Academy, I was required to get 240 days of sea time on various vessels. I was fortunate enough to be able to sail on harbor assist tugboats in the Houston, TX Ship Channel, as well as an American flagged cruise ship based in Hawaii. To explore other shore side avenues, I worked in a Naval contracted shipyard; BAE Systems, in San Diego, California creating a standardized process for the removal and installation of the shaft and propeller systems in a specific class of Naval Ship. One of the greatest things I learned while at Maritime Academy and throughout my various cadet shipping experiences, was that there was no need for sacrificing something you love for something that could make you money. The maritime industry perfectly combines both of those things. If you are someone who craves travel, adventure, and a job that will keep you on your toes constantly, maybe being a marine engineer is for you!

After obtaining my 3rd Assistant Engineer (Unlimited) license, I set out for Newport, OR to work as an engineering officer onboard the R/V Oceanus, a 177ft National Science Foundation vessel crewed by Oregon State University. Onboard, we conduct water and sediment sampling through CTD casting and coring techniques with organizations such as Army Corp of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, Scripps Institute, and many more.  In addition to these tests, we also conduct deep sea net tows, which allow the scientists onboard to evaluate and identify marine life in areas and depths of the Pacific Ocean that have yet to be extensively documented. The projects that are being worked on aboard the Oceanus help scientists and researchers to be able to study the various fault lines and plate tectonic movement throughout the Pacific Northwest region, in the hopes of being able to track and predict their progression in the future.

As a marine engineer, a day’s work is never easy, but it is incredibly rewarding. Other women in STEM continue to inspire me and remind me that just because it is not easy, does not mean it is not worth doing. Being a Merchant Mariner has become not only a career of mine, but a passion for the sea, the work I do, and the incredible individuals I sail with. I hope to have many more years at sea, filled with education, hands on experience, and too many sea stories to count; a tale only a sailor could tell.