From Jungle Cruise Operator to Ocean Explorer

When Tara Willis started her job as a ride operator on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, she became fascinated by the inner workings of the rides themselves, wondering how each piece came together to create the engineering marvels the park is famous for but something people don't often think about when immersing themselves in fantasy land.

Willis would pepper the engineers - known as Imagineers - with questions. They suggested she go to school and study electrical technology to learn more about working with machines so that she could move up in Disneyland.

It turns out Willis picked the perfect time to go back to school, and that choice has taken her on adventures that seem big even for Magic Kingdom-sized dreams.

As fate would have it, Willis picked the community college where Deidre Sullivan, the Director of MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education Center) had set up a program to include robotics.

Sullivan has spent a good part of her life working for a Fortune 500 company and teaching scuba around the world. While that was certainly its own dream life, she had an even bigger dream. "I wanted to teach community college," says Sullivan.

"I had students that would come to college thinking that was enough, but were dropping out after a short time, without any mentors or help," she said.  "I wanted classes that mimicked the workforce, so I got a grant from the National Science Foundation."

The grant allowed Sullivan to build a program that includes being able to let students build Remote Operated Vehicles - called ROVs - for around $300.

A hallmark of all of MATE's programs is making sure that they are all aligned with ocean workforce research and trends.

"I started a brand new field at 30," says Willis, "and from there all sorts of opportunities have opened up for me."

Willis signed up for a robotics class, and found that she could apply all the electrical skills she was learning to the ROVs used to explore the ocean.

Willis was initially a history and theatre major, but her MATE internship allowed her to walk down a completely different path.

The combination was not a stretch for Willis, who grew up in Southern California and got scuba certified around the age of 12. "I have always had a passion for the ocean," she said.

That combination of skills and passion landed her a coveted spot with National Geographic Explorer Dr. Robert Ballard on the E/V Nautilus, a pioneer in the development of advanced deep submergence.

Willis has already had a couple of tours on the Nautilus.

She loves her work so much that Ballard asked her if there was something wrong with her sleeping quarters, because Willis is known on board for needing very little sleep.

Her job with Ballard is as an ROV Pilot and a technician, her most recent trip being to the Caribbean. The group started out in Puerto Rico, and was involved in biological, geological and archeological studies.

"The first two legs were geared toward two tectonic plates that meet north of Puerto Rico. where there are lots of faults and fractures."

A big part of the expeditions planned by Ballard involve live feeds from the ship to different groups such as schools that want to learn more, a part of her job Willis enjoys.

"You get all kinds of questions," she said, like the recent one from a 4-year old that had logged on with his parents to watch the crew at work.

He asked her, "Is piloting (the ROV) like playing a video game?"

"Yes, like a 5 million dollar video game," she answered.

In between traveling with the world famous explorer, she is back on the Jungle Cruise as a ride operator.

While the animatronic hippo may not pose the dangers of the open ocean, she is still able to work along side some pretty amazing people.

"I have been on the boat with John Lasseter, and trained his son Bennett on the Indiana Jones ride,"says Willis. Lasseter is the chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, and also got his start working on the Jungle Cruise.

Sullivan likes having the ROV program at a community college, because you have a lot of people like Willis that can't waste time and can't waste money.

Willis was one of the 30 students sponsored to attend the Oceans 2013 Conference in San Diego, Calif., which allowed her to meet with people from many parts of the ocean world.

The only way I have been able to meet many of the world's greatest female explorers is a direct result of the support of two accomplished men. 

Captain Alfred Scott McLaren, the President of the Polar Explorers Club and past Explorers Club Director, as well as a retired U.S. Navy Nuclear Submarine Captain, who treats me always as if I am capable of accomplishing anything I set my mind to, and Kevin Hardy, who engineered the "Lander Commander" that was a part of James Cameron's world-record breaking Challenger Deep team that reached the deepest point of the Mariana Trench.

The ocean world is big, and my head exploded with all of the information about everything from underwater acoustics to the navigation and fuel challenges that surround piloting a submersible.

These are just a few of the Ocean Stories I did collect during that time. As many exist as the drops of water in that great big ocean.

If you have an ocean story, or a story about women in any of the STEM fields, please contact me ASAP and let's get them told.


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