Ocean Alum Spotlight: Professor Richard Sternberg

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Dick Sternberg cutting a ditch across an Oregon beach at low tide for burying data and power cables to offshore instruments (measuring currents, wav
Dick Sternberg cutting a ditch for data and power cables to offshore instruments

Dick Sternberg cutting a ditch across an Oregon beach at low tide for burying data and power cables to offshore instruments (measuring currents, waves and  suspended sediment) to a receiving station on the adjacent backshore.

Dick Sternberg and Reginald Beach jetting into the beachface the electronic packages (buried below sand level) that control offshore

Dick Sternberg and Reginald Beach jetting into the beachface the electronic packages (buried below sand level) that control offshore instrument sensors.

Dr. Sternberg shares his passion and illustrates some aspects of his studies with a new sand display in OSB lobby   ~By Hannah Hartman


You are very passionate about the ocean and ocean sediments. How did this passion grow to become your career?

My passion for marine sedimentary process developed as a confluence of educational interests, personal activities, and a random opportunity. My educational years were in southern California, and my educational goals centered around civil engineering. My personal interests included camping/hiking and surfing at local beaches.

After high school I served in the U.S. Coast Guard aboard a buoy tender, working harbor buoys and lighthouses throughout the Pacific Ocean. I greatly enjoyed the experience.

After being discharged, I investigated the field of Geology because of its outdoor component and decided it was a good career choice for me. I subsequently earned a Bachelor’s degree in geology at UCLA in 1958. During my studies, I became aware of the work of Frances P. Shepard on submarine geology and realized that this specialty was for me! I was accepted for graduate studies at the UW Department of Oceanography, known for its educational emphasis, and graduated with a Ph.D. in Geological Oceanography in 1965.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my piecemeal educational decisions from high school and civil engineering, to a Ph.D. in geological oceanography at UW, made a lot of sense. They integrated my educational interests, personal interests, and Coast Guard experience at sea into a wonderful and gratifying career.

What are some of your favorite memories as a student at UW Oceanography?

Some of my favorite memories of being a graduate student in UW Oceanography are from the times I spent with my classmates. We formed a strong community and remained very good friends and colleagues through our careers. I also enjoyed greatly the research that I was able to do throughout Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

How did you use your passions to succeed in your many roles at the UW?

After my studies at the UW, I was a postdoc in Sweden for a year and then had a position at Scripps Institute of Oceanography for a year. I moved back to UW as an assistant professor in 1967. In this role I had the opportunity to help create the Ocean 220 course, which is still a core course for oceanography undergraduate students. The goal for this course was to provide undergraduates an early opportunity to be involved in ocean research and to form a strong student community. The course offers hands-on opportunities in the research process. All the students work together planning a field study during a retreat at the UW Friday Harbor laboratories, participate in a cruise on a UW research vessel to collect data, analyze the data, and report their results.

How did you use your education when conducting your research at the UW?

My main research focus was on development of seafloor instrumentation devices to make extended measurements of nearbed physical conditions (e.g., currents, waves, tides, salinity, temperature, depth, sediment movement). The goal was to evaluate the usefulness of sediment transport process equations (developed in laboratories and rivers) in the sea. This activity involved working with geological, physical, and chemical oceanography data and the broad educational background I had received from UW Oceanography was of great importance.

What advice do you have for current and prospective oceanography students?

For those who are considering majoring in oceanography I would strongly suggest taking a moment to closely analyze your passions. A career in oceanography has some distinct perks, such as travel opportunities and intriguing hands-on work, but also requires time and effort to be successful. In spite of the effort required, a career in oceanography can be incredibly rewarding.

If you are already on the oceanography path, the most important piece of advice I can give is to get involved as early as possible. This can include many things, such as going to seminars, attending events, working for your professors in the field and in their labs, and volunteering to assist at sea. In short, you will get out what you put in towards your UW ocean experience and future career opportunities!

The sand samples you’ve collected throughout your career are displayed in the OSB Lobby. Tell me about this sand collection.

I began research on seabed sediments in the 1960's and what initially started as a collection of my research samples has grown into a collection of sediment from all of my travels (colleagues have also contributed some). The samples are from many unique beaches around the world as well as from rivers, deserts, and places of historical or specific interest.  In addition to the display, our sediment group plans to highlight and briefly discuss groups of interesting samples each quarter--so keep your eyes out for the “Sediment Stories Quarterly” posted on the collection (Autumn 2019 is already up).

Dick Sternberg cutting a ditch across an Oregon beach at low tide for burying data and power cables to offshore instruments (measuring currents, wav
Dick Sternberg cutting a ditch for data and power cables to offshore instruments

Dick Sternberg cutting a ditch across an Oregon beach at low tide for burying data and power cables to offshore instruments (measuring currents, waves and  suspended sediment) to a receiving station on the adjacent backshore.

Dick Sternberg and Reginald Beach jetting into the beachface the electronic packages (buried below sand level) that control offshore

Dick Sternberg and Reginald Beach jetting into the beachface the electronic packages (buried below sand level) that control offshore instrument sensors.