Stephanie Chin is most likely the only Summer Student Fellow whose project could one day operate in space—at least in theory. She worked on building a prototype for a biologic pump sampler for the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry, under the guidance of scientists Rich Camilli, Chip Breier, and Dana Yoerger in Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Deep Submergence Laboratory.
Sentry is designed to discover deep-sea hydrothermal vents, but NASA has partly funded the project with the hope that the technology might be applicable to space exploration, particularly on Jupiter’s massive moon Europa, which may have an ocean beneath its icy surface. Sentry is a free-swimming robot that can explore without any attachments to a larger ship, which enables it to travel to remote locations. Autonomous vehicles currently require programming before they start exploring, but the goal is for Sentry to make its own navigation decisions based on what it senses along the way—a technology WHOI scientists are constantly working to refine.
Marine biologists often use pump samplers under water to look at organisms filtered through large amounts of seawater, but the the samplers are traditionally attached to a tethered remotely operated vehicle (ROV) or to fixed moorings. By creating a pump sampler for an AUV such as Sentry, Chin and her advisors hope to expand the possibilities of underwater biology exploration.
“By designing a compact unit to put on an AUV, scientists can gain the freedom of not needing to have a priori knowledge of the terrain,” Chin said. “Samples can still be taken along the AUV track, and in communication with onboard sensors, the AUV could be used to ‘sniff out’ interesting places to take samples.”
The sampler, which can filter larvae, plankton, and microbes, could also collect samples of DNA from marine life. Some of its components include an advancing filter on a spool that can store samples, and a fluid motion pump with a flexible impeller, which turns itself with changes in pressure and provides a uniform flow. All that must fit into a compact package that doesn’t take up valuable space on Sentry. Chin built and tested a prototype of the sampler herself.
“You get a lot of skills having your own project, learning to manage everything yourself,” she said, although she credits her Deep Submergence Lab colleagues with helping her improve the design along the way.
Chin is a senior with a major in mechanical and ocean engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she participates on the ROV team. The Westwood, Mass., native also enjoys reading and dancing and expects to go to graduate school to continue studying ocean engineering.