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'Joint' Ventures

One builds robots to work in hazardous places. The other works to help industries think 'green.'

Armed with fresh coffee from the Pie in the Sky restaurant in Woods Hole, Hagen Schempf was driving his rusty, geriatric Fiat when he was jolted one summer day in 1985. The jolt didn’t come from the coffee.

“I’m about to make this turn and I see this woman walking,” Schempf said. “OK, so she’s got blond hair, but she’s carrying this army bag. It’s one of those things that was very well-used in Europe in the ’70s and ’80s. They’re basically made of very strong jute, very strongly woven cloth material, even coarser than canvas. And I said, ‘Ooh, she can’t be from here. She can’t be from the US. She’s got to be foreign. I’ve got to find out who she is.’”

Before long, Schempf—an engineering student in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program—found out. She was Noellette Conway, a new biology student, who eventually became Noellette Conway-Schempf—adding a new dimension to the term “Joint Program.” For each of them, the path to WHOI was somewhat serendipitous.

Schempf, who was born in Germany but lived abroad for much of his childhood, always wanted to do something “à la Cousteau,” something combining the oceans and engineering. But such a combination was not offered in Germany, so he enrolled in Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, where he majored in mechanical engineering with a specialty in ocean engineering.

When Schempf’s professors urged him to go to graduate school, the Joint Program suited his interests perfectly. When he arrived at WHOI, the first research group he visited was the Deep Submergence Laboratory and he instantly wanted to get on board, though his first job wasn’t very glamorous.
“I was the slave air-conditioning man,” Schempf said. “That means I made and installed the air conditioners on the trailers that contained all the electronics. I was just there to do anything, to be associated with anything related with the program.”

Later, Schempf worked on the remotely operated vehicle Jason. He developed improved control technology for the manipulator system used to pick up artifacts and samples from the ocean floor. For his dissertation research, he built and tested a novel tendon-driven design. During his tenure at WHOI, he took part in expeditions that found and explored Titanic and Bismarck in the North Atlantic and several Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.

Conway-Schempf had studied natural science as an undergraduate at Trinity College in Dublin. She scuba dived a lot around the Irish coast, which focused her interest on marine organisms. After graduating in 1984, she visited the United States, went sailing on Cape Cod and came to Woods Hole. She said she felt awestruck in the presence of the “gods of the marine world.” One of WHOI’s ships was in, and she was thrilled by the whole scene.

“Just seeing all of the activities and the scientists carrying their tools and equipment back and forth, I was just absolutely amazed,” Conway-Schempf  said. “I had never seen anything like the scale of research that was going on, all related to the marine world. And I really was just gulping down the air thinking, ‘Oh, maybe the guy who invented Alvin had inhaled one of these molecules, and now I am, too.’”

She picked up an application for the Joint Program, was accepted, and returned in 1985 with the jute bag and a wardrobe that reflected her thriving cosmopolitan Dublin, but that stood out in a small New England village.

“When I came to Woods Hole, I can honestly say I looked like some sort of a weird punk rocker, though by Irish standards I could have worked in a bank, and I was looking respectable,” she said.

Conway-Schempf initially worked in WHOI biologist Fred Grassle’s lab, an experience that allowed her to settle in gently and get to know Woods Hole’s surroundings and ways of doing things. For her thesis advisor, she selected Judy McDowell, now Associate Dean of the Joint Program, who had done a lot of research on the effects of pollution on marine organisms. The research focused on a shallow-water clam, Solemya velum. The clam lacks a digestive system, but it is provided with nutrients by symbiotic sulfur-oxidizing bacteria—similar to the microbes that form the base of the food chains at deep-sea vents. Conway-Schempf used the clam as a model for vent fauna.

“To study animals at deep-sea hydrothermal vents, you have to go down in a submersible and you maybe get one or two animals—three, four if you’re lucky,” she said. “And by the time you bring them up to the surface, they’re kind of a bit mushed and not quite their jolly old selves. So it’s hard to do experiments.”

The clam Conway-Schempf worked on lives off the northeast US coast, usually in only a few inches of water. Collecting it was very easy, she said. “You’d just look at your watch, and say, ‘It’s low tide, time to go get some organisms.’”

After the two graduated from the Joint Program in 1990, Schempf took an engineering research position at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and Conway-Schempf was offered a postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh, where she worked on a cancer-research project using sea urchins as models for cell development. She enjoyed the research, but by 1992 she felt she might have better options in administration, so she enrolled in an MBA program at Carnegie Mellon. For her, the training formalized what is normally an ad-hoc process for most scientists.

“It was learning about managing, strategy, program development, and all of that stuff, which I wouldn’t have learned in a formal way as a bench scientist,” Conway-Schempf said. “If you think of it, most bench scientists eventually become administrators in charge of a lab, but they have to pick everything up by osmosis or just sort of make it up as they go along.”

Conway-Schempf’s decision to earn an MBA proved prescient. In 1992, Carnegie Mellon decided to start the Green Design Initiative (GDI), a campus-wide interdisciplinary program that works with businesses to develop environmentally conscious products and manufacturing processes. The GDI explores ways, for example, to reduce hazardous emissions, toxic materials, and inefficient energy usage and to lower costs by recycling scarce resources and using fewer raw materials. Green Design also offers educational programs for undergraduate and graduate students and for business executives.

The university had one key personnel requirement: someone with both a Ph.D. in science or engineering, who would be regarded as a peer among the faculty, and with an MBA, who could administer the program and who would be perceived by the business community as a person who understood its needs.

For both Carnegie Mellon and Conway-Schempf, the fit was perfect.

She joined the GDI faculty, where, among other projects, she has developed environmental management software and strategies to recycle electric motors and old personal computers. Companies taking advantage of the GDI’s expertise include Hewlett-Packard, IBM, General Motors, Hughes Electronics, Alcoa, and Union Carbide.

Meanwhile, Schempf had been invited to join Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, which specializes in designing robots that perform tasks in hazardous environments. One of the institute’s first products, a remotely controlled robot designed to do cleanup work at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, immediately solidified its reputation. Institute engineers also designed Dante, a walking robot that performs sampling and measurement activities in volcanic environments.

Since then, Schempf has developed robots for hazardous site inspections and cleanups in Department of Energy facilities, space exploration robots for NASA, robots to move materials for the horticultural industry, and reconnaissance and remotely operated systems for the military. One of his more recent projects is a robot that removes asbestos-containing insulation from pipes.

Combining their skills, Schempf and Conway-Schempf in December 1995 launched their own company, AUTOMATIKA Inc., to develop, among other things, robotic inspection and monitoring systems and parcel handling and stacking systems for clients such as Adidas and Codelco (a Chilean mining company). And somehow into that active lifestyle, now living in a Pittsburgh suburb (“minivan central,” as Conway-Schempf calls it), they also keep up with their three children.

“One was good,” said Schempf. “Two was a lot more work. Three is just, ‘OK, we’re in zone defense now. There is no more man-to-man coverage.’ ”

All in all, it’s been an exciting joint venture.

—By David M. Lawrence

Originally published: October 1, 1999