PNAS: Bob Cross, Naval Computer Scientist

I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.

Second in this round is a computer scientist turned underwater warrior. With bonus video!

1) What is your non-academic job? I am a computer scientist at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, RI. I work in the Ranges Department as a part of the Range Software branch. That means I write software for all different kinds of things: underwater tracking, device control, situational awareness displays, image processing, etc. As a fairly senior person, I'm expected to work without supervision, define standards, lead efforts, form teams around me, mentor organically and a bunch of other things. I'm expected to solve whole classes of problems before most people even realize they could happen. I get pretty bossy but I'm able to explain why I'm saying we should do things and how my idea will help you go home on time.

2) What is your science background? My degrees are all in Computer Science (BS-Duke, MS and Ph.D. from Indiana University). I studied a bunch of different kinds of science and math in high school and college. I took Astrophysics as an elective in college and still talk about it: a great class but also the hardest class of all four years.

3) What led you to this job? I love writing code, working with computers and solving hard problems. The Navy has all of those. I also come from a Navy & public service background so this sort of thing is something of a family tradition.

4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc) I work in a cubicle most days. Today, I spent the morning in a classified lab analyzing underwater tracking data coming from AUTEC via our real time data link. Last week, I was in Sydney Australia working on a joint project with our allied partners. So, it kind of depends on which of my many projects is on the agenda.

5) What do you do in a typical day? Again, it depends. I plan to write a lot of code for the rest of this week, cleaning up the quickie work that I did in Australia. I'll also be cleaning issues that have accumulated in a different older code base over time and defining standards and automated tools that will prevent that sort of creeping crud from happening again.

Multiplexed with all that, I'll be working with other teams on long-term project planning. A lot of the projects that we're working on are focused on getting extra value out of existing assets: can we use something that we already have in a novel way that gets us a new capability without spending more money (critical in today's budget environment!)?

6) How does your science background help you in your job? Computer science education is critically important for truly effective software engineering. Math is everywhere: you can't know enough math. Physics is likewise all over the place and there's a unstated expectation that "of course you know how to calculate terminal velocity / sound pressure level / etc."

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?

NUWCDIVNPT (where I work) is currently hiring entry-level scientists and engineers. We also have summer internship programs: all three of my previous interns have gone on to graduate school.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? That events occur for a reason: there is a cause for every effect. I find that to be quite comforting. The universe is a pretty uncaring place overall but it is at least fair: the same rules apply to everyone and everything, all the time.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?
Long term: your eventual employment might be only loosely connected to your current science interests. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: the more you learn, the more you want to learn. This will pull you into new directions. Your employer might also pay you to become an expert in something completely unexpected: embrace the opportunity!

Short term: you must learn to speak in public. Give presentations to large groups at every opportunity. Push through the fear of public speaking (hint: when you get nervous, speak loudly and slowly). The ability to present your case / argue your position / persuade a grant committee will have concrete positive effects on your career.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? It's a matter of public record and it's not bad.

My command uses a banded pay scale that merges adjacent GS grades. I'm in the ND-05 band: that includes GS-14 to GS-15. I'm considered a "high grade": it's hard work to get an ND-05. Many people top out at ND-04 (which goes up to the top of the GS-13).


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