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Posted 3/18/2016

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By Sean McBride


What type of person would you picture if asked to envision someone who works on a boat for a living?

You’d probably think of the cast of Deadliest Catch or The Perfect Storm. While the cast of the Charleston District’s survey team spends many of their days on the water, they don’t quite have that weathered look.

Jennifer Kist and Sonja Tyson serve as survey technicians aboard the Survey Vessel Evans, the District’s 42 foot long floating map maker. The crew of the Evans cruises up and down Charleston Harbor, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, the coast of Folly Beach and many more places creating sonar images of the conditions of the water’s floor below them. The District looks to maintain safe passage for vessels in the federal channels of South Carolina, and the survey crew provides the data that shows what is at the proper depth and what needs to be dredged.

Out of 109 full-time survey technicians in the entire Corps of Engineers, only seven are female and Kist is one of them. After graduating from the College of Charleston, Kist briefly left the Lowcountry to work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Virginia, but was drawn back to Charleston in 2015. She works to transform the data outputs of the survey vessel’s sonar into something that people can understand.

“Sand is always moving, so we always have to keep track of where it’s going,” said Kist. “I love how everything we do changes every day, from one minute analyzing statistical models in the office to surveying the harbor entrance channel to riding up and down the beach with a laser scanner. Knowing the depth of [everything] to centimeter-accuracy is very important.”

Tyson is a part-time survey technician who came to the District after stints with other organizations using sonar and surveys to analyze fish habitats, topographic changes from oyster reef development and methane leaks in different parts of the country. While she’s worked on a diverse set of ecosystems, she enjoys the unique environment Charleston offers and wants to be part of innovation.

“Survey work provides the opportunity to engage in some of the most exciting realms of discovery and technological innovation,” said Tyson. “Only seven percent of the world’s oceans have been mapped, so there is plenty of room for new discoveries.”

Being females has no impact on how they see themselves as being perceived amongst the survey team. Tyson says that it’s expected that there are less females in the group because it is a STEM field, which typically has more males, but that that is changing.

“Our District understands that fostering an open and diverse community that draws from an array of unique experiences and viewpoints is a necessary step to achieving our mission,” said Tyson. “I don’t believe any of us in survey think about the male/female ratio directly; we depend more on what skills each individual can offer.”

“We’re a team, definitely,” echoed Kist. “Honestly I don’t think about being a female at work until someone reminds me of it. Unfortunately, the main issue standing in the way of females in STEM is the attitude towards them as opposed to the opportunities presented to them.”

The survey work done by Kist and Tyson is critical to keeping commerce and recreation moving through the Lowcountry. Kist thinks the public doesn’t realize how much “stuff” sits at the bottom of Charleston Harbor, such as a sunken barge or ship, and it makes her realize that it’s probably there because it hit something. That puts into perspective for her just how many people’s livelihoods depend on knowing the conditions of the harbor.

Both Kist and Tyson are doing an incredible job of helping the District monitor and maintain our federal channels to create positive economic and social benefits for the area. Their work identifies the problems before they become problems so we can keep up with what people expect from our coast.

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