An interview with Robert Gash,
engineering research scientist with NRC OCRE
by Wade Kearley
Through the wall of windows along the north side of the University Centre, the skies over the St. John’s Campus appear grey as the unusually cold weather lingers. Although it is mid-May, the few straggly maples visible on campus have not yet opened fully into leaf.
Despite the natural world’s hesitation to embrace spring, the fully realized enthusiasm of youth is alive and well in the person of Robert Gash, a PhD candidate of MUN’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. In his late-20s, he is a full time researcher with the National Research Council has worked with that organization since he began his student work terms back in 2009 at the age of nineteen.
Gash has a habit of winning academic awards and leapfrogging ahead in an academic and professional career focused on electronics and marine control systems.
His electrical and computer engineering skills are such that, in his mid –twenties, Gash found himself as the lead research scientist aboard a Canadian Forces submarine as it dived into the North Atlantic for a week sea trials for Victoria Class Autopilot replacement work, evaluating control system development.
He’s agreed to meet with me over coffee to discuss his work. Dressed casually, with an enviable air of confidence, he speaks in a reserved way that makes him seem older than I expected. His handshake is firm.
According to Gash his interest in things electronic is due in part to his childhood during which he developed a reputation for dismantling anything electronic that he could get his hands on. Putting it back together was another story. He grew up in Corner Brook on the west coast of Newfoundland under the watchful eyes of his stay-at-home mother Roberta and his father Jim, an electrical technician with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “The house was always full of old gadgets and doodads—we had a tube television until I was eight,” he says.
In high school problem solving appealed to him. “As far as math and science is concerned –it was a natural thing. I did well enough in English and those subjects but that was a slog.” Not surprisingly, in high school Gash applied to several universities across eastern Canada in mathematics, in engineering and in science. “The thing that did it for me was the co-op program at MUN,” admits Gash. The opportunity to gain experience with problem solving in the field, and the fact that it was in Newfoundland, decided his academic path…sort of.
“I wasn’t sure what area I was going to specialize in,” so the general exposure he got to engineering in the first years was helpful as Gash “learned the ropes in a number of engineering disciplines.” His first work term was with the computer systems group of the National Research Council (NRC). He was responsible for network administration which, although unrelated to his interests, turned out to be a valuable experience. “It allowed me to see what other people were doing. The entire R&D cycle is there,” he says. “You see the whole process. And it is a very interdisciplinary team—that is an aspect of the research that I still enjoy.” The respect must have been mutual because he was accepted back with the NRC for each of his successive work terms.
He enjoyed the first two years of computer engineering soaking up everything he could and in his senior years his path began to emerge. He found himself becoming bored with computer programming and taking electives in control systems and industrial control and instrumentation. “Programming is a tool that I use when a job needs it, but it is not something I take a great deal of pleasure in. This harps back to the tinkering aspect [of my younger years]–I very much enjoy a hands on approach and seeing problems through from beginning to end.”
It was in his second work term that he first met Dr. Jim Millan who played a mentorship role in the development of Gash’s career at the NRC. Millan was a research officer specializing in marine control systems. He recognized Gash’s hunger for problem solving and challenged him to move into electrical engineering. “I didn’t need any encouragement,” admits Gash. “Control engineering is how you automate machines to do simple tasks. For industrial control you have to know the details of how that mechanical process works, you have to understand it and be able to model it well before you can build the industrial control system.”
By his fourth term Gash was working on Demand Prediction for Dynamic Positioning (DP) in Ice Applications. “In 2010 and 2011, I worked as part of a team on NRC’s initial DP in Ice feasibility tests. We were attempting to develop a free-running model drillship,” recalls Gash. He was focused on the control system and the application of image processing and computer vision to analyze the test data. In 2012, he presented aspects of this work at the international Arctic Technology Conference in Houston.
In 2012 he also applied for and won an Ocean Industries Student Research Award (OISRA) from the now defunct Research and Development Corporation to fund his exploration of the potential for mobile telephones to replace the much more expensive and logistically challenging equipment currently used to measure ship motions at sea.
Gash had completed five of the six work terms towards his undergraduate degree at the NRC when in his final year he was encouraged to take and was subsequently accepted into the fast-track Masters of Engineering program. This essentially converted his the sixth work term into a semester to study the courses for his Masters. And he found himself working on projects such as the one aimed at improving dynamic positioning control system performance for station keeping operations in ice-covered waters.
In 2013 after he graduated from the undergraduate program and committed full time to the master’s program. Then in the in the fall of 2013 came a one year contract offer from NRC to be a “real employee.” And for that year as a part time employee he conducted “a lot of work” in industrial controls and data analysis with the NRC’s Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering (OCRE) group.
During the course of his work he found his curiosity and his abilities were leading him to surpass what was required for the masters because, “I kept finding myself going down other avenues saying, ‘I wonder if this could be different?’ So I had a few balls in the air and I had a decision to make at the end of 2014.” Was he going to clue up his masters or put that aside and focus on his work. “I really wasn’t ready to make that decision so I converted to part time studies and accepted a full-time research contract at the NRC. “
For the self-confessed “tinkerer” this decision as driven in part by the fact that there were a couple of interesting projects in the hopper that appealed to Gash. One of the biggest projects was the Centre for Marine Simulation’s DP in ice projects. “They were looking for a lead to do that DP in ice side. And I was excited to have that opportunity,” says Gash.
At the same time OCRE started in earnest with the Victoria class submarine auto pilot replacement program. “That was a great opportunity to help out with that work,” says Gash laughing in something like disbelief that he could have found himself working on what for him were dream projects at such a tender age.
In 2015, about Gash met with his supervisor Dr. Siu O’Young and had a heart-to-heart about his way forward. “I had a choice to make and I had been delaying that choice. My gut feeling was pick a ball and finish it,” admits Gash, who was on the verge of terminating his education. “But Dr. O’Young encouraged me to take education further. He felt my work was good enough to turn into PhD work. I wasn’t sure I agreed,” explains Gash. So, for another 18 months he juggled his options with O’Young calling him every couple of weeks asking, “Have you made your decision yet?” and Gash saying, “No.”
By the end of that end of that period he realized he’d deferred his education long enough and made the decision to pursue the PhD with an emphasis on in the area of DP in ice. The decision in part was driven by exciting international developments. “Research in the area is ramping up in other parts of the world,” he explains. “In Europe, the EUREKA research grant is very rewarding. They have a lot of interested parties looking at the problem, so from tank testing, numerical modeling and full scale trial and ramp up efforts, pools of grad students and companies are interested, and this seemed like a good opportunity to take advantage while there are people interested in it,” he says.
As of June 2017 Gash is full time with NRC OCRE and his part time grad work should come to an end in the spring of 2018 when he completes his PhD. In addition ot the major projects, he also has a support role for NRC OCRE in the instrumentation, control and data analysis of many projects (numerical, model scale, and full scale) NRC is involved such as preparing control systems for autopilots and roll reduction systems.
“The big thing that shows success in the research world is impact. What kind of impact you are able to make –on a local regional and national level,” he says. If I can look back and say that my work in anyway helped Newfoundland or helped Canada, increase capabilities in these research area, I think that would be a good indicator of success.”