Robert Valtierra knows how close he was to becoming a statistic. As a high schooler who spurned math, favored hooky over homework, and came within a hair of flunking out, if you’d told him at his 1997 graduation that he’d one day be a high-tech innovator in the field of marine acoustics, you’d have gotten a whale of a double take.
But a lot can happen in 16 years. And if Valtierra (ENG ’10, ’13) is proof of anything, it is the ocean of possibility that exists through education, persistence, and the willingness of others to believe in you along the way. This spring, Valtierra, 34, will receive his PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the College of Engineering, after designing a highly sophisticated, low-cost suite of equipment to track the behavior, locations and population sizes of endangered whale species. “I’m just so appreciative for where I am and what I’ve been able to achieve,” Valtierra says. “I’m only where I am today because others were willing to take a chance on me.”
And because Valtierra was willing to push himself. There were choppy waters, to be sure, at the start of his voyage. The son of two correctional officers in the San Francisco suburb of Fairfield, CA, Valtierra likes to joke that he was part of “the pre-prison society in high school,” spending considerably more time out of class – often hanging out with friends in nearby Napa Valley – than in it. “I was always a good kid, never got into trouble with crime or drugs or alcohol,” he says. “I just hated classes. But I loved playing music.” A star trumpeter, clarinetist and violinist, Valtierra thrived in band class, where he’d meet his future wife, Serena, and march in the Rose Parade. “There was nothing I wouldn’t do to further myself in music,” he says, “but there was nothing I would do to further my academic career.”
Valtierra finished high school with a 2.02 GPA. College wasn’t a consideration at that point. Music, however, was, and Valtierra successfully auditioned to join the elite U.S. Marine Band program as a trumpeter. Corporal Valtierra would serve four years with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Band, based in San Diego, CA. He’d tour Italy, Spain, the Azores and much of the Middle East with the band prior to 9/11, performing goodwill concerts and ultimately earning an honorable discharge in 2002, shortly before the build-up to the Iraq conflict.
More focused and disciplined than ever before, Valtierra emerged from the Marines understanding the importance of hard work. He also recognized the value of a college education. Valtierra’s service had qualified him for the GI Bill. A whiz not only with music, but with machines – especially when it came to rebuilding classic cars from the ground up, like his ’57 Chevy and ’51 Cadillac – he followed his wife Serena’s urging to pursue an engineering degree.
He enrolled at San Diego Mesa Community College, and after three years rebuilding his core academics, transferred to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) to complete his B.S. in Structural Engineering and become the first in his family to earn a college degree. An internship, meanwhile, at nearby Scripps Institution of Oceanography (where his wife was finishing her PhD), connected Valtierra for the first time with undersea acoustics. There, in a lab 150 feet from the raging swells of the Pacific, he helped create autonomous acoustic recording systems, used to track the behavior and whereabouts of whales. He loved the interplay of biology and engineering. “It was just an amazing opportunity and learning experience,” he says. “Rather than following the whales in a boat to make acoustic recordings, which could be very expensive and labor intensive, we could make six months of recordings remotely at the bottom of the sea with our autonomous systems for considerably less money.”
Valtierra, the gearhead at heart, continued to fuel his other engineering passion: cars. While at UCSD, he took on an independent research project creating new, energy-efficient, fuel injection systems to replace the carburetors in old classics like his Chevy and Cadillac. With support and encouragement from minority outreach groups, including the California Alliance for Minority Participation in Science, Engineering and Mathematics (CAMP) and Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), Valtierra, a Mexican-American, presented his work at numerous research conferences, taking first place at an environmental sustainability conference and a poster prize at another. Suddenly, things began clicking into place. “At that point, I started thinking, ‘Wow, maybe I can actually do this stuff,’” he says. “I had never had any interest in graduate school, but now I started making a mad push to go because I was in my senior year when I finally had the confidence to push myself further.”
With his wife headed for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to perform her post-doctoral work, BU’s physical acoustics lab was a natural fit for Valtierra. “At the time, I wanted to save the world,” he says. “And save the whales. And being in a marine mammal acoustics lab is one of the most glamorous places you can be in science.” Valtierra’s early time at BU would be spent not with marine mammals, but instead working on Department of Defense projects on better understanding underwater acoustics in shallow, muddy areas.
When the economy cratered in 2009, however, funding for the Navy projects dried up. Valtierra, in need of research backing, secured a GK-12 Fellowship through the National Science Foundation’s BU-Boston Urban Fellows program to teach high school physics for a year to at-risk freshmen at Boston’s English High School. “It could be tough and frustrating at times, but it could also be immensely rewarding, and knowing where I came from, it was a chance to give back,” says Valtierra, who helped one of his students that year get selected for the state science fair. “I learned a lot in that year and gained so much respect for teachers and the job they do.”
Valtierra, however, was anxious to return to the lab and produce original research of his own. That following summer, he gained an important new ally at a national acoustics conference: an advisor from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While most PhD candidates will typically sign onto studies initiated by faculty to complete their theses, Valtierra, who earned his M.S. in 2010, instead created his own project and recruited BU faculty to collaborate with him. In this instance, it was developing new signal processing and localization techniques for baleen whales and designing a cost-effective data logger for NOAA to monitor the activity and locations of different whale species – one that could not only replace, but improve upon the expensive, complex loggers NOAA was leasing from Cornell University for $12,000 apiece. “My job, as the engineer of the group, was to make a new device and also work on localization problems at shallow depths,” he says.
Three years later, Valtierra devised a way to localize baleen whales in 3-D, using an array of bottom-mounted acoustic sensors, and designed an instrument his group calls LOMAD: the Low-cost Open-source Marine Acoustic Device. The cost: about $2,000 apiece. “I came up with a crapload of solution sets,” he says, grinning proudly and pointing to a laptop computer showing the precise pinpointing of a right whale’s location using his newly derived techniques.
This, from a student who couldn’t escape math class fast enough in high school. Valtierra, who is also a Navy Reservist (joining in 2011), will this summer begin a new leg of his voyage, taking a highly coveted post as a civilian R&D engineer with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, RI. Understanding where he began, when the horizon was anything but clear, and what he’s been able to accomplish in these last 16 years continues to humble him. “I could not have done this without the help of so many other people,” he says. But then he continues, “I also took some chances. And good science comes out of taking a few gambles and sticking your neck out.”