Meet Doug Levin: Geologist and Engineer

Doug Levin is the Associate Director for the Center for Environment and Society at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and is an expert in underwater exploration technology, as well as designing fun programs that teach complex engineering concepts.

Doug-SIS-1000.jpgAs a kid growing up in Westport, Connecticut, I spent hours upon hours on the boat with my Dad. He would drive me crazy, gesturing at some point afar on the water’s surface exclaiming; “Can you see that? Nope, can’t see it. It’s underwater. (You) have to imagine it.”

Little did we both know that would become the phrase that shaped my future. After graduating from high school I went off to Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) in Madison, New Jersey, knowing that my last semester would be spent at their St. Croix, USVI campus. While at the St. Croix campus my life’s vocation changed when I took Tropical Marine Geology with Dr. Dennis Hubbard (Now at Oberlin College). He aptly demonstrated that by knowing geology, you could go anywhere in the world and look at a map, or out of the window of an airplane, and immediately see how that land was formed and was being shaped. “How cool is that,” I said to myself, and that was the beginning of my professional journey into Geology.

Doug-Little.jpgOne day I was in Dr. Hubbard’s office when his phone rang (yes, this was back in 1978). He picked it up and answered, “Dr. Hubbard, how can I help you?” When he hung up I said to him, “I’d like to answer my phone like that one day.” He said, “That would be fine, but you’d better use your own name!” 

From there I went up to Boston University and earned a Masters in Coastal Geology. From there, down south to Louisiana State University, where I earned my doctoral studying the coastline just west of the Mississippi River delta (how I went from BU down to LSU is another story that I’d be happy to tell in another post). Throughout my career I’ve worked as an academic, as a scientist in private industry, and as a federal employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Since the 80’s I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time and get paid to join some really cool operations. My professional experience includes over thirty years of using devices (I consider them toys) that map the seafloor from the shallows to the very, very deep.  These include global positioning systems (GPS), multi-beam (bottom depth) side scan sonar, sub bottom profilers, Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCP), ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles), AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles), and magnetometers.

My project experience spans a diverse range of activities from
engineering to mapping and imaging: oil seep detection off of Cartagena
in South America; advising on sunken oil associated with the Deepwater
Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; seafloor analysis to
identify locations for oil rigs, pipelines, and fiber optic cables in
the Gulf of Mexico, the Aleutian Islands and the Mediterranean;
shipwreck imaging in Thunder Bay (Alpena, Michigan); and searching for
submerged beaches that would have been present before Noah’s (biblical)
deluge in the Black Sea.

I have also flown with NASA’s LIDAR Ice
Mapping missions in Iceland and Greenland; I have taught the Navy’s
Marine Dive and Salvage Unit techniques to interpret underwater images
and maps; and I have looked for Herman Cortez’s treasure off of
Veracruz. More recently, I’ve applied these same technologies to looking
for abandoned fishing gear, studying the natural distribution of oyster
reefs, and identifying key habitat for fish in the Chesapeake Bay. I’ve
done my best here to use understandable terminology to describe these
projects. In future blogs I’ll talk more about what these engineering
and geology terms mean!

Along the way I never lost the “teaching bug” that afflicted me back
when I took a volunteer position at Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, New
Jersey. In 1976, I created one of the first “touch and feel tanks” in the
country. I’ve got a newspaper article from then that has me quoted
saying, “If I had a million dollars I’d invest it in a zoo where kids
could learn about nature.” There, I learned the value of hands-on
learning, the kind you get outside of the classroom. This became a
lifelong quest (hobby) to find better ways to teach science.

I’ve developed programs where kindergarteners build buoys that collect
water and air temperatures. Middle school students (and above) can take
this one step further and create a Basic Observation Buoy (BOB) that
they design, build, install, and calibrate to collect water quality data.
They then hand this buoy off to their local Riverkeeper®  to safely deploy and collect data to learn
about their local water quality.

In addition to these projects, I
developed Aquabotz, a program where participants design, build,
launch, and operate a working underwater robot in a little more than an
hour. And just this past year I’ve been working on an inexpensive
drogue (floating buoy) that students can launch into a water body and
track its movement using the Internet. I’ll talk more about many of these projects and how you can adapt them for your students in future posts.

My professional and personal voyage has brought me to Washington College
in Chestertown, Maryland. Here, I’m the Associate Director of the
Center for Environment and Society. My role represents the perfect
culmination of my professional interests, which happen also to be fun
for me! I am linking the College to the Chester River, a tributary
that drains 500 square miles of watershed into the Chesapeake Bay. We’re creating the Chester River Watershed Observatory, which brings all
of the technologies I’ve worked with together. Our goal is to be able
to “take the pulse” of the river with sensors deployed from buoys and
monitored with unmanned underwater vehicles that patrol the waters
24/7. This information will be shared proactively with the surrounding
community and used to identify practices we can use to clean the water. I
look forward to a time when we can clearly see our toes while we wade
in from the shore.

Through writing for the National Geographic Education blog, I hope to
convey to readers the different technologies that are being used to
learn about our oceans and help educators think of ways to make lessons
come alive in the classroom.

Doug-Fish-Montana_375x.jpgWhen not blogging
When the weather is nice, you’ll likely find me on the water kayaking with my Golden Retriever “Fezzik” or fly-fishing for trout. When the weather turns, I’m upstairs playing with my model trains. I’ve got one room dedicated to HO-scale trains and another to prewar (pre-1935) Lionel trains.  Whenever possible, I’ll venture to Charleston, South Carolina, to spoil my grandkids.

BooksShip of Gold, In the Deep Blue Sea (Gary Kinder)
Movies: The Princess Bride
Favorite Fishing Hole: Savage River in Swanton, MD

Fun Fact:  I learned to cook while working in Louisiana and developed a family favorite recipe, “Cats and Dogs,”a concoction that mixes catfish and andouille sausage. It’s the generous dose of lemon juice that gives it its signature flavor.

More about me
You can learn more about me by visiting

Leave a Reply