STORY: A Big Fish in a Really Big Pond

January 14, 2022

Riva Gulassa ’15 is using mechanical engineering to help protect the world’s oceans.

Growing up in Oakland, California, Riva Gulassa ’15 has always been interested in the ocean and discovering more about its vast unknowns. While working on a paper on coral reef ecology during her freshman year of high school, she watched celebrated ocean researcher Sylvia Earle’s TED Talk called “My wish: Protect our oceans” for information.

“Listening to Dr. Earle, I learned astounding things about coral reefs, their ecology, and the problems they’re facing,” recalls Gulassa. “The very next day, I saw Dr. Earle on the street walking into a coffee shop, so I seized the opportunity and went in to talk to her.”

Riva Gulassa ’15 holds a clipboard while working at sea.

Riva Gulassa ’15 holds a clipboard while working at sea.

Gulassa did more than just say hello: She invited Earle to come and speak at her high school. She even spearheaded an entire Ocean Week at school to get her fellow students prepared for the oceanographer’s talk, complete with letter writing campaigns, photography contests, and fundraising raffles.

“After her presentation, she invited me to come take a tour of the marine engineering company she founded, Deep Ocean Exploration and Research (DOER), in nearby Alameda,” says Gulassa. “We saw ROVs and automated sampling equipment and the machine shop, and I knew that ocean engineering is what I wanted to do.”

Earle suggested Gulassa start by attending an engineering school, and Olin’s non-traditional, hands-on approach really spoke to Gulassa.

“At Olin, I was involved in lots of different projects at any given time, from hydrofoil research to working with other students on an autonomous sailboat,” says Gulassa. “But even more than ocean-related engineering stuff, Olin taught me how to think as an engineer, asking the right questions to make the equipment I build robust.”

After graduating with her degree in mechanical engineering as well as a sustainability certificate, Gulassa went to work for DOER, where she worked for seven years on various aspects of ocean design. In 2020, she took on a new role working on marine systems for a project called Tidal at X, the moonshot factory (formerly Google X).

“I loved my job at DOER, but when I was contacted by a recruiter for X, I was excited to work on something new and different,” says Gulassa. “With Tidal, we’re working on making the seafood industry more sustainable.”

With nearly 90% of the planet’s wild fishing stocks depleted and approximately three billion people relying on seafood as a primary source of protein, sustainable ocean farming is a critical issue. Tidal is creating and monitoring intelligent underwater cameras in ocean-based fish farms to help the industry better understand not only the health of the fish, but also the ecological impact of aquaculture.

Riva Gulassa ’15 pictured while remotely monitoring intelligent underwater cameras.

Riva Gulassa ’15 pictured while remotely monitoring intelligent underwater cameras. Gulassa is working with Tidal to help the industry better understand the health of fish in fish farms and the ecological impact of aquaculture.

Gulassa is tasked with mechanical design testing and determining the product requirements for cameras in the field—no small task, considering the delicate cameras must be built to withstand the temperature, wave motion, and saltwater corrosion of the ocean off the coast of Norway.

“All of our work is done remotely, and I’m on a team of interdisciplinary experts in machine perception, electrical design, sensor design, and more,” says Gulassa. “Going forward, we hope to use the technology we’ve developed to help protect the ocean in new ways.”