The histories of the United States Navy and Southern New England are ones that are often intertwined, especially when it comes to submarines. Along with Quonset Point in North Kingstown, the site of an Electric Boat campus where portions of the Columbia-class and Virginia-class submarines are being built, a lot of the research and development that goes into these powerful vessels is done in Newport at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC).
Founded in 1869 as the US Naval Torpedo Center, NUWC has evolved over the years to keep the Navy to develop, test, engineer and support the Navy’s submarines, considered by many to be the backbone of the Navy.
Among those putting in the work to ensure the success and capability of these vessels are a plethora of South County residents. South County Life spoke with five such employees about the work they do for the Navy, their career journey that took them to NUWC and the STEM education they received that got them to where they are today.
Conchy Vazquez, Information Management Systems Branch Head
Conchy Vazquez serves as the branch head for the Information Management Systems branch of NUWC’s Combat System department, where she oversees a team of nearly 30 engineers working on the development of the decision making systems.
Since her childhood growing up in Puerto Rico, Vazquez said she’s always been drawn to the STEM field and loved to spend time building robots and figuring out what makes machines work.
“I always liked physics and math classes,” Vazquez said. “I was horrible at social studies and biology was just not my thing and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be an accountant, and then all of the teachers in high school were like ‘no you’ve got to be an engineer,’ and I was like ‘OK I’ve got to be an engineer’ and so I went into engineering school without necessarily understanding the whole STEM community and what it meant. All I knew was I liked physics and I liked to know how things move so that’s why I went into mechanical engineering.”
She attended and graduated from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez with a degree in mechanical engineering. From there she went to Detroit to work for General Motors. After about two years with the automotive giant, the economic recession of 2008-09 hit and Vazquez was among the many people laid off and left with an uncertain future. After a year of doing volunteer work with the Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati, Vazquez applied for and was offered an engineering role at NUWC in Newport in 2010, prompting her to again move to a new part of the country.
“When I started, I was excited because I finally had a job and it was a little scary because I didn’t know what Rhode Island was,” Vazquez said with a laugh. “My mom was like ‘oh you’re working in Rhode Island now’ and I was like ‘yeah New York’ and it was my mom who was like ‘no my dear girl, you graduated college and you don’t know your states!’”
Upon her arrival in the Ocean State, Vazquez first worked in mechanical engineering design, but quickly realized it wasn’t exactly what she wanted to do.
“When I first started with NUWC I was a mechanical engineer and I started doing some design work and decided that that was a little lonely,” Vazquez said. “There wasn’t a lot of interaction with people when you’re sitting in front of a computer designing so I talked to my supervisor and said I needed something with more people and she put me on a software test team so then I did software testing for a few years.”
From there, she became a subject matter expert for communication routes through the Navy’s surface ships and sonar buoys and after a few years, decided she wanted to challenge herself more by stepping into a leadership position.
“I think it was year two or three in my career at NUWC when I was like ‘oh you know what? I really want to become a branch head, that’s (my) dream job’ and so I just kind of worked towards it,” Vazquez said. “I started taking more leadership roles and more responsibility and then started applying for jobs and it took me a while. I applied a few times before I got the job.”
In March of 2020, Vazquez was named branch head for information management systems, but after a brief informal introduction to about half of her new team and a couple of days on the job, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I was moving from one department to another when I got my branch head job and I said hi and I’m not kidding two days later we got an email saying ‘everyone go home,’ and I was like ‘but I don’t know my team yet, I don’t have faces for half of them yet,’” Vazquez said. “I had to go home and work through that evolution of making sure everybody could do their work from home and those who couldn’t how we could alleviate that and how could we provide a safe environment in the building for their work if it’s classified because if it’s classified you can’t do it from home, you have to do it from a secure space, so that was interesting.”
A year later, Vazquez says there are still a few members of her team she has yet to meet in person.
“I still think I don’t have faces for at least two of my 27 members and it’s not for the lack of trying because I’ve chatted with everybody, like we’re on the phone constantly, we’re using Microsoft Teams for communications but not everybody’s comfortable turning their cameras on, so we’ve worked through that challenge and tried to keep a sense of community in the team,” Vazquez said.
The engineer recently received a Black Engineer of the Year award in the Modern-Day Technology Leader category, an honor she called “very humbling.”
“It’s basically given to people that are seen as people that are going to shape the future of STEM, and so it’s humbling and I feel really honored that NUWC decided to put me in for the award, and that I actually won the award was really, really humbling because to think that I am thought of as that person that is going to bring change, (that) is going to help shape where we’re going is exciting,” Vazquez said. “It also feels like ‘whew, it’s a lot of responsibility,’ but I’m here for it. I’m excited.”
On her work, Vazquez says she’s proud to be able to do what she does every single day.
“I’m really proud of what I do even though right now I don’t do necessarily a lot of technical work because I’m a supervisor, (but) whenever I did, it’s a proud feeling because I’m working and testing this system that the next sailor is going to use and I’m providing them the tools they need for keeping us safe, to be the best Navy we can be,” Vazquez said. “I’m proud to be working for the Navy and I’m really proud to be an engineer here.”
While she’s proud of the work she does, Vazquez is also proud of being able to maintain a work-life balance and not solely being defined by her career, and loves the home she’s made in Rhody.
“I go to work and I’m passionate about what I do for work, but I like to say that I work so I can live rather than living to work,” Vazquez said. “I like that balance of that I work so I can live and living here in Rhode Island and the huge Hispanic community that embraced me as soon as I started working at NUWC has really made Rhode Island home.”
Moving to Rhode Island also led her to reconnecting with her husband, who she had gone to college with and who also works for NUWC.
“I met my husband at school but I didn’t see him again until I moved to Rhode Island and I was like ‘oh I know you,’ and then we started dating and we got married and we’re here and we bought a house in South County and we have a dog and we’re really happy,” Vazquez said. “He also works at NUWC and I think if you asked him he would also say he’s proud to work at NUWC for the Navy.”
Vazquez says that she feels the STEM field is very important and is a big proponent of STEM education, particularly for those students that share the same passion for it that she does.
“I feel the STEM field is important for us in order to develop new technology and new products and we want to grown people to come join the field, but it’s also a combination of we want to grow the field and the STEM community, but we also want to have people who want to be part of the STEM community,” Vazquez said. “I feel sometimes we push kids to be engineers or mathematicians when they want to be into art, and so I think we need to find a balance even though I’m extremely proud to be an engineer and I love math and technology.”
Through that end, Vazquez has prided herself on working with outreach to introduce children to the world of STEM.
“I’m a big proponent of outreach,” Vazquez said. “I do a lot of outreach with work and we go to schools and talk to kids and we’re like ‘this is what STEM is, this is how you can get involved’ if you were to have the aptitude and interest in the field and kind of started getting in their minds about what STEM is from an early age.”
As an outgoing person, Vazquez says she often doesn’t fit what people’s expectation of an engineer is, and considers that a strength she brings to the table, while also acknowledging a lot of people’s expectations of how engineers work and behave comes from their education.
“I feel that you go to school to learn how to learn and so I think that this is why people say ‘you must be an engineer’ because we kind of learn to learn the same way and sometimes people say ‘oh my God all engineers are the same way’ and I said ‘we were taught to learn the same way,’ so we all kind of have the same approach to situations and... most engineers are inclined to approach things the same way,” Vazquez said. “I think that being in the STEM community sometimes I approach things very methodically, but then because of my personality sometimes people ask me ‘are you really an engineer’ because I’m very passionate. I very much think with the heart first and I do things that make people go ‘are you an engineer’ and I would go ‘I don’t know what to tell you, I see why you’re asking me this. I understand why you’re confused,’ but I think it shaped me and it definitely shaped my career field because I don’t think if I had gone to school for anything else I would’ve ended up in Rhode Island working for the Navy.”
As a big advocate of STEM education, Vazquez says she frequently encourages her nieces and nephews to explore the field, even if they discover it’s not exactly for them.
“If it was up to me, all of my nieces and nephews would be mathematicians and engineers, but that’s not necessarily their aptitudes, but I do try,” Vazquez said. “All of my gifts are science-based on how to build robots, because when I was in school I was into robots and I built robots when I was in school, so everything is like those box subscriptions for kids (where) everything is science-based activities and I buy that for all of my nieces and nephews, like ‘here you go, get into science, explore science, if you don’t like it’s fine but at least you are exposed to it to make decisions about your field (you want to be) educated (in).”
As for herself, Vazquez couldn’t be happier than where the STEM field has taken her.
“I’m pretty happy and proud of where STEM has taken me and I would like to see the field grow and have the right people in it with the right passion,” Vazquez said. “I’m really excited to be part of the STEM community (and) part of the South County community.”
John DiCecco, Research Engineer
John DiCecco is a research engineer for NUWC, having served in that capacity since 2007.
“I do, I guess at the high levels, sonar signal and image processing, a technique generally referred to as synthetic aperture sonar,” DiCecco said. “It’s a derivative of (those) highly resolution satellite images that occasionally make their way into a movie or onto the news, those really high resolution, almost creepily-detailed images from a satellite that’s 100 miles above the planet. That technique is called synthetic aperture radar and we do a similar thing in the sonar community called synthetic aperture sonar, so I do a lot of work with that. A lot of our manned vehicle work, so a lot of our unmanned underwater vehicles, UAVs, autonomous UAVs or Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, AUVs.”
DiCecco is also an educator, serving both as an adjunct professor at the University of Rhode Island teaching medical imaging and micro biomedical instrumentation, as well as doing educational outreach for NUWC through a summertime underwater robotics internship for area high schoolers.
“I love the outreach work that I do with the kids, it’s just an awesome balance to the stuff I have to do the rest of the year, which is pretty high pressure and it’s national security-type work and it’s nice to be able to take a break from that in the summer,” DiCecco said.
Originally hailing from Pennsylvania, DiCecco’s journey to NUWC was not at all straightforward. After initially having to drop out of college due to the cost, DiCecco entered the restaurant industry and from there, got into the wine business, doing direct sales, wholesaling and brokering of wines.
While he had begun to make a career for himself in the wine industry, DiCecco said he wanted to do more, and in particular, finish what he had started.
“(I) finally just figured it’s about time I go back to school and finished some of the things that I had started a number of years prior and so I went to school and finished an engineering degree and then I finished another engineering degree and then I finished a master’s degree and got done with all of that and realized I didn’t know anything and I probably ought to stick around for a Ph.D, so then I got my Ph.D and realized I still didn’t know anything and the only problem was there was nothing else to learn about so that was my cue to get out in the world and start doing things, and just like anything else, if you don’t know anything the perfect place for you is the US government,” DiCecco said with a laugh. “That’s how it started and how it went and ever since then there’s been a lot of really fascinating work.”
Like Vazquez, DiCecco is also a big supporter of outreach, and became involved in a handful of programs with kids and teens.
“A colleague of mine told me about a woman who was running or was starting an educational outreach program at NUWC, her name is Candida Desjardins, she’s the director of outreach and so I started working with her on a program called Sea Perch,” DiCecco said. “Sea Perch is a curriculum that was developed by MIT a number of years ago that basically takes a bunch of PVC pipe and some DC motors with some props glued onto them, some Cat 5 cable, a little basic electronic switch and it makes this sort of ROV and it’s pretty easy to build, we do it with kids who are in fifth grade and it’s just a great introduction for kids who have never actually done something like using hand tools or power tools or have ever done sauntering and it’s easy to do.”
Sea Perch, to DiCecco, is a perfect way to spark interest in the STEM field for children aged 10 and 11.
“There’s nothing really terribly technical about it, but when it’s done it’s a functional thing, so you learn about buoyancy, you learn about thrust and how hard it is for a vehicle to go under if it’s too buoyant, and then how hard it is for a vehicle to surface if it’s not buoyant enough, so you start learning about things like neutral buoyancy and designing around those parameters and designing around thrust and you can do that with kids who are 10 or 11 years old because they get it,” DiCecco said. “They can clearly see if either sinks or it floats, so that feedback is nearly instantaneous and so it’s really a great hands-on discovery of concepts we try in vain to describe mathematics.”
In particular, DiCecco says he believes that doing rather than just seeing or reading is always a better way to educate.
“We try to frame these things in physics and mathematical equations, and most people look at that and the eyes roll back in their head, but when you can actually demonstrate it, you can make it something that actually clicks for them,” DiCecco said. “For them, it’s a discovery. They don’t have to be the first person to discover it, but it’s discovering and that really is at the heart of all education. You’re never learning anything unless you’re discovering it. Everything else is regurgitation. When you discover something the first time, that a-ha moment, that eureka of sorts, that’s when you’re learning. That’s when you’re incorporating life lessons and things that you now fully understand, not just that you can look at an equation and manipulate it and throw it back out into the world.”
From there, Desjardins and DiCecco embarked on using some of those principles to create a paid underwater robotics internship program for high schoolers, which happens in three, three-week sessions each summer.
“We took that as a baseline approach to this high school underwater robotics and we said OK we’re going to bring in these high school kids and we’re going to have them build this,” DiCecco said. “We’re going to put them in teams, we’re going to teach them about teamwork, we’re going to teach them how to divide and conquer, work, and they’re all going to start with this vehicle. They don’t know who each other are, they don’t have knowledge beforehand of who they’re going to get paired up with, because they come from all over, so they have to go through that social engineering process of meeting new people and trying to figure out a social pecking order and who’s going to do what, so there’s that component of it and then they have to figure out how to build this thing quickly because then we introduce this vehicle into an environment where we know it’s going to fail. They don’t know it’s going to fail, we tell them it’s going to fail, but they don’t know how it’s going to fail and then we say ‘here’s your budget’ and we give them some play money and we give them a whole bunch of things they can build.”
Students can add more motors and an advanced control system which is based on a Raspberry Pi controller, so they learn about Raspberry Pi and they learn about Linux programming and Python programming.
“They learn about pulse width modulation and controlling motors and joysticks and analog control from a joystick,” DiCecco said. “They learn about all of these really cool things, but they’re doing it on the fly so they’re actually doing something and then seeing the response in virtually real time, so again that feedback is instant. There isn’t something about learning it one day and then a few days later you implement it, it’s all part of the same day, and this program lasts for three weeks and by the time it’s all said and done, they have to complete a pretty advanced mission.”
That mission, in the summer sessions held pre-COVID, involved dividing the students up into five teams of five and taking them to a really deep tank on base where flotation gets crushed at depth and tasks them with having to figure out how to overcome it.
“We put currents into the water with bubble curtains,” DiCecco said. “We mocked up seaweed and kelp using some orange deer fence (to make) a pretty elaborate thing they had to navigate.”
To win the challenge, the teams have to complete three portions. First is the competition itself, then each team is also tasked with keeping an engineering notebook and writing a final report, all of which are equally weighted.
“The winning team gets to keep all of the robots and the controllers from the losing teams, so everybody on the winning team gets to go home with a Raspberry Pi of their own and a control system, so they can do whatever they want with it later on in life,” DiCecco said.
Additionally, all students who participate also receive a stipend.
“It is a job for them and it really needs to work that way for them because we’re asking a lot of them, so we have a little bit more control over them as employees as opposed to the people who are part of the camp or something like that,” DiCecco said.
Overall, despite the challenges his work can bring, it’s getting to accomplish those challenges and the satisfaction that it brings that makes DiCecco proud to do the work he does, even if he could be paid better or receive more recognition in the private sector.
“I get to work on some pretty important problems,” DiCecco said. “Obviously when you work on an important problem, there is a satisfaction when you find a solution that brings a capability to keep us all safe that I think for a lot of us who have chosen a life as a public servant, you have to do it for those reasons because you’re not going to make a lot of money, and I say that (while) we’re certainly not poor, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t do it for that. We can’t do it for the glory either because most people are never going to know exactly what we do, but we know that we get to work on really important problems and we know that the things that we work on benefit all of us and there’s no place else anyone can do this. These particular problems can only be (solved) in this kind of environment, and that’s been a really fascinating part of the journey, and on top of that, and what’s related to that is I get to work with just incredibly brilliant people, just absolutely wonderful, smart, dedicated, insanely creative people. It turned out to be a much better job than I expected it to be.”
Colin Murphy, Project Manager
Colin Murphy is a project manager for NUWC who works on developing equipment for submarines.
“It’s pretty good,” Murphy said. “The submarine community is very technologically advanced, so there’s a lot of engineering rigor and I think there’s kind of a big responsibility of us here at NUWC to take our time in doing engineering and design work in order to get things right when they go on submarines because the submarines are mission critical, (with) very risky things that they do, so I think that it’s been pretty good. I take a lot of pride in working for the Navy and the nation.”
A South Kingstown native, Murphy had an interest in engineering from a young age.
“I grew up kind of always being interested in engineering, tinkering with things, taking things apart and putting them back together, trying to fix things,” Murphy said.
Along with engineering, he also had a keen interest in submarines, something he shared with his father, who worked as a reporter covering the submarine industry in New London.
“(I remember) driving over the bridge over the Thames River in Groton looking for the submarines and seeing up the river on the right side if you’re going south, and down the river looking at Electric Boat and the huge buildings that they have to build the submarines there,” Murphy said. “My father was a reporter in New London and did a lot of reporting on the submarines, so he shared with me his interest in submarines and the things they did, so that’s probably a little bit of where my interest was kindled.”
As he grew up, Murphy said his interest and talent in tinkering with machines began to grow, as well as his overall interest in STEM.
“At South Kingstown High School, I remember taking part in science competitions at a young age and really enjoying science classes and math and then having teachers who encouraged that interest, especially my physics teacher Mr. Dimmock,” Murphy said.
From there, Murphy stayed local and attended the University of Rhode Island for mechanical engineering, and doing work at the Bay Campus. Growing up in an area where the ocean and Navy play such a large role helped further his interest in a career with submarines.
After graduating from URI, Murphy went to work for Hexagon Metrology in North Kingstown, but said his goal was to work at NUWC.
“I heard it was a good place to work and I wanted to get involved in submarines, so I ended up applying to NUWC and got accepted eventually and I started working in what’s called Science and Technology, S and T, doing materials research and development,” Murphy said. “I eventually moved to a job that we call In Service, which is kind of more maintenance-based, helping people in the fleet do maintenance on submarine systems and doing the engineering associated with those systems and then more recently in the past couple of years I took a management position as a project manager developing some of those systems.”
To be able to do the work he does every day means a lot to Murphy, and has helped teach him just how big the Navy’s mission and reach is.
“It means a lot. It’s important,” Murphy said. “Prior to really joining NUWC, I wasn’t really aware of the global reach of the Navy and all of the things they do every day and as I’ve learned more about what sailors and Marines and our armed forces are doing all the time, it started to take on a little more meaning and I started taking a little more pride in the work I do at NUWC and right now we’re kind of in this, as they say, great power competition and the onus is on us to keep up the quality of the engineering here and do our best to support the Navy and the fleet.”
Patrick McCarty, Digital Engineering Division Head
Patrick McCarty is the head of the digital engineering division at NUWC. “In my division, we support software development, modeling and simulation and information systems security,” McCarty said.
Originally from New London, McCarty grew up surrounded by technology and computers from a young age.
“My father started and ran a couple of software development companies, so we always had computers in the house and technology was something that my father was always interested in,” McCarty said.
He also has always had an interest in engineering, though originally he wanted to go into the automotive engineering field, which saw him attend the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, but not too long into it, he realized it wasn’t for him.
“I realized shortly after I started there that automotive engineering was not really for me and so I came back home and enrolled at UConn and I took a number of different classes there,” McCarty said.
After a couple of semesters at UConn, McCarty decided to transfer to Roger Williams University where he graduated from with a degree in computer science in 1998. While there, he also got his first opportunity with NUWC.
“While I was at Roger Williams, I learned about some internship opportunities here at NUWC and I started working as a contractor intern during the summers. Once I got my degree, I just came to work as a contractor supporting NUWC full-time for a couple of years, and then NUWC actually hired me as a government employee,” McCarty said, who’s been at NUWC ever since.
After over 20 years at NUWC, McCarty said he’s grateful to have turned it into his career.
“This is a great place to work,” McCarty said. “I’ve worked at a number of different jobs, like when I was in high school, but this is really the only place I’ve worked as a career, but this place has just a tremendous amount of opportunity for anybody that’s willing to put the effort in and look beyond the bureaucracy, because of course we are part of the Navy, which is part of the federal government and that big, giant bureaucracy makes a lot of things tedious, but it also brings lots of opportunities, so this is a place where you can pretty much work on whatever interests you have, you will almost certainly find a place here to use those interests and to make the most of them.”
Additionally, through recessions and other economic hardships, McCarty is grateful he’s never really had to worry about losing his job.
“One of the other things that I really appreciate about this place is, especially in times like 2020 and during the 2008-09 time frame, we have the luxury of not only do we get to do some really cutting edge amazing work here, but we also get to do that with an awful lot of stability,” McCarty said. “Never do we have to worry here about whether we’re just going to show up to work one day and find that the gates are closed and that the place has closed down and gone bankrupt, it’s just something that we don’t have to worry about. People who work here don’t have to worry about that, and that means a lot. There are other times when everything is going really well outside the gates, you can almost certainly make more money by going up to places like Boston and working in some tech company up there, but the flip side of that is the stability that we get here is just an amazing thing.”
It’s also given him a plethora of opportunities.
“I’ve done a number of different things (at NUWC), and one of the jobs that I had for the better part of 10 years was supporting foreign military sales projects and as part of that, I actually got to travel all over the world to many, many places to support the mission of the Navy and the travel is sometimes difficult, but it’s also an amazing opportunity that not everybody gets,” McCarty said.
He’s also proud to hold a STEM degree for the doors it has opened for him in his professional life and encourages more people to both enter and stay with the field.
“I’m a very big fan of STEM degrees in general,” McCarty said. “I think there’s not enough people that actually stick with STEM majors and end up with degrees in those fields. We are always looking for people here at NUWC and this place, by and large, is an engineering facility. We have upwards of 3,000 scientists and engineers here of all types: mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, computer scientists, chemists, and mathematicians, so we are by and large a STEM facility here and so for anybody in Rhode Island, this place is a huge opportunity for people because going to a school here in Rhode Island and getting yourself a STEM degree puts you in a good position to get your foot in the door here at NUWC and then once you’re here, we offer competitive salaries and many other benefits, so for me I’m really happy with the degree that I chose and that degree, as well others that fall into STEM, provide a whole bunch of opportunity within the Navy here in Rhode Island.”
Though from Connecticut originally, and having previously lived slightly closer to NUWC, McCarty now calls South Kingstown home and loves his life in South County.
“I lived here on the island in Newport and Portsmouth for years and moved to South Kingstown in 2003 and it’s really a great place to live,” McCarty said. “It’s only 25 minutes or so from most places there to the base, and so aside from 2020 being an anomaly because of COVID, every day I get to go over the bridges and it’s a beautiful drive and to me the 25 minutes is the perfect amount of time in the morning to gather thoughts before going to work and to kind of decompress before going home at night.”
Catherine LiVolsi, Mechanical Engineer
Catherine LiVolsi is a mechanical engineer at NUWC.
“I look at thermal cycles and heat transfer in the pro-propulsion systems in underwater vehicles,” LiVolsi said.
Another South County native and URI grad, LiVolsi studied mechanical engineering in Kingston and was approached by NUWC during her senior year.
“I was contacted by NUWC in my senior year offering me an application and I accepted their offer, so I just started straight out of college essentially,” LiVolsi said.
Nearly six years on, she’s proud to work for NUWC and grateful for the doors it’s opened for her, both professionally and academically.
“It’s been really great working at NUWC,” LiVolsi said. “I’ve learned quite a bit and NUWC has actually given me the opportunity to pursue a higher degree, so I just finished my master’s through their Fellowship program last August and I was able to go to MIT. I didn’t have to pay any tuition and they paid my salary at the same time, so it was a really great opportunity for me to just pursue my advanced degree and get a master’s.”
While she’s grateful for her undergraduate degree, LiVolsi said that her master’s degree has helped her to truly reach her full potential at her job.
“URI has a really great engineering program,” LiVolsi said. “The one downside is that your undergraduate experience is such a broad introduction to many fields of mechanical engineering specifically, there are a lot of areas and topics that mechanical engineering encompasses, so when I got to NUWC, I found that I really needed to pursue an advanced degree to understand more (about) some of the concepts of the research that I was doing at work, so it’s a good introduction to the different STEM stuff that’s out there.”