by Anna Megdell
A year after graduating high school in Michigan, Lydia Pinkham (B.S. ’20) found herself in the belly of a 378-foot cutter—a commissioned vessel—off the coast of the state of Washington, working as an engineer in the Coast Guard. “I lived in a very small room that shared a wall with the engine room,” she says. “I would be asleep in my bunk against that wall, and I could hear machines turn on and off. When I’d hear one of the generators start, I knew that was my cue to get out of bed and go into the engine room to work.”
Before joining the Coast Guard, Pinkham loved science but didn’t feel equipped to pursue a career dedicated to learning about the planet. “In high school I wasn’t very strong in math. I assumed that limited my options,” she says. While working part-time and taking some classes at a local college, Pinkham met with a Coast Guard recruiter. “I said, ‘I’m not ready now but give me a call in a year. If I’m not doing anything, I’ll join.’ He called one year later to the day. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do and didn’t have a way of paying for college, so I enlisted.”
Pinkham was drawn to the Coast Guard branch of the U.S. Armed Forces because she wanted to serve in a way that felt like giving back. “I’m a big proponent of young adults taking time to serve the public while they decide what they want to do with their lives. That turned out to be the right choice for me.”
In January 2011, Pinkham left for bootcamp in New Jersey and moved to Seattle, where she lived in the middle of the ocean on a massive ship designed for long-range, high-endurance missions. Though the ship’s home port was in Seattle, Pinkham was deployed all the way up to the Bering Sea near Alaska and down to the central Pacific Ocean near Central America for six months out of the year. “I spent my childhood in New England near water. I love being on boats,” she says. “The rest of the time on land felt like a nine-to-five job.”
On the ship, Pinkham worked in a three-story engine room that held huge diesel locomotive engines, two jet engine turbines, boilers, generators, and a machine that turned saltwater into freshwater. “I was a bilge rat for a couple years,” she says, using the ancient naval slang for workers in the engineering section at the bottom of the ship. It was there that she first fell in love with machinery. “A lot of knowing the machines is knowing the science behind how they work. I was fascinated by it.”
Although Pinkham loved science as a kid, her STEM classes in high school left her uninspired. But the connection and high stakes she found while living and working on the ship sparked a new energy. “I was in tune with everything around me. The ship was my home.”
The community she created with other service members on the ship also gave her purpose. “My mentor was Kate, who was one rank above me. She’d walk me through the engine room and answer questions about the machinery,” Pinkham says. “She’d explain what a certain water tank did, and I’d say, ‘Okay, but why? Why do we need it? How is it connected to other parts?’ I wanted to know everything.”
Understanding the relationship between each single component of machinery and its effect on the entire engine shaped Pinkham’s approach to science. “Kate taught me that if you understand the physics behind what each piece is doing, it’s easier to understand what’s wrong with the entire machine and how to fix it.
After leaving Seattle, Pinkham was briefly stationed in Virginia, where she attended a machinery school. “We had to disassemble and rebuild a diesel engine. I loved that it was a puzzle where all the interconnected pieces came together. And I was good at it. I realized that maybe the teachers in high school who said I wasn’t good at math and science were wrong. Maybe I just wasn’t being given the opportunity to apply it the right way.”
Pinkham spent the last of her tenure in the Coast Guard stationed in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a search-and-rescue first responder in Tampa Bay. “It was stressful but rewarding. At the end of the day, all I could do was come home and knit.” She was also assigned to work as tactical operator for the Port of Tampa in high-risk maritime law enforcement. Pinkham started taking general education classes in her off-time. “I fell in love with school,” she says. When it came time to decide to reenlist or leave the Coast Guard, Pinkham’s next step was clear. “I got out and decided to go to school full-time.”
After six years in the Coast Guard, Pinkham moved to Michigan to be near family and to study science at an institution with a veteran community. According to Pinkham, U-M has a reputation among people in the military for being supportive of student veterans. One year later, Pinkham started at LSA. “It was a school that the high school version of me never would have thought I’d get into,” she says.
When Pinkham came to LSA as an undergraduate in 2018, she sought a department where she could study areas of science that involved large systems and how their individual parts worked together, just like the engine room on the ship. When she met with an advisor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences who focused on geology, they instantly clicked. “We were wearing the same outfit, Birkenstocks and plaid,” she says with a laugh. “I felt at home right away.”
Pinkham went on to study geology and biological anthropology. At times, life as a student after serving in the military was a startling change of pace. She was a decade older than most of the students around her. She also lived 30 minutes from campus and commuted to class, which was tough when things like group projects demanded she stay late at the library. But her military training prepared her to handle these challenges with persistence, flexibility, and perspective. “I valued my education a lot more at 30 than I did at 17. I knew how to study. I always showed up 15 minutes early. I wasn’t afraid to speak with professors. They’re definitely not as intimidating as my commanding officers.”
Pinkham found community with other veterans on campus, working as an advisor for student veterans at the Office of New Student Programs and serving as vice president for the U-M chapter of Student Veterans of America. “People on campus can assume certain stereotypes about student veterans because they don’t know our stories. The reality is we all have diverse backgrounds, just like the normal student population. We’re regular people. We’re nerds, gamers, athletes.”
In the fall of 2021, Pinkham started a graduate program at University of Colorado Boulder where she’ll study planetary geology and work on a NASA-funded study on experimental petrology—the study of rocks—aimed at understanding the origins of a certain type of meteorite. “I’ve always loved space. When people think geology, they think studying mountains or learning how beaches erode, but the field is so broad.”
The theme of rethinking preconceived notions of what it means to be a veteran, student, or geologist weaves throughout Pinkham’s journey. Taking time to reflect on who she is as an individual, and how that affects her communities, now steadies her. “Sometimes I can’t believe who I was at 17 turned into who I am now,” she says. “A lot of people in their early twenties go through a transformation of true adulthood where they learn what’s most important to them. I’m glad I went through that before I got to college.
“I know what kind of person I want to be,” she continues. “I know I want to help people, share a love for science, and tell cool, interesting stories about the planet. I let that guide me.”
Now more than ever, your support for the LSA Annual Fund is helping students with financial need return to campus—like Josephine, who is exploring how she can use her liberal arts education and passion for international and environmental studies to solve some of the world’s wickedest problems.