SVSU grad captains research vessel

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A 1984 graduate of SVSU recently added the title of captain to her résumé. Alissar Najd Langworthy is the captain of a Coast Guard designated research vessel: the 88-ton, 75-foot Phoenicia.

Alissar became involved in the vessel’s research when her husband, Michael Langworthy, began developing a soluble polyurethane for medical fracture fixation, or the stabilization of fractured bone.

Michael, also a 1984 graduate of SVSU, is the director of orthopedic surgery at Southcoast Health in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and holds clinical faculty appointments with the U.S. Navy and Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Michael, chosen as a Leading Physician of the World for 2013-2014, was serving as a trauma surgeon in Afghanistan in 2012 on a NATO peacekeeping force that worked in conjunction with Doctors Without Borders.

There, he noted that the soldiers’ wounds were often too dirty for synthetic fracture fixation. When Michael returned to the United States, his research team decided to tailor their efforts to explore low-energy closed fracture management.

At that time, the strength of soluble polyurethane was increased significantly; additionally, it was determined theoretically possible to create 3-D printed tools and instruments with the substance by using wind or solar power.

As Michael explained in his talk on Nov. 6, 2015, at TEDxNewBedford, a chance finding revealed that soluble polyurethane would gradually break down into simple phosphate and calcium ions when in salt water and exposed to sunlight. Shellfish, oysters, clams and similar creatures could then utilize the substance to make new shells and backbones.

Michael needed a research platform to test this theory, he said.

“[I] was … watching TV on the couch one afternoon when a Discovery Channel program featured the research ship [the Phoenicia] with its thick-hulled ability to resist outside electrical interference,” he said. “It was rigged with sails, solar panels, wind turbines and sever generators to provide both alternating and direct currents. This made the vessel the perfect research platform.”

The Menko Labs research group purchased the vessel, which was berthed in Portland, Oregon. A group of professional sailors was assembled, but Michael could not take time off from his clinical practice to sail the vessel.

That prompted Alissar to volunteer to join the crew for the seven-week journey, which would take her down the west coast of the United States, past Mexico and Central America, through the Panama Canal and then up the Caribbean Sea to the east coast of the U.S.

While on the ship, she began logging hours on watch and learning the basics of navigation and sailing.
“She really caught the sailing bug,” Michael said.

Alissar also collected water samples to determine if some aquatic bacteria were better than others at dissolving the polyurethane. The substance could then potentially be used as a substitute for plastics in the maritime environment, which would greatly reduce ocean pollution.

By 2015, she had recorded more than 700 operational hours running the platform. When 3-D navigation was added to the vessel, Alissar learned all she could about the technology. She enrolled in and completed the rigorous Northeast Maritime Institute program and earned recognition as a licensed master of vessels up to 100 tons.

The Phoenicia is docked in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Its team has to routinely navigate one of the world’s toughest channels: Woods Hole, which lies at the southwest corner of Cape Cod, near Martha’s Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands.

Known as “Captain Quaize” to local residents, Alissar offered her services to Sea Lab, a marine science studies program that is a six-week summer component of the New Bedford Public Schools. Students participate in field studies conducted along the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coastlines and in on-going scientific research projects at area universities.

Researchers at Harvard University, with the assistance of Alissar and the Phoenicia, have located a living fossil that may become important as a food source for fish as the oceans continue to acidify.

Additionally, the vessel has, Michael said, been offered to SVSU students and faculty as a research platform.

Alissar said the work she does is demanding both mentally and physically. As for mental strain, she said she had to dust off the skills she learned in college algebra at SVSU to complete the complex maritime navigation courses, which take into account winds, currents and tides.

In terms of physical challenges, she once overheated off the coast of Panama; her crew cut off the top of a water barrel and placed her in the barrel to cool down.

Under her command, the Phoenicia has quickly become an advanced oceanographic research vessel, Michael said. It is equipped with night vision goggles, the latest emergency equipment and satellite communications.

The vessel is eco-friendly and allows blue water ocean research, which will facilitate the long-term health of our oceans.