Feature Stories 2022: Student Veteran Spotlight: Chris Norton '24 - Aviation to Angstroms

Chris Norton '22
Feature Stories 2022: Student Veteran Spotlight: Chris Norton '24 - Aviation to Angstroms
Student Veteran Spotlight: Chris Norton '24 - Aviation to Angstroms

Coast Guard veteran Chris Norton '24 discusses his military service, transition, and time here at UMassD.

UMassD Student Chris Norton is a U.S. Coast Guard Veteran and a second-year Electrical Engineering student enrolled in the College of Engineering here.  Outside of school, Norton loves shell fishing: 

“I love to go down to Cape Cod, I’ve actually got a license over there,” says Norton, “you just take a rake and a floating basket and rake the clams and other shellfish out of the sand.”

Norton also enjoys free diving for lobsters and oyster picking off Cape Cod. 

While Norton is busy under the water, his wife Holly can usually be found right behind him with their 6-year-old Australian Shepherd named India, who they both love dearly. 

“[India] really likes to play, especially with the recent snow.  She loves to bury her head straight into the snow like an ostrich” said Norton, who couldn’t keep from letting out a smirk, “She loves to play ball and fetch, too, and what’s pretty impressive is that she actually returns it” said Norton, laughing. 

Military Service

Behind this engineering student's humble, collected demeanor is the story of AET2 Norton, an Aviation Electronics Technician who spent 9 years serving his country by keeping our coasts safe.  Norton enlisted into the Coast Guard in 2012 and spent his first two years aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Valiant while he waited for orders to attend his technical school.  The USCGC Valiant is a medium endurance cutter specialized for search and rescue missions as well as Maritime Law Enforcement, Maritime Environmental Protection, and National Defense Missions with the Department of Homeland Security. 

According to the Coast Guard, during May of 2012, the USCGC Valiant “Interdicted a 32-foot go-fast vessel carrying 2,654 pounds of cocaine, worth a total wholesale value of $32.5 million dollars.” 

Chris aboard the USCGC Valiant after a 'cold-hit' that resulted in the confiscation of millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs
Chris aboard the USCGC Valiant after a 'cold-hit' that resulted in the confiscation of millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs

Norton then trained as an Aviation Electronics Technician – a specialized role that inspects, repairs, and maintains the computer systems within the Coast Guard’s most effective aviation equipment.

“I worked on the HC144 – Ocean Sentry and I kind of had two roles, I was a fixer and a flyer, so when I was on the ground, I was a fixer,” says Norton, “I would do the troubleshooting, repairing, and maintaining of all the computer systems on the 144”.

The HC144 – Ocean Sentry that Norton worked on is a fixed-wing, twin-engine plane used by the United States Coast Guard for Maritime Patrol as well as Search and Rescue missions.  The avionics systems that Norton worked on consist of systems designed for communications, navigation, acquiring targets, avoiding collisions, and even automatic flight-control functions. 

“When I was up in the air, that was a lot of fun too,” adds Norton, “there I was a Basic Aircrewman and a Mission System Operator, so I operated the reconnaissance and surveillance as well as all of the communications.  I would also assist with drops, which is when we would drop something out of the plane while flying, off the back ramp.”

Chris and his flight crew alongside another HC-144 during a mission

After five years at Air Station Cape Cod as an AET, however, Norton's work experience, positive outlook, and intense work ethic made him a unique candidate to instruct.  Norton took the next step in his career, becoming an Instructor at the United States Coast Guard Aviation Training Center where he taught soon-to-be Aviation Electronics Technicians.

“I taught them electrical theory,” says Norton, “as well as some of the basics of AC/DC circuitry, things like that.”

But in teaching electrical theory and circuits, Norton developed a passion for electrical engineering.

“As I was teaching it and learning more, I started taking some college classes after work here and there, just trying to learn more about it.  I found that I really liked it, it was something that I just knew I had to pursue.”

Transitioning Out of the Military

With nine long years of service - almost halfway to retirement - Norton knew that he had a decision to make.  The promotion system had begun to slow down, and only 20-30 promotion slots were available for hundreds of people, Norton being one of them.  Combined with his newfound passion for engineering, Norton found himself in a difficult choice.

“It was just a really hard choice to make because at ten years you really have to decide whether or not you’re going to stay in for the full twenty and retire.”

Even with all the time he had already devoted to the Coast Guard, Norton decided it was time to pursue his passion for electrical engineering.

“It was a stressful transition; it was definitely very hard.  My wife and I were living in Norfolk, VA at the time, and kind of aiming to come back here.  I was originally accepted to UMass Amherst and my original intent was to go there, but it just didn’t feel like the right spot for us, so at the last minute I applied to UMass Dartmouth – literally like a week, maybe four days before the deadline and they accepted me,” recalled Norton.

 “I think the most stressful part of it all was that transition, you know, from feeling like you have all of the support and all of the answers behind you – and then you get out; and even though you have, like, the VA and transition helpers in place, for the first time you’re really on your own – there’s no cushion to fall back on, and that can get really stressful,” Norton added, referring to his transition out of the Coast Guard.  

His Time at UMassD

Since enrolling here, Norton has been welcomed with open arms, even given an “outlet” to not only pursue education but also research as an Undergraduate Research Assistant within UMassD’s very own department of electrical & computer engineering.

Norton says that his academic interests lie in electromagnetic theory; whenever we see anything, it is the product of an unimaginable amount of tiny, atomic units of light called photons.  Photons, or light particles, travel through space in a certain pattern.  Electromagnetic theory aims to study these photons and the repulsions produced within them to better understand how they work.  Norton hopes to find new methods and ways to transmit data and sound through light by altering the patterns in the photon’s path.

“There’s really been a lot of opportunities here at the school, and I’m really glad that I picked this school.” 

Current Research

 Shortly after beginning his transition, Norton had a casual conversation with one of his professors regarding his interests in the field.

“[Research] was a huge opportunity that presented itself to me during COVID.  I was taking Circuits I with Dr. Gendron and talked to him about my goals and aspirations, and he picked me up for his team as part of his research project.”

Dr. Paul Gendron, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering here within UMass Dartmouth’s College of Engineering.  He currently holds a BS, MS, and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering.  You may know Dr. Gendron from courses like ECE 471: Communication Theory, or one of the numerous graduate-level courses that he teaches here.  He has contributed to systems that detect seismic events, and even received an Office of Naval Research Fellowship award for his work at the Naval Research Laboratory.

Here at UMassD, Dr. Gendron and Norton research underwater sound propagation, or the ways in which sound travels while it is below the water by using raytracing on underwater acoustics.

“The goal of it all,” says Norton, “is always to make something new.  We want to gain a new, better understanding of how these things work, and then we can start making new things.  We use, like, a transmitter and receiver basically, and we just try to close the gap – but then you can add things in the way - there’s so much to learn.”

Dream Job

Norton says that his dream job is to work at Raytheon as an electrical engineer.

“Raytheon is a really big defense contractor, they actually have a pretty big footprint on the civilian side too.  They do a lot of the intelligence and space research – they own Pratt & Whitney as well which is a pretty big aerospace company,” added Norton, “I want to work specifically for Raytheon Missile & Defense.  I really like the radar systems – whether that be above ground or below surface systems like sonar, but I don’t care what exactly I work on there - I just love the field”

And things would quickly start to look up for Norton when he had the opportunity of a lifetime come straight to him.

“Raytheon has always been, like, my dream job getting out, but I never felt like I was smart enough to get in there.  The guys that work there, they’re like the MIT and Harvard grads - they’re wicked smart.  I was like, ‘there’s no way I’d be able to get this picked up by them.’”

Shortly after his leaving the military, Norton was on his way to help his Mother-in-Law, who works at a small construction company, with a minor computer issue.

“The owner of the company was there and we had a chat - he asked about my service and what I wanted to do. I told him about electrical engineering, and he asked where I wanted to work.  I told him that I’d like to work for Raytheon and he said he could get me in contact.  I was like ‘wow, that’s so awesome!’ and thanked him, and he was like ‘no, right now’.  So, he walks into the office and called him on lunch.  I had a quick impromptu interview with him and he had me send him a cover letter and my résumé to see what he could find me.  He sent out an email to a bunch of college recruiters and professional hire teams, and within a week I had an offer - I had that lined up maybe 4 days after getting out - it was a real miracle, seriously.  It was a huge blessing and something I'm very glad came together.”

Norton spent his summer in Marlboro, MA at the Raytheon site where his daily life involved design verification testing.  Norton will be returning to Raytheon this summer to continue his internship. 

Advice to Other Veterans

“Pursue your goals, don’t be afraid to talk to other veterans and come out of your shell and just continue to pursue your dreams.  It was a big transition and it wasn’t a decision I made lightly, I had 9 years in the service and had to make a decision whether or not to stay in.  I made the bold step to get out in order to pursue my dream, and I don’t regret it.  There's a lot of opportunity on the other side of the fence, you just have to do it - be bold and do it.”

Norton has found that the Student Veterans Association has also helped his transition,

“Joining the SVA has been really cool and it’s been awesome to meet the other veterans, even just finding out that there are other veterans that go here.  It’s nice to, you know, just be with some people who have had similar experiences.  UMass Dartmouth has been really good for sure.”

Norton was also distinguished by the Student Veterans Association for his academic success in the Fall 2021 semester.