Matt Christie ’13 was a born explorer. His parents, Dan and Claire Christie, recall him frequently returning to their Greenville, South Carolina, home with rocks, fossils and other treasures. Visits to his grandparents in Charleston always resulted in more bounty. To store it all, Dan built a large, compartmented tray, which Matt kept under his bed. When he wasn’t out exploring, Matt would pull out the tray and pore over geology books to identify his discoveries.
After the Christies moved to the Charleston area for a short stint, Matt’s decision to attend the College was cinched – he had good friends and family nearby, and he loved the city.
At the College, Matt started out in marine biology, moved to psychology and then landed on geology, where he found his true calling – to be an offshore geologist through the BEAMS (BEnthic Acoustic Mapping and Survey) Program, the ocean-surveying brainchild of Leslie “Doc” Sautter, associate professor of geology and director of Project Oceanica.
“Matt really clicked with Doc,” says Dan. “Doc and the department lit the fire in Matt. It also helped that Matt’s class had only 13 students, so they were a very tight group.”
Grace Smythe ’12 was part of that close-knit group. “We were all inseparable. If we weren’t working on labs or cramming our heads in the study rooms, we were going to the beach, out in the boat, camping or just hanging out, but always nerding out on rocks and geology,” she says. “The BEAMS Program allowed for even closer bonds to form as we were offshore together collecting data and later presenting
the data around the country.”
BEAMS was intense. Matt and his classmates – known colloquially as “BEAMers” – had to learn a complex software, conduct a research project and present at a conference – all in one semester. (The requirements are now stretched out over two semesters.)
Matt’s class was the first to present at a national conference – the Hydrographic Society of America’s 2013 U.S. Hydro conference in New Orleans. Sautter piled the class into two vans, and they drove 12 hours so all the students could present.
“What was unique about our BEAMers is that they all had gone to sea and collected data,” says Sautter. “The experience our students had just blew companies away, especially because they were undergraduates – everyone assumed they were graduate students! Matt also stood out because he took advantage of all the field studies. He was so outdoorsy that he was truly in his element.”
Matt’s field studies included a trip to the Bahamas, where he explored a limestone cave. One of the most memorable trips for Smythe, however, came after shattering her clavicle five days prior to a three-week field study out West. She was limited in activities, but toward the end of the trip, the group went on an adventure in Yosemite National Park.
“We found a good swimming hole, but it was across a deep, raging stream with a felled tree suspended 30 feet above as the only means to cross,” recalls Smythe. “I watched as others crossed, and the next thing I knew, it was just Matt and me. Sensing my FOMO [fear of missing out] and apprehension in crawling across with a broken wing, Matt insisted he carry my pack and follow me across. Careful not to injure my pride, he coached boisterous encouragement and demanded everyone acknowledge my badassery. What a dude.”
Smythe acknowledges that they did get a stern interrogation about which of their three brain cells they were using to consider crossing a good idea, but she says it was totally worth it.
When Matt graduated, he and his fellow BEAMers were in high demand. Matt focused principally on work as an offshore geologist, seafloor surveyor and 3D scanning modeler/analyst. True to his explorer nature, he also spent time traveling to faraway places, including Equatorial Guinea, Norway, Malta, Egypt and Scotland.
A lot of his work was for the petroleum industry. For that, Matt had to go through Basic Offshore Safety Induction and Emergency Training, which required intense training on everything from rig operations to how to escape from a downed helicopter.
Other highlights of his work include scanning the floor of a canyon in Monterey Bay in California to capture snail tracks in the mud, accompanying a National Geographic crew to the Marshall Islands to scan two World War II aircraft in a lagoon to determine how they were positioned and identify possible lifting points, and conducting seafloor work for offshore wind farms near Massachusetts and Virginia.
Throughout his career, Matt never forgot about his time at the College. In fact, he would come to Charleston to speak with students, encouraging them to reach out, be bold and explore.
“Matt was great about staying in touch,” says Sautter. “He regularly gave updates on his career and what BEAMS had done for him.”
Of course, with adventure come challenges. “Working offshore means working within a tight space with a group of people from all walks of life,” says Smythe. “It can be a really tumultuous work environment when there are a lot of strong personalities.”
Not one to make waves, Matt would pop on his headphones, keep his head down and focus on the task at hand, like trying to learn a difficult new processing station. At mealtimes, however, his jovial demeanor came out, and he wore down the most extreme personalities so that everyone was laughing together.
“For Matt to keep his head above water and maintain a smile in a situation like that speaks heaps to the fortitude of his good nature,” says Smythe.
Another perk of the job was that Matt could set up his home base anywhere. As an avid outdoorsman,
he settled on Colorado.
“He loved going caving, and he loved introducing his friends to places he discovered,” says Claire.
Ultimately, however, Charleston called Matt home. He was excited about returning to Charleston, which had become a hub for many BEAMers’ projects, and helping Sautter prepare future BEAMers. After consulting with Sautter, he formed his own company and incorporated in Charleston. He already had contracts in place and was just finishing a job for one of his clients when he died unexpectedly in 2021 two days before his planned return to the Holy City. To honor his life, as well as Sautter, the Christies decided to bequeath what they had designated in their will for him to what he loved, creating the Matt Christie Endowed BEAMS Support Fund.
“At the end of the day, you never know how much sand is left in your hourglass,” says Dan. “Matt put more into his 31 years of life than anyone I know. There wasn’t a weekend when he wasn’t out and about exploring trails, canyons, mines and caves and making discoveries of everything from semiprecious stones to weird metals.
“We know Matt would be proud to know that he is supporting Doc and the BEAMS Program,” he adds. “We also donated gifts from friends and family so that BEAMS has an immediate influx of cash and will have a future endowment.”
Truly humbled by the gift, Sautter says it couldn’t come at a better time. In the past, her class could get free ship time through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but NOAA has not been able to resume the privilege since 2014. The College sponsored ship time from 2015 to 2019. Since the pandemic, however, the program didn’t have funds to go to sea.
“Sea time launched the careers of nearly all the BEAMers. Matt knew how important being at sea is for people in his career field. It’s what sets our students apart,” says Sautter, who, since COVID-19, established a popular student symposium that draws recruiters. “Matt was one of the best; he had so much loyalty, passion and gratefulness for the program.”
“There is no doubt that Matt was the best of all of us,” agrees Smythe. “Whether it was howling at the moon in Snow Canyon, playing manhunt in Cathedral Gorge by headlamp or begrudgingly bumming kale chips in lieu of eating his hand while powering through long GIS [geographic information systems] labs, Matt’s echo will always resound his joie de vivre, dry wit, love of adventure, genuine compassion, loyalty and friendship. I am honored to have had him as a friend.”
“We are forever grateful that the College gave him a path and helped him follow his passion,” adds Dan.
Now the Matt Christie Endowed BEAMS Support Fund will help others follow in his path.