U.Va. Medieval Scholar to be Commissioned as Submarine Officer

Margaret Tarmann headshot

One professor called the breadth of Margaret Tarmann's activities "awe-inspiring."

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This month, Margaret Tarmann will become the first female Naval ROTC midshipman at the University of Virginia to be commissioned as a submarine officer.

And she said she’s not worried about running out of things to talk about during those long underwater missions.

Tarmann, 21, of Falls Church, will graduate from U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences with a dual major in environmental sciences and medieval studies on May 18, the day after she will be commissioned as a nuclear submarine officer.

“I have learned over the past four years that I want to be a serious scholar and then apply that knowledge to whatever field I pursue,” Tarmann said. “I also intend to put my nuclear power school training toward a master’s in engineering management. I genuinely love learning, so I’m sure I will continually find ways to come back to school again.”

The U.S. Navy’s nuclear power school was established to train officers and enlisted students in the science and engineering that is fundamental to the design, operation and maintenance of naval nuclear propulsion plants. The courses at the school include mathematics, nuclear physics, reactor principles, material science and metallurgy, electrical power theory and generating equipment, thermodynamics, chemistry and nuclear reactor technology.

While the submarine work requires highly technical skills, Tarmann, who focused on science in elementary and secondary school, switched to humanities once she arrived at U.Va.

“I still love science, but I learned that humanities research is ultimately more interesting to me,” Tarmann said, noting that her medieval studies thesis concerns the mechanisms of Christian conversion in Anglo-Saxon England by Roman and Irish missionaries.

“I love it because it ties together so many different things I’m interested in – religion, politics, leadership, the nature of social movements – and it ultimately shows you how even though people’s circumstances and environments change dramatically through time and space, people really do not, and to me there’s something beautiful about that,” she said.

Peter Baker, a professor in the Department of English and Tarmann’s supervisor for her medieval studies thesis, described her as an amazing student.

“It isn’t just the quality of her thesis, but the sheer amount and breadth of what she’s been up to: writing a very fine historical/cultural study for me; doing something completely different, and intimidatingly technical, for Naval ROTC; jetting down to Panama over spring break for some kind of global development project, and more,” Baker said. “She’s really awe-inspiring.”

Tarmann said she first became attracted to the Navy as a high school student competing in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “It’s an academic competition for oceanography that was actually started by Admiral James Watkins, who was chief of naval operations under President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Energy,” she said. “Seeing the academy and the military environment for the first time, I really liked how professional, highly organized and competent everyone was. The military also prides itself on trying to be a meritocracy and I liked that as well. It seemed like a great way to pursue my interests in college and beyond and also learn to lead.”

An interest in oceanography led Tarmann to the environmental science portion of her education. She cited the influence of Watkins, who worked the intersection of science and policy.

“I would love to have a career like Admiral Watkins,” Tarmann said. “He was a submariner, but also did a lot of work with oceans policy.

“The Navy has all sorts of offices related to environmental policies,” she said. “If I work in government, I would like to focus on science policy, certainly, but ideally I would do something that, like policy itself, encompasses all aspects of our lives.”

Tarmann sees herself and her life in holistic terms, pulling together knowledge and experience from disparate areas in order to create something new or to gain a new perspective on something.

“That’s why I’m really attracted to interdisciplinary areas and why I decided on environmental sciences and medieval studies, both of which are connected to a lot of other different things,” she said. “The top graduate of nuclear power school is usually an English major or someone more humanities-inclined. Ideally an officer has that technical knowledge, but is also someone who thinks critically and is really good at analyzing a situation. To me, that’s where my humanities background comes into play. So while the technical foundation is required to get you in the door, to be successful long-term you have to have those other skills that the humanities really cultivate.”

Tarmann said some of the best officers she’s met are avid readers, particularly of history and leadership.

“When I had my interview with the admiral for submarines, we talked about Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic, which obviously has nothing to do with the nuclear Navy,” she said.

Lt. William J. Golden, assistant professor of naval science in the U.Va. Naval ROTC program, said Tarmann has had a “stellar career” as a student and midshipman.

“Viewed as one of the leaders within the battalion, she distinguished herself through her professional and academic achievements, being selected to join the submarine corps,” Golden said. “She had to excel in a rigorous technical interview with senior naval officers as well as a one-on-one interview with the four-star admiral in charge of all Navy nuclear propulsion. I have thoroughly enjoyed serving as one of Midshipman Tarmann’s instructors and I look forward to working with her again in the fleet.”

Aside from her participation in Naval ROTC, Tarmann was co-chair of the Women’s Leadership Development Program, a member of the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority, Global Brigades, Green Dining and a Jefferson Public Citizen. She was also a singer in the Hoos in the Stairwell a cappella group, an inductee into Phi Beta Kappa and a Truman Scholar finalist.

Tarmann sees herself as a female pioneer among the submariners and believes her holistic nature and well-rounded education will help her working underwater.

“When you are with people under the water, pretty much cut off from the outside world, you are obviously going to get pretty close,” Tarmann said. “Initially I was attracted to subs by the exciting missions that attack submarines go on and the fact that submarines attract some of the smartest people in the Navy. What solidified that choice for me was going on a submarine cruise after my second year and getting to talk with people for hours on end while on watch and getting to hear about their experiences. That’s also when having really eclectic interests comes in handy, because it means you can talk about pretty much anything and have something interesting to say.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

Office of University Communications