Doctoral Candidate Heather Heenehan Inspires Young Would-be Scientists by Providing Them Face Time with Working Researchers

June 5, 2014

By Tawnee Milko, MEM'12

Heather Heenehan MEM’11 has a lot to be excited about these days.

A fourth-year PhD candidate in the Nicholas School’s Marine Science and Conservation program, Heenehan was recently recognized by Skype as one of three women changing the world through technology.

An energetic champion of inclusiveness in scientific and technical fields, she blogs for the Huffington Post’s widely hailed “Girls in STEM Initiative” and helps direct the Scientific Research and Education Network (SciREN), a student-led, technology-aided outreach program that, though only entering its third year, already is having impacts on K-12 science education in dozens of schools across North Carolina (see sidebar page 23). And she just returned from Paris, where she presented her experiences with positive outcomes from marine acoustics educational outreach to a rapt audience of scholarly peers.

But ask her what her most exhilarating accomplishment of the last year was, and Heenehan proudly replies that it was when she interacted with every sixth grader at two local middle schools in the course of one week.

“Every single one!” she exclaims.

Heenehan visited Beaufort Middle School for the North Carolina Science Festival’s Invite-A-Scientist Program, and students from Morehead City Middle School visited the Duke University Marine Lab on April 17 to take part in “Sound in the Sea Day,” an event organized by Heenehan and fellow Marine Lab graduate students.

The daylong field trip gave the 164 students the chance to take a mini-research cruise on the R/V Susan Hudson, record underwater acoustics, and participate in other hands-on marine science educational activities. They also watched a video of Marine Lab scientists sharing recollections of what they wanted to do as a career when they were in middle school, and how they got interested in marine research.

Giving young students face time with working researchers—in the field, no less—can make a huge difference in shaping the students’ interest in science and making it more relevant to their everyday lives, says Jennifer Coggins, a teacher who led one of the sixth-grade classes.

“One of the difficulties with kids learning science is that they don’t see what they’re learning applying to the real world,” Coggins says. “This program was tailored specifically to our students using our curriculum, connecting them with what is currently happening, right now, in the field. That’s unheard of.”

The “Sound in the Sea” field trip was augmented by in-class visits to the school by Heenehan and other Marine Lab graduate students and through the use of interactive teaching technologies.

It’s one of many initiatives that have cemented her place among a new, techsavvy generation of trailblazers who are leading the charge to make science accessible and relevant to everyone.

“I’ve always seen science as part of a bigger picture, always,” says Heenehan, a marine mammal biologist who studies the acoustic ecology of spinner dolphins.

Heenehan’s love of environmental science began in childhood. Raised in Hamilton, N.J., she fondly recalls family outings to North Carolina’s Outer Banks and the Jersey shore. Her father worked for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and even in her earliest years, she knew the meaning of words like phragmites, the scientific name of the common wetland reed.

Her interest in education stems from years of volunteer work with the YMCA, at special needs sports leagues, and as a camp counselor, as well as the influence of her mother, who was a teacher.

She pursued a BS in environmental science at the University of Connecticut, preferring the broad-based nature of that degree over a more narrowly focused one in biology. When it came time for graduate school, she was immediately drawn to the interdisciplinary nature of the Nicholas School’s Master of Environmental Management program (Coastal Environmental Management track) at the Duke Marine Lab.

At the Marine Lab, her advisor was Dave Johnston, assistant professor of the practice of marine conservation and ecology. (Johnston also is serving as her doctoral advisor.) When he discovered that Heenehan focused her undergraduate honors thesis at Connecticut on marine bioacoustics, he promptly recruited her for his newly developed Spinner Dolphin Acoustic Population Parameters and Human Impacts Research (SAPPHIRE) Project, a joint endeavor between his lab and scientists from Murdoch University in Australia.

The SAPPHIRE project studies the consequences of human interactions— mainly eco-tourism—on spinner dolphins that rest during the day in bays off the Kona coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. The charismatic marine mammals, famed for their acrobatic spins, have become major attractions. Many of the island’s bays experience daily bumperto- bumper traffic jams of dolphin cruises, “swim with” excursions, and other tourist and commercial activities centered around the animals. Johnston and his colleagues wanted to know how these interruptions affected the dolphin’s ability to rest and build up strength for nocturnal foraging, and what could be done to reduce the harmful impacts.

Heenehan recalls arriving in Hawaii as a rising second-year master’s student on the first day of the SAPPHIRE Project, accompanied by only one other student from Murdoch, Julian Tyne. The two had no boat, no equipment and no project protocols.

“It was a very unique opportunity. A lot of times when you join in a project that’s already established, you’re given the procedure of what you’re supposed to do,” she says. “We had to figure everything out, from troubleshooting our acoustic loggers to filing for permits to actually placing them in the ocean.”

After graduating with her MEM degree, Heenehan has continued her preliminary SAPPHIRE Project work as a Duke doctoral student. Her research focuses on the vocalizations Hawaiian spinner dolphins make and how they interact with sounds in their resting bays.

If the SAPPHIRE Project has captured her mind, then the Duke Marine Lab has captured her heart. Any given day can find Heenehan paddleboarding the waterways around Pivers Island,spotting the occasional dolphin or wild horse on Carrot Island or holding informal advising meetings with Johnston, who has a stand-up paddle board of his own.

“I just love the Marine Lab. The community here is one of the best parts of being here,” she says. “We have such an interdisciplinary group of people. You get to know the faculty in a different way than I got to know the professors on main campus, especially because we live very close to each other. I’ve gotten to TA (Teaching Assistant) lots of classes too, and there are also some really cool connections that happen between students at all stages of their academic careers.”

Heenehan says it was this sense of community and working together that led to her becoming a mentor for Nicholas School master’s students Julia Goss, Liza Hoos and Demi Fox (all MEM’13). The “Spinnerettes,” as they dubbed themselves, became the focal follow team for a SAPPHIRE Project field season in Hawaii, and their work eventually contributed to The Nai’a Guide, a free mobile app Fox developed for her Masters Project that artfully provides science-based information about conscientious Hawaiian spinner dolphin tourism and interaction.

“We accomplished things together we couldn’t have done by ourselves, which is a message I try to emphasize during my science outreach,” says Heenehan. “Science isn’t just single scientists working alone. And it’s about people. We don’t do science by ourselves. We do it collaboratively.

“We so often hear that there’s a disconnect between the local community and the science community, but there’s so many marine research institutes here on the coast,” she continues, citing the Science House at NC State University, NOAA, Eastern Carolina University, UNC-Wilmington, the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences, the North Carolina Coast Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve, in addition to the Duke Marine Lab. “Programs like these can help bridge that science communications gap.”

When she visits local schools to do her educational outreach, Heenehan makes a point of wearing dressy purple pants and showing photos of herself when she was the students’ age. “Middle schoolers especially are very conscious of what they look like, how they’re dressing and how other people are dressing,” she explains. “I had big old glasses and I was this tiny skinny little thing… but I loved science.”

She wants students to walk away with the message that anyone can be a scientist—not just an Einstein-ish older man with wild hair and glasses wearing a white lab coat working over bubbling test tubes.

“One thing I think is applicable to any scientist is to share your story,” she says. “I tell the classes about what I did when I was in middle school and the types of things I got involved in because I liked science.”

She also encourages students to tell someone else—preferably a parent or guardian—that they like science. “At that age, you can’t drive yourself to the aquarium,” she explains with a laugh.

Technology has allowed Heenehan to enrich her presentations and broaden her outreach efforts beyond typical classroom visits. For example, she has connected with classes in Canada to talk about Hawaiian spinner dolphins through Skype in the Classroom, which allows educators to take advantage of online video communication technology to connect students with guest lecturers located elsewhere.

“This kind of technology gives us cool opportunities to bring our science, what we study and the places we go to people, no matter where they live,” says Heenehan.

Whether virtual or in person, Heenehan shares videos, pictures, and sounds to make her presentations interactive. When students visit the Marine Lab, she lets them handle hydrophones and other technology they wouldn’t have the chance to otherwise.

The ability to provide a sensory-rich teaching experience makes people learn things more deeply, explains Johnston, who has pioneered the use of apps and other technology in his research and teaching.

“Instead of forcing students to put everything away and listen to the talking head at the front of the classroom, properly used technology allows them to interact with information in real time in a richer way,” he says. “Nothing becomes more obvious to students when you think of underwater noise than when you play the sounds of seismic air guns recorded in the middle of the Atlantic when they were actually operating thousands of kilometers away on Sable Island, Nova Scotia.”

Heenehan plans to continue her passions for science, science education, and advising and mentoring students once she completes her PhD, potentially at a smaller college with a focus on teaching.

She and her sister Kaitlin, an employee of the University of Connecticut’s Honors Program, also have tossed about the idea of launching a “Girls in STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) nonprofit, a topic that has captured her attention since working with Duke’s FEMMES Program (Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering and Science) two years ago.

“As a woman in science, I’ve always felt very supported,” says Heenehan. “I’ve grown up, in college and beyond, with really strong, independent and smart women in science. But I realize that support doesn’t necessarily happen for everyone. If I can, even in a small way, foster or give the support I had to someone who doesn’t, I’ll feel successful.”


Tawnee Milko MEM’12 is the Nicholas School’s coordinator for the Nicholas Ambassador Initiative.