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Alumni Profiles Series: Heather Heenehan

September 8, 2021
Heather Heenehan, Ph.D.

Heather Heenehan received her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Connecticut in 2009, and her master’s degree in Environmental Management and her Ph.D. in Marine Science and Conservation from Duke in 2011 and 2016, respectively. At Duke, Heather worked under the mentorship of Dr. David Johnston at the Duke University Marine Laboratory investigating soundscape ecology of Hawaiian spinner dolphin resting bays. In 2016, she was awarded the Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Following graduation, she worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, MA and as a lecturer at the University of New England before landing her current position as an upper-school faculty member and the Sustainability Coordinator at the independent preK-12 school Green Farms Academy in Westport, Connecticut in 2018.

What made you want to pursue a graduate degree in marine science and conservation?

I was drawn originally to the Duke Master’s in Environmental Management program, and the Coastal Environmental Management concentration. I loved the classes that were taught as part of that, including travel courses and the opportunity to complete a master’s Project. During the second year of my master’s, I participated in a travel course in Hawaii taught by Dr. Andy Read. This course gave me the opportunity to teach my peers, in sight of spinner dolphins, about the work I was doing with Dr. David Johnston for my master’s project about them. At the same time, I was starting to find my way with teaching and outreach; I realized that  the teaching part is where I was drawing energy and joy and inspiration from. So, it was a dual process happening at the end of my master’s where I was given the opportunity to continue the spinner dolphin acoustics work I was doing with Dr. Dave Johnston and pursue the teaching that I was really coming into my own with while getting to stay in the wonderful Duke Marine Lab community.

How did you envision your future as you were completing your graduate degree?

You know, I remember being at the local coffee shop in downtown Beaufort, Cru, with my advisor Dave Johnston towards the end of my Ph.D., and I remember holding up my hand and showing all five fingers and saying, “You know Dave, I think I would be really happy doing a lot of different things.” And I rattled off a whole bunch of paths on my fingers that I thought I would be happy in. These paths were really varied: they ranged from being a professor in higher ed to working for federal or state government to K-12 teaching. And I remember him saying, “You know, I can help you with maybe two of those paths. I don’t know how you pursue the other ones, but I’m also supportive of you exploring those.” Dave was 100% supportive of me talking to people who are in those paths, and I ended up following many of those paths after completing my Ph.D.

How did you find support and resources to explore all of those paths?

As a PhD student, I served as a TA for or taught nine classes, which was one of the best ways to gain direct teaching experience; I also participated in the Certificate in College Teaching and the Preparing Future Faculty program, which introduced me to different types of teaching positions. I also engaged in K-12 outreach through SciREN and other local schools/non-profits. My post-Duke experiences started working for NOAA with one of my committee members, Dr. Sofie Van Parijs, for about two years, and she was super supportive of doing outreach and different types of teaching—doing the research too—and I started to find some of those other paths and people pursuing those paths. I worked with the Sea Education Association as a teaching scientist on one of their expeditions. I was also continuously looking at different types of jobs and opportunities but the path to K-12 was still eluding me.

After NOAA I went to work as a visiting faculty member at the University of New England—a fully teaching position—and I attended a sabbatical seminar that I didn’t really want to go to. I overheard a colleague mention that her partner was leaving UNE to teach physics at an independent high school. Little flags went off in my head; I knew I needed to ask her about this. After the seminar I asked her if we could chat about K-12 jobs. She offered to do lunch, and we spoke for two hours about what it’s like to teach at a private school and how to make that transition happen. In that meeting, she told me about an agency that a lot of schools use to hire people, so I went home that night and put up my profile; I had a phone interview within a week or two, but it was already April. In that phone interview I said, “I think I’m late for this academic year, but is there something out there for someone like me right now, taking into account my interests, teaching style, and background in scientific research?” and the interviewer said, “You know, I think there is” and that job he told me about happens to be the job I have now. So, the takeaway is to be a sponge wherever you currently are. Go to that sabbatical talk. Go to that seminar. Pay attention to what people are doing and find out how they got to where they are. Ask questions. And follow those passions for as long as you can. I think that’s how I found my way, my wiggly, swirly, certainly not straight way to what I’m doing.

Tell me about your current job.

I am an upper-school faculty member and the Sustainability Coordinator at Green Farms Academy, which is an independent K-12 school. I teach 9th grade biology, marine science, and two different sustainability classes—one that spans 10th-12th graders and one for 12th graders doing a senior-year project in sustainability. In the marine science classes especially, I bring in a lot of my research experience especially since there’s a salt marsh and beach in our backyard. We’ll go out and do surveys monthly and learn about these ecosystems. We also do very regular connections with scientists via the Skype a Scientist program—we meet with a lot of graduate students actually—and my students will write reflections on the discussions. My students love the science, but they also really love hearing about those meandering paths.

In my first year of doing Skype a Scientist in my classroom, I met two graduate students who are close by geographically, and we’ve been working together for three years to bring more science into my classroom. It also provides a great mentoring opportunity for me, because they’re both interested in outreach and teaching in a way that I was when I was in their position in graduate school, so it’s been nice to show them a possible path for their futures.

What is your favorite thing about your current job at Green Farms Academy?

I love how varied it is. I also love how much of my previous experience—everything from graduate school to internships—that I use on a daily basis. My other favorite part is my students. I draw huge inspiration from them. They do really cool sustainability work and they convince the adults (my colleagues) to do things that I cannot always convince them to do.

What actions do you recommend to a Duke graduate student who wants to broaden their skills in outreach and teaching?

One good option is SciREN, whether you’re in the Triangle or Marine Lab (or both). The North Carolina Science Festival also has a lot of opportunities. I also recommend taking advantage of any teaching assistantships you have, guest lecturing, and visiting K-12 classrooms when you can, including the Skype a Scientist program. I’d also personally be happy to have guest lectures from Duke graduate students in my classroom. I would also recommend asking your advisor about their broader impacts section [of their grant funding proposal] and what that looks like. I’ve seen cases where graduate students have done broader-impact activities, which the advisor has liked, and subsequently written into future grants to continue the work, or graduate students offer to help with those activities. Express your interest in these skills and opportunities to your advisor and see what they say; I hope they are as supportive as Dave was for me.

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