Heather Heenehan sails off the Kona Coast of the island of Hawaii, where she did her dissertation research on spinner dolphins.
Heather Heenehan lives her dream as a research scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but she often thinks back to how that dream started in a Steinert High School classroom 13 years ago.

“I have always been interested in the ocean,” said Heenehan, a 2005 Steinert graduate. “I took a marine biology class at Steinert. I basically took all of the sciences classes I could. I saw science as a part of a bigger product of how we can better protect animals, and how we can inform policies. I have always thought about how I can bring my science to other people.”

She particularly credits Brian Smith, now principal at Hamilton West, for being an early inspiration. Smith taught marine biology at Steinert when Heenehan was a high school student, and Heenehan begged Smith to allow her take his class as a sophomore.

“There was a trip to the Florida Keys,” Heenehan said. “Most people went senior year in the fall after they took [marine biology] in junior year. It was a big ‘a-ha’ moment. A turning point. He is a great teacher, one I am in touch with now.”

In fact, Heenehan and Smith are trying to coordinate their schedules so she can talk to his current students. She credits New Jersey with played a big part in giving her the proper experiences that she needed in order to work in Woods Hole and for NOAA. Family vacations were spent at the ocean, particularly in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, as well as trips to the Jersey Shore.

In May, Heenehan earned her doctorate from Duke University from the department of Marine Science and Conservation with a certificate in college teaching. Her dissertation was titled “Soundscape Ecology of Hawaiian Spinner Dolphin Resting Bays.”

Recently, Heenehan taught a group of sixth graders in Massachusetts about how to protect mammals, an experience that continues to energize her. Through the presentation, she brought to life the information the students were learning in their classrooms, showing them how it applies to their life.

In addition to meeting with students in person, she Skypes classes in the United States and Canada, individually tailoring her presentations to the questions each class has for her.

“It is cool to introduce myself as Dr. Heather or Dr. H. or Dr. Heenehan, a non-medical doctor, and how I can be a doctor, too,” Heenehan said. “That’s really fun.”

At Woods Hole, Heenehan works in the Northeast Fisheries Science Center as part of the Protected Species Branch’s Passive Acoustics Group. She spends part of her days listening to humpback whales over 10 acoustic recording devices, as well as listening to cod in five different sites; two vastly different size fish.

“Think of a soundscape as you think of a landscape, but with noises,” Heenehan said.

If you look out your window, you see human made and natural items. It is the same with sound. The soundscape outside of Heenehan’s office, for example, includes a flag flapping against a flagpole, a ferry boat horn, birds chirping and the hum of office equipment.

“We don’t rely on sound, so it is hard for people to grasp the concept of it for animals,” Heenehan said. “The concept of noise pollution in the ocean is hard to grasp. I once heard someone say, ‘What if we thought of noise and noise pollution like trash on the beach?’ It is a major issue for animals that rely so heavily on sound.

“I’ve been listening to my cod fish. They make a burping sound. They tell me where they are when they are there—the distribution and behavior.”

Starting in December, she will be working with an international group of scientists recording humpback whales in the Caribbean. In addition, the first chapter of her 220-page dissertation will be published this summer. She is hopeful each chapter will be published in peer review journals.

Heenehan will be at NOAA for at least a year. Her future is wide open after that. She loves teaching, and is looking for teaching opportunities, science political connections and science communications outreach roles.

She plans to follow the advice she offers students.

“Be a big sponge and talk to people, listen to their experiences,” Heenehan said. “When you find someone who might have a job you might want someday, ask them their major interests. I’ve tried to be a big sponge whenever I can. Read emails. I found my wetlands interview through emails from my advisors. Friends. Advisors. Family friends. Listen to when they will talk to you and ask questions. Stick with your passion. Even when people tell you it is not feasible. That has gotten me here. And surround yourself with good people.”

She counts her family among the “good people” in her life. Her sister, Kaitlin, is two years younger and is also a good hybrid of their parents. She works in the honors program at the University of Connecticut at a STEM advisor. Her father, Michael, worked for the Department of Environmental Protection for 37 years, and is now an environmental consultant. Her mother, Mary Ann, was an English teacher and transitioned into training insurance agents.

The family jokes that “dad ‘recycled,’ not retired, and mom ‘rewired,’ not retired.”