Knauss Fellowship broadens view of marine science and policy for UNH grad

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For some, it helps to take a step back to see the big picture; for Helen Cheng (UNH ’14), it was her relocation from N.H. to the Capital Beltway that allowed her to see how local coastal issues are being addressed at the national level.   

One of 52 Knauss Fellows for 2015 — and one of two fellows supported by N.H. Sea Grant last year  — Cheng is working as the Coastal Communities Specialist for the National Sea Grant Office in Silver Spring, Maryland. She credits the fellowship for improving her understanding of how the federal government and communities across the U.S. work together to address hazards in coastal communities, such as rip currents and sea-level rise.

“When a state Sea Grant program highlights their impacts and accomplishments, it shows the value of the work that Sea Grant does for communities and that is reflected to the National Office,” she added. “I can now see how the local, small-scale projects fit in with the big picture.”

Young woman smiles aboard boat near lighthouse.

Above: Helen Cheng (UNH '14), a 2015 Knauss Fellow, helps to deploy a data buoy on Lake Erie. Photo by: Russ Miller, Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research-University of Michigan

Prior to the fellowship, Cheng conducted her master’s research with advisor Win Watson, UNH professor of zoology, studying the horseshoe crab population in N.H.’s Great Bay. Working near Washington, D.C. this past year has provided her with a very different learning experience, she said.

“This is not the textbook knowledge you learn in graduate school,” Cheng said. “The tools you learn in graduate school are transferable, and the Knauss Fellowship took those to a whole other level,” she said. “I’m learning how to evaluate and improve national environmental projects, and communicate technical information effectively to stakeholders and partners within and outside the federal government.”

During the past year, Cheng took part in the NOAA Coastal Hazards Working Group that convened NOAA’s National Weather Service, National Ocean Service and other organizations to discuss how to improve forecasting and messaging for topics relating to rip currents. She also helped to organize a workshop that facilitated discussion about bringing awareness to the climate adaptation work conducted by Sea Grant staff around the nation.

“The Knauss Fellowship experience took me outside my comfort zone,” Cheng explained. “I was used to dealing with a specific species and the local ecosystem during graduate school, but the fellowship brought a human element to it with thinking about the bigger picture and learning about how to manage and improve upon certain issue-based projects. It’s been really valuable to learn,” she said.

Cheng also traveled to the Great Lakes to learn more about that region of the country. While there, she shadowed researchers and staff  rom the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, learned about the research taking place and helped to deploy an environmental data and water quality buoy on Lake Erie.

The fellowship wraps up in late January 2016, and Cheng says she wants to focus on science research, policy and outreach for her future career, combining her passion for marine science and policy with her ability to translate that information to the public and stakeholders.

The Knauss Fellowship Program is named in honor of John A. Knauss, a former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a founder of the Sea Grant program. Sea Grant is a national network of more than 30 programs that provide support, leadership and expertise for university-based marine research, extension and education.

N.H. Sea Grant promotes the wise use, conservation and sustainable development of marine and coastal resources in the state, the region and beyond. Located at the University of New Hampshire, NHSG is part of a national network of programs located in our coastal and Great Lakes states as well as in Puerto Rico and Guam.