A dolphin tail of two Huskies

By Cheryl Cranick, Honors Program

The ocean is still a place filled with undiscovered mysteries, even among the most well-known creatures. One of those creatures is the dolphin. The general public may not realize there are more than 30 species of marine dolphins globally, but two women know it well. Honors alumni Kathleen Dudzinski Ph.D. ’89 (Honors-CLAS) and Heather Heenehan ’09 (Honors-CLAS) have made studying these lively mammals their life’s work.

Dolphins at play

Kathleen Dudzinski
Dr. Kathleen Dudzinski ’89 (Photo courtesy of John Anderson)

Kathleen Dudzinski Ph.D. ’89 is not exactly sure why people are so drawn to dolphins. “I see dolphins as ‘charismatic mega fauna,’ in that they are flashy and most folks want to see them or read about them or meet them or just plain learn more about them,” she said. Dudzinski capitalizes on this appeal to teach the public about all marine life and ocean ecosystems, with the goal of protecting the less flashy creatures as well, such as jellyfish.

Dudzinski is founder and director of the Dolphin Communication Project (DCP), which is based in Connecticut. She started the DCP in 2000 as a way to share knowledge about dolphin communication. The catalyst for the project was the large format release of the film “Dolphins” (2000), which centered on Dudzinski’s research. Her career has been spent studying dolphin social communication and signal exchange, which was the topic of her dissertation at Texas A&M University. She continued the work during two post-doctoral positions at Mie University in Japan. Yet this Connecticut native narrowed in on dolphins much earlier in her life, during a summer internship while still an undergraduate student at UConn.

“I remember always loving animals, science, and the oceans. But I did not know until college how to make those passions a career,” Dudzinski said. She explored internships, lab placements, and student activities based in the sciences, and in the summer of 1987, accepted a position with a whale watching company. “I loved every minute of it, even though we worked 12 hours a day, every day,” she said. “I began reading as much as I could to learn about marine mammals. I’d found a path into merging my passions for animals, the ocean, and science via studying marine mammals.”

Kathleen Dudzinski
Dr. Kathleen Dudzinski ’89 in the Bahamas with spotted dolphins (Photo courtesy of John Anderson)

For Dudzinski, membership in Honors broadened her access to academics and opportunities, and she began to work closely with her advisor, Dr. Nancy Neff, who taught her “the fundamentals to be a good scientist,” Dudzinski said. As a research assistant, Dudzinski contributed to academic writing projects, learning the scholarly peer-review process firsthand, including “how to accept criticisms from colleagues and to move forward, and make a stronger paper,” she said. “I still get reprint requests for that work … [completed] almost 25 years ago!”

In her work now at the DCP, Dudzinski focus specifically on populations of Atlantic spotted dolphins and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins—either residing in the wild (in The Bahamas and Japan) or under human care (in Honduras and a second location in The Bahamas). “To conduct the studies into dolphin communication, the way we have, we need a human-habituated group of dolphins and clear water in which to view them,” she said. Having studied both wild and captive dolphins, Dudzinski finds the habitat does not affect the animals’ communication. For that reason, “I much prefer studying the groups of captive dolphins because we do not have to search for them! Eighty-five percent of our effort studying wild dolphins is simply trying to find them,” she said.

Kathleen Dudzinski and dolphin
Dr. Kathleen Dudzinski ’89 with an adult female dolphin, Gracie (Photo courtesy of John Anderson)

Whether on location or back in Connecticut, a large part of Dudzinski’s work is outreach. “The mission of DCP is dual: research and education,” she said. This includes sharing what she learns in the ocean with others, through lectures, field work, podcasts, field reports, books, films, internships, and various outlets on their website. Overall, while Dudzinski says dolphins are an important member of the ocean ecosystem, they also serve a greater role: “If people feel a connection to dolphins, then they will want to protect them and their ocean home.”

Dolphins at rest

More than 500 miles away at the Duke University Marine Laboratory, Heather Heenehan ’09 focuses on the sounds dolphins make in relation to their environment. Heenehan is currently working on her Ph.D. at Duke, after having completed her master’s degree there as well. Heenehan was also fascinated by science from a young age, specifically the sea. “In high school, we had a marine biology course that traveled to Key Largo, Fla., which sealed the deal on marine science for me,” she said.

Heather Heenehan
Heather Heenehan ’09

Heenehan hails from New Jersey, and chose UConn for the community feeling she experienced during a whirlwind tour of schools with her mom. She remembers the Honors Program being an important factor in her decision to enroll at UConn. “The Honors Program affected my college experience because it really was my college experience … I made amazing friends in the Honors Program at UConn and am still close with many of them,” she said. Heenehan also fondly remembers the Honors living and learning community in Shippee Hall, where she was surrounded by fellow females in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) whom she found inspiring and supportive.

Heather Heenehan
Heather Heenehan ’09

It was at UConn, through her Honors thesis research, that Heenehan first developed an interest in marine mammal bioacoustics; however, her study of Hawaiian spinner dolphins was sparked during her first year as a master’s student at Duke. The acoustic experience Heenehan brought from her undergraduate work cinched her role on the team for a project that would soon be under way. She has continued her work with the species during her doctoral program, as part of the Spinner Dolphin Acoustics Population Parameters and Human Impacts Research (SAPPHIRE) Project, a joint effort between Duke University and Murdoch University.

Heenehan travels between Hawaii and North Carolina to conduct fieldwork. Her research uses acoustic loggers to collect recordings in their resting bays to better understand dolphin behavior. Spinner dolphins are an important part of the local ecosystem yet the protected species, which rests in bays during the daytime (and are active at night), often encounter destructive experiences with humans. “We have seen people grab and ride wild dolphins during this time of rest,” she said. Her team seeks to observe and record the effects these interactions have on the populations.

Heather Heenehan
Heather Heenehan ’09 educates via Skype

Though Heenehan’s academic career is steeped in research, she is dedicated to educating others about her field as well. She is a “Girls in STEM” blogger for the Huffington Post; she hosts her own classroom programming on Skype (“Sounds of the Sea”), where she communicates directly with students regardless of their physical classroom location; and she is also a member of the leadership team for the Scientific Research and Education Network (SciREN), a collaboration between graduate students at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to make scientific research available to schoolchildren. In one of her Huffington Post blogs, Heenehan wrote: “Every time I interact with a K-12 classroom to share my research, I am reenergized. After each visit I feel ready to face the world, or at least my dissertation (which on some days feels like the world)!”

While these women were undergraduates in UConn Honors more than twenty years apart, and have never met, they are both on a mission to protect dolphins, whether at play or at rest. “When I think back to a singular decision I made that got me to where I am today,” said Heenehan, “it was my decision to go to UConn and be part of the Honors Program family.”

Return to the Summer 2014 issue of the Honors Alumni eNewsletter