Helen Cheng

Zoology M.S. '14
Helen standing by the shore with row of houses in background.
Alumni Spotlight Q & A:

Where are you from, Helen?

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York.

What was your major and who was your adviser? What was your thesis?

Zoology, M.S. 2014. Advised by Dr. Win Watson.

My thesis work investigated the environmental influences on American horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) behavior and distribution in the Great Bay Estuary, New Hampshire.

What was the biggest transitional issue you faced when you started at UNH?

Transitioning from a metropolis like New York City to a small rural/suburban college town like Durham. I was still new at driving, and I bought my first car in New Hampshire when I started graduate school.

What did you do after UNH and what is your current position?

After UNH, I did a one-year fellowship in Washington DC working on marine policy issues at the federal level (with Sea Grant John A. Knauss Fellowship). Afterwards, I worked in engagement and extension in New York City for four years working on coastal resilience issues (with New York Sea Grant).

I returned back to school and I am currently a graduate student at Northeastern University studying and working towards a Ph.D. in Marine and Environmental Sciences with a concentration in Sustainability Sciences.

I am looking at the ecological and socio-economic impacts of range-expanding species like black sea bass and blue crabs on the American lobster and the fishery in Southern New England and the Gulf of Maine.

Did we hear you were recently named as a Davidson Fellow?

Yes! As of August 1, I am a Margaret A. Davidson Fellow for 2022-2024 working at Wells Estuarine Research Reserve in Maine. The Davidson Fellowship offers students enrolled in a Master’s or Ph.D. program the opportunity to conduct research within a National Estuarine Research Reserve.

I will be working at Wells with Dr. Jason Goldstein and the Wells Reserve Staff in identifying the distribution of and interactions between range-expanding species (Black sea bass and Blue crabs) and American lobsters. I also aim to collaborate and work with the other Gulf of Maine and New England Estuarine Research Reserves to understand the prevalence of these range-expanding species along a latitudinal gradient.

Row of color photos of Helen in action.

How did UNH contribute to your career? Looking back on your time spent as a UNH grad student, what are some of your best memories?

Having the ability to conduct research in different settings was so valuable. Working at the Jackson Estuarine Lab and Great Bay Estuary, the Coastal Marine Lab near Portsmouth Harbor and coastal NH, and on main campus allowed me to have a unique and holistic research experience. Having this “three-fold” experience allow me to become a well-rounded scientist not only in different research settings but also in developing different skills such as operating research vessels, scuba-diving, understanding tidal and water conditions, animal husbandry, tank maintenance, and project management. Additionally, communicating with the lab managers, other scientists, research colleagues, and professors from these three places allowed for the exchange of new ideas and overall camaraderie, creating a welcoming community.

I enjoyed mentoring students as a teaching assistant and a research mentor. I enjoyed teaching students in laboratory classes, teaching them essential science methods and writing. I also enjoyed mentoring students as research assistants, getting them outside of the classroom and exposing them to different settings of research.

Any advice for undergrads/grad students who are conducting research?

Take in the lows as well as the highs of research. There will be days where things are monotonous and/or not working correctly but, with persistence, these days will lead to “eureka moments” and discovery.

I have had days where I was getting zeros, but even zeros meant something about learning about the behavior of horseshoe crabs or about ecosystems. Or when things were not going right (i.e., equipment not working or losing equipment), these were learning moments for me on how to improve upon a method or how to make the next time go correctly. Whenever I had these lows in research, I was initially discouraged but I did not want to give up. And when I didn’t give up, things were looking up; the best part of science is knowing, for a moment, something that nobody else in the world knows.

Also, take photos! You never know when you need to remind yourself of your accomplishments and hard work (or when someone else wants to acknowledge your hard work and accomplishments).

"The best part of science is knowing, for a moment, something that nobody else in the world knows."

What impact do you hope your work has on future generations?

I want to inspire those who have limited access to the outdoors and/or are underrepresented in the fields of the natural sciences and field science to follow their dreams and passions. As an Asian-American woman, I aim to change the representation of science especially in field marine sciences. The outdoors and science are for everyone.

Do you have any published work?

I have published my Master’s work as the following journal articles and book chapters:

Cheng H., Vaattovaara V., Connelly M., Looney B., Chabot C. C., Watson, W. H. 2022. Temperature and salinity preference of adult American horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) in the Great Bay Estuary, New Hampshire USA. In: J. T. Tanacredi, M. L. Botton, P. K. S. Shin, Y. Iwasaki, S. G. Cheung, K. Y. Kwan, J. H. Mattei (Eds.), International Horseshoe Crab Conservation and Research Efforts: 2007- 2020, pp. 581-598. Springer, Cham. 

Cheng H., Chabot C. C., Watson, W. H. III. 2021. Distribution of juvenile American horseshoe crabs Limulus polyphemus in the Great Bay Estuary, New Hampshire, USA. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 662: 199-203.

Cheng H., Chabot C. C., Watson, W. H. 2016. Influence of environmental factors on spawning of the American horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) in the Great Bay Estuary, New Hampshire USA. Estuaries and Coasts, 39(4): 1142-1153.

Cheng H., Chabot C. C., Watson, W. H. 2015. The Life History Cycle of Limulus polyphemus in the Great Bay Estuary, New Hampshire U.S.A. In: Changing global perspectives on biology, conservation, and management of horseshoe crabs, Eds. R. H. Carmichael, M. L. Botton, P. K. S. Shin, and S. G. Cheung, 237-253. New York: Springer.

Can we find you on social media?

Yes, you can find me on Twitter.


Pursue a zoology degree

Are you or is someone you know an alum who conducted research with us? Want to be featured in an upcoming Alumni Spotlight? We'd love to connect! Please email Rebecca.Irelan@unh.edu with details.