On her way to Cambridge on Monday, May 14, Helen Bailey told her lab director Tom Miller that good things typically happen in threes.
That morning, The Baltimore Sun featured DolphinWatch, her one-year-old citizen science project aimed at understanding why dolphins are visiting Chesapeake Bay, on its front page.
The Associate Research Professor at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory had also just learned that she and her colleagues had been awarded a B-WET grant, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program that supports watershed education projects.
But the third thing? Bailey assumed her good fortune had run out before it would happen, when rather, she was heading toward it.
That evening, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science President Peter Goodwin would honor Bailey with a President’s Award for Excellence in Application of Science. The annual honor aims to recognize UMCES faculty committed to outstanding applications of science that have a positive impact on environmental protection and management.
“I am stunned. This is wonderful,” Bailey managed as her shock from the announcement slowly gave way. “When your job is something that you love doing and it’s more like a hobby, it is fantastic.”
Bailey is the first faculty member to receive an award during Goodwin’s tenure as UMCES president.
Don Boesch, now president emeritus, established the award in 1999 and honored faculty, always the evening before commencement, every year since. In giving his final award upon his retirement as UMCES president in 2017, Boesch endowed the award to the next president.
In choosing his first honoree, Goodwin said he had a difficult decision to make with so many faculty working hard to apply science to contemporary problems.
Helen is a highly productive scientist in her own right. She publishes an average of more than four papers a year on fundamental questions of the movement ecology of large marine species. Her work has an international profile and is funded by a large range of agencies. Her mentoring of students is demanding and supportive, and her teaching is energizing.
But, he noted, “in order to win this award, there had to be something special and innovative.”
That idea led Goodwin to choose Bailey.
“Helen is a highly productive scientist in her own right,” Goodwin said. “She publishes an average of more than four papers a year on fundamental questions of the movement ecology of large marine species. Her work has an international profile and is funded by a large range of agencies. Her mentoring of students is demanding and supportive, and her teaching is energizing.”
Bailey studies a variety of protected marine species to understand their movements and habitat use to inform conservation and management.
She helped develop a tool with NOAA that provides real-time information on where whales are to reduce potential for threats, such as ship strikes, entanglements and loud underwater sounds.
When she was still new to UMCES, Bailey spearheaded an institution-wide effort to get involved after the state announced plans for an offshore wind farm and persuade agencies to develop the necessary baseline studies.
“As a result of those studies, Helen won the trust of agencies and has become very effective in getting ideas that have benefited UMCES well beyond those baseline studies,” Goodwin said. “These ideas positioned Helen and all of UMCES to take advantage of these multiple funding resources. She acts with generosity and collegiality that should be an example to all.”
Additionally, Bailey worked with The Leatherback Trust to investigate the migration of young leatherback sea turtles between the time they leave their nesting beach and when they reach maturity. Hoping to educate youth about the threatened species, she later used the research to write a children’s book with The Leatherback Trust called “The Grande Turtle Adventure.”
In 2017, Bailey launched DolphinWatch, which Goodwin deemed an innovative idea with exceptionally high impact.
“I was really intrigued by how all of this happened. Helen was working testing hydrophones, setting them off the end of the CBL pier and the group heard dolphins at the mouth of the Patuxent,” he said. “From this initial insight through observation, Helen developed a citizen science group, which is DolphinWatch.”
Through an app, DolphinWatch allows anyone to report their dolphin sightings in Chesapeake Bay. Last summer, the first year of the project, Bailey expected around 25 sightings, but received more than 900 after about 1,500 people registered to help.
The project’s continued popularity is clear when Chesapeake Biological Laboratory invites Bailey to host Science for Citizens, free seminars that introduce the public to a scientist’s research. Director Tom Miller said the event has a capacity of about 100 people.
“Every time Helen speaks we have to schedule an afternoon presentation and the evening one. Her presentations are that popular,” he said.
While the dolphins tend to get most of the attention, Miller is quick to point to the person behind the project for its success.
“Dolphins are charismatic, and it is certainly exciting to see them, but underlying Helen's interests and the importance of her work is the world-class research she conducts inferring the behavior of large animals from knowledge of their movements,” he said.
For example, animals that are turning a lot are often feeding, while ones that are travelling in straight lines are often migrating to other regions.
“She receives her funding from the agencies that support her work, not because dolphins are charismatic, but because her work helps them make management decisions,” Miller continued. “Helen's research on dolphins is an important component of UMCES' research portfolio, not because it helps us reach a new audience, but because it helps us meet our legislative mission of conducting environmental research that helps citizens of Maryland or people who make decisions on our behalf to ensure a sustainable future for the state and the nation.”
Upon receiving the President’s Award, Bailey reiterated the joy she feels in her work and spoke about her appreciation for the community and UMCES embracing DolphinWatch.
“I have really enjoyed that so much of my work has been relevant,” she said. “We’ve been able to work with managers and more recently with DolphinWatch, with the public as well. It’s just wonderful to do that and I love that UMCES embraces that.”
Honoring tradition, Goodwin gifted Bailey a trophy that reflects her research. As the ceremony came to a close, she was already imagining where she might display the dual-peaked glass trophy encasing two small dolphin figurines jumping toward the sky.