As a youngster, Jennifer McCann raced sailboats on Narragansett Bay with her family. As a teenager, she sailed around Aquidneck Island. As a young adult, she hop-scotched through Latin America studying marine systems. Now, settled into an office at the University of Rhode Island, McCann aims to “change the world.”
A researcher at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, McCann and her team have risen to national prominence for their work advising regulators that manage the world’s ocean waters.
“We get to make a difference in this world,” she said.
Her work, which often flies under the public’s radar, took on local prominence two years ago when former Gov. Donald L. Carcieri announced his intent to see a wind farm developed off the coast. The state would need environmental studies and new regulations before permitting could even begin.
Enter McCann and a squad of URI researchers who would guide a nearly $10 million study of ocean uses known as the ocean Special Area Management Plan, or SAMP. Like so many other projects, McCann saw her role as equipping public officials with the information to make marine regulatory decisions. To do so, she would need to sort through dozens of competing interests.
Her role, she said, resembled something akin to a bus mechanic for the state. She provided the windshield wipers, the gas, the tires and the insight from other drivers. Public officials made the ultimate decision about how to use the parts.
When the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council adopted the SAMP, it did so unanimously and with few objections from the assembled public.
The daughter of a businessman and a homemaker, McCann envisioned herself as a social worker. During senior year of high school, she spent four months in the Dominican Republic as part of a study-abroad program.
In the Dominican Republic, she traveled the countryside on a motorcycle driven by a local social worker. The career, she found, was not for her.
But the experience opened her eyes to the reputation abroad of the United States as somewhat of an arrogant bully. Determined to change that, she returned to America and pursued a degree in international relations and Spanish at the University of New Hampshire.
After college, she crewed on a wooden schooner based in Florida’s Key West. When the owner sold the ship, McCann sought a job that would let her leverage her education and the resources of the United States to assist foreign countries without bullying them.
A position at the Center for Marine Conservation – now The Ocean Conservancy – let her do just that. The organization sent her back to the Dominican Republic. There she worked with government and education leaders and the local marine industry to protect North Atlantic humpback whales.
The Coastal Resources Center at URI would eventually offer her a desk at its Narragansett offices and in 1995, a job leading its Latin American programs.
“She earned her spurs way out in the field,” said Chip Young, a former senior communications fellow at the Coastal Resources Center.
Young said McCann has put that knowledge to good use on dozens of other projects, with the most visible being the SAMP.
“Jen’s a dynamo,” Young said. “She has a great sense of humor and really keeps people she’s working with on her teams excited about the project.” •