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International authority

Dr. Heather Carnahan named University Research Professor at President's Awards


By Moira Baird

Dr. Heather Carnahan was officially named University Research Professor during the President’s Awards ceremony March 9.

“This award is a first for the Marine Institute,” said Capt. Fred Anstey, head of the School of Maritime Studies at the Marine Institute. “Dr. Carnahan is leading our academic efforts to build graduate programs in the School of Maritime Studies, providing students with unique experiences in collaboration with the marine industry, training future faculty and growing our research capacity in maritime safety and survival.”

‘Love my work’

Dr. Carnahan has spent more than 30 years as a researcher — studying how people learn, develop and become experts in the fine motor skills needed to be fishermen, mariners and surgeons.

She enjoys the work now as much as when she completed her kinesiology doctorate at the University of Waterloo in 1989.

“I remember a young woman once asked me what’s the thing I’m proudest of in my career and really my answer is that I still love my work and I’m still doing it – that’s my proudest accomplishment.”

Dr. Heather Carnahan on board HMCS Kingston in 2019. She is wearing a black jacket with a black and pink jacket underneath, as well as a black woolen hat. Other people in black are in the photo, as well.
Dr. Heather Carnahan on board HMCS Kingston in 2019.
Photo: Submitted

An international authority on how people learn to become expert at performing fine motor skills, she a professor in the Marine Institute’s School of Maritime Studies; the Lockheed Martin Industrial Research Chair in Simulation and Learning studying the effective design and use of simulators as learning tools for maritime industries; and leads the Ocean Safety Research Unit examining human factors affecting safety and survival.

Throughout her career, she has obtained nearly $8.5 million in collaborative research funding and has been continuously funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada since 1994.

Dr. Heather Carnahan sits at the wheel of a fire truck.
Dr. Heather Carnahan at the wheel of a fire truck at MI’s Safety and Emergency Response Training Centre in Stephenville.
Photo: Submitted

Ocean safety research

Dr. Carnahan credits a tour of the Offshore Safety and Survival Centre seven years ago with piquing her interest in the Marine Institute’s ocean safety research.

There, she met with Capt. Anstey and Dr. Rob Shea, now vice-president of Memorial (Marine Institute). At the time, Dr. Carnahan was dean of the Faculty of Human Kinetics and Recreation.

“I was just gobsmacked at the quality of the facilities and the expertise of the staff I met there. I’ll never forget it, we sat in the meeting room and we all had these hot roast beef lunches from the fabulous cafeteria there and we discussed the plan. Fred had a vision for bringing graduate programs and increasing the research profile of the School of Maritime Studies, and I had the skills and the background to help reach those goals.”


These days, the School of Maritime Studies offers three graduate programs: two master’s and a doctorate.

“We have 14 students in the graduate program after launching a little over a year ago. We should have our first master’s graduate before the fall,” said Dr. Carnahan. “We also have two new faculty members and are in the process of hiring two more. So, it’s a really exciting time.”

At this stage of her career, she’s playing a larger role in mentoring students and new faculty.

“We still need a cohort of scientists who also understand the marine transportation world. I call them unicorns — those that have the applied expertise as well as solid scientific expertise. We’re training scientist-practitioners. We’re essentially training our own faculty members of the future.”

Interesting projects

The University Research Professor award also comes with an unrestricted, annual research grant of $4,000 for five years. Dr. Carnahan plans to use it for interesting projects outside her usual scope of research.

“For example, I’m interested in helping establish a mission for seafarers here in St. John’s with a research unit embedded in it, which would be unique around the world.”

The grant will allow her to visit other seafarers’ missions to learn more about how they operate. These missions provide supports and services to mariners.

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