By: Jessica Driscoll
After 33 years at Northeastern University, Dr. Donald Cheney is retiring, leaving behind countless grateful students and a long list of accomplishments in biology and marine science.
THE EARLY YEARS
Cheney attended UMass-Amherst, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Botany in 1967. After graduating, he went to work at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole for three years and realized marine biology was his true calling. He attended the University of South Florida, earning his PhD in Biology and Marine Biology in 1975, but he missed New England.
“I came back to work as a postdoc at the University of New Hampshire’s Jackson Estuarine Laboratory,” he says. “In 1979, I was a Guest Investigator at both the University of New Hampshire’s Jackson Estuarine Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Environmental Systems Laboratory. And, in 1980, I started as an Assistant Professor at Northeastern.”
Cheney says he was drawn to Northeastern for the unique opportunity to work at a marine laboratory in the Boston area.
And the rest is history.
Cheney received early funding from government agencies and private companies, including one from a company in 1990 worth over $575,000 — helping him to produce four patents.
“However, in more recent years, my research has gone decidedly more environmental,” he says. “Lately, I’ve been studying the causes of seaweed blooms, and how they can be used to remove toxic compounds like PCBs from the marine environment, as well as how they can pose a threat to estuarine food chains and even humans.”
One of the things Cheney says he is most proud of is his role in the development of and years of teaching at the Marine Science Center (MSC).
“Through this program, I and other teachers have been able to educate and influence a huge number of students about the wonders of our oceans and the problems they face,” he says. “I think this, plus the 18 graduate students I have had, and the more than 20 grad student thesis committees I’ve served on, is the thing I am most proud of. I really believe that as time goes on, our papers become less read and influential, but the students we influence, influence others that influence still others.”
WATCHING NORTHEASTERN TRANSFORM
Cheney says he can hardly believe how much Northeastern has changed for the better over the years.
“Today, I am beaming with pride of where I’ve taught,” he says. “I am proud of our beautiful campus, the way we treat our students, and our loving, caring, and academically-excellent faculty. What has happened at the MSC is a fine example. With our new hires, we have said in a loud voice, ‘We are no longer happy to be just a small marine lab, we are what’s happening in marine biology, ecology, and engineering.’”
NURTURING FUTURE GENERATIONS
In addition to his legacy as a researcher and professor, Cheney has established a scholarship intended to help graduate students at the MSC when they most need the money — during the summer.
“During the fall and spring semesters, graduate students can usually get TAs, but not during the summer,” he says. “In the summer, they or their advisor has to have a grant or they are out of luck. Now that I am retired, I am in position where I can help out our graduate education program financially. It gives me great joy to do so and I hope that it will encourage others to do the same.”