UW alum Leah Shamlian wins thesis award

Leah Shamlian is an UW alum who recently won the Tom McKnight & Joan Clemons Paper Award for her master’s thesis. The award was presented at the annual Association for Pacific Coast Geographers Conference, and it is given to outstanding papers. The committee, which is made up of 5 to 7 faculty from a variety of universities and colleges, looks for an overall knowledge of the topic presented, the promise shown when the student presents, and their response to questions. The award was created by Tom McKnight and Joan Clomens.

Leah completed the Coastal Communities and Regional Development master’s program at UW in 2023. Her thesis is called "Rainbow Sheens and Headlines: Media coverage of oil spills in the Puget Sound, USA." She was interested in how oil spills are discussed in news media and how that may vary geographically, which has implications for public environmental awareness, expectations, and action. When choosing her thesis topic, she thought about her previous job, where she dealt with the paperwork surrounding oil spill preparedness and response. “Oil spills became very interesting to me: somehow both visible and invisible. They are a very recognizable form of pollution since no one wants a rainbow sheen on the water, but because of the ubiquity of oil in our modern lives, it's easy to overlook how potent a pollutant it is. Research on urban stormwater runoff shows that even drops of oil have cumulative impacts on fish populations,” - says Leah.

She worked on her thesis in the Seattle, Washington area, which is where she currently lives. Her adviser was C. Patrick Heidkamp, PhD from Southern Connecticut State University. Dr. Patrick Heidkamp is also an instructor at UW and has taught the “Blue Economy and Coastal Communities” course. Currently, Leah works with municipal stormwater permits for the Washington State Department of Ecology. She says that studying at UW has prepared her well for her current position, particularly when it comes to topics like public participation and involvement in environmental decision-making. Leah also has a background in environmental compliance in the fishing industry in Alaska. Prior to that, she studied English and environmental policy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington State.

She found out about UW when she was looking for potential graduate programs as an undergrad. During that time, she studied abroad in a small island community with the School for Field Studies and really valued that experience for both the classroom education and the place-based learning. Later, while she was working in the fishing industry, she spent some time in remote fishing towns, which deepened her interest in the unique challenges that they face. “The Coastal Communities and Regional Development program at UW was an opportunity for me to pursue this interest in a location that added to the educational experience” - Leah says. Leah loved studying in Ísafjörður and found the student community in her cohort to be incredibly supportive. She really appreciated the number of opportunities that students can find, or create themselves, in the Westfjords. Some of her favorite courses at UW were Introduction to Regional Geography, Coping with Disasters, and Blue Economy and Coastal Communities. We at UW sincerely congratulate Leah on her thesis award and wish her luck in the future.