USACE scientist keeps conservation, construction coexisting

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District Public Affairs Office
Published Nov. 27, 2018
Woman in orange life vest and glasses smiles off camera to the right while working outside on a plastic tube used for oyster reef restoration

Shannon Reinheimer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District environmental scientist, volunteers as part of the district oyster reef team hosting Norfolk Christian Schools fifth-grade students with oyster restoration on the Elizabeth River near Fort Norfolk, Va., Nov. 1, 2018. The monthly field trip to the reef offers a lesson in science, technology, engineering and math while helping to bolster the struggling oyster population in the area. (U.S. Army photo by Andria Allmond

(Editor’s note: This is the first installment of the series Builders of Bulwark, crafted to showcase the personalities and backgrounds of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District personnel. Through the eyes of a first-year public affairs office district employee, the series will use interviews to give a behind-the-scenes look at the people who form the Corps.)

FORT NORFOLK, Va. – During our interview, I realized this environmental scientist – like many U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees here – didn’t fit into my preconceived ideas about government personnel.  I mean, not that I viewed federal workers as bad, it’s just that I was surprised. And although the basic functions of USACE are vital, there’s more to the Norfolk District team than digging, dredging and directives. Shannon Reinheimer is one whose story I wanted to tell.

After a little nudging, she agreed to meet with me.

“So, is it cool if I call you a ‘tree hugger?’” I asked.

She responded by wrinkling her nose as if suddenly smelling something foul; I realized it was decidedly not cool for me to call her that.

Observing my apologetic look, she followed with, “When I was 7 years old, I did cut ribbons off trees that were flagged to be cut down.” Then she shrugged her shoulders and, under the condition I understood she liked turtles more than trees, conceded to the moniker.

I peppered my semi-willing interviewee with questions as she continued readjusting her posture on the perennially uncomfortable chairs of the Waterfield Building café here. As we spoke, her waxing intensity about things like microplastics and blue crabs were followed by waning apologies, typifying the self-described introvert. Her fervor for ecology was evident, and I wanted to know more.

I asked about her childhood.

 “I’m originally from Wyoming,” she seemed to begrudgingly admit. “But I came to Virginia when I was really, really young; so, I’m almost a native Virginian.” 

She noted her youth was shaped by an exposure to nature. Being transplanted into the commonwealth offered her a concentrated acquaintance with both terrestrial and marine habitats. And she invested much of herself within it.

Through a serpentine of sea turtle necropsies, whale detangling and exposure to a rare bacterium, her passion for conservation eventually led her to the Corps. All of Reinheimer’s worldly adventures occurred close to home.

She studied the pre-veterinary field while attending Old Dominion University in Norfolk. Her reserved character and aversion to the public aspect of a veterinary practice eventually steered her to change majors to biology. There, she could concentrate fully on her fervors: reptiles, herpetology and conservation.

Although dying from a venomous snakebite in the U.S. almost never happens, I find the possibility terrifying. For our scientist here, regularly handling deadly snakes wasn’t a white-knuckle event. Northern Copperhead, Timber Rattlesnake and Eastern Cottonmouth are the three venomous snakes of Virginia and just their names make me cringe.  Reinheimer wasn’t even phased by these pit vipers; so, she found her rush by volunteering with the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center Stranding Response Project.

As part of the team, she rescued and rehabilitated marine life. This wasn’t a plush gig of petting porpoises and photographing fish; it was physically and mentally challenging. Necropsies – autopsies of deceased animals – were a big part of her volunteer work and sharpened her anatomy skills.

“I kind of became the go-to person for sea turtle (gastrointestinal) contents,” she stated proudly. (We spent 20 minutes delving into the detection of environmental changes based upon a turtle’s belly contents. It’s completely fascinating.)

In 2006, she graduated but found difficulty landing a job in her field. While a full-time position evaded her, she secured part-time slots with both the Virginia Zoo and her alma mater’s herpetology lab.

As a zoo employee and animal ambassador, she educated children about wildlife. While at the lab, she was immersed in studying and research. Then in 2008, she returned to the Virginia Aquarium as a full-time employee.

“It was a summer position in fishing boats conducting bycatch studies to see if adjusting the style of the net would increase their catch and reduce the entrapment of turtles,” she said.

But the job evolved into more than for what she was initially hired.

Upon loss of the team’s veterinary technician, the duties needed to be reassigned. Reinheimer’s veterinary-based education and experience poised her as the perfect candidate.

“At that time, I was certified by the veterinarian to do euthanasia, minor procedures, take radiographs and debriding,” she added.

That’s also when she gained and employed the coolest certification I never knew existed: a whale disentagler. Yes, that’s a thing. What I gathered from Reinheimer, certification not only requires a bravery, but also Batman-like skills in grappling hooks and tying knots.

The North Atlantic Right Whale is a species of the Atlantic coastal waters and can weigh up to 70 tons and grow to 52 feet. Entanglement in fishing lines attached to gillnets and traps on the ocean floor is its greatest threat, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It’s very dangerous,” she said. “You basically connect yourself and the vessel you’re in to the animal and try to detach it.”

Although thrilling, those extra tasks led to a nearly-unsustainable work-life balance. According to Reinheimer, there actually wasn’t a balance at all and the 90-hour workweek took a social and emotional toll. 

Additionally, her health began to suffer.

During a freak accident in 2013, Reinheimer and a cohort were exposed to the Brucella bacteria that caused a mortality epidemic among regional dolphins. Historically, less than 200 cases in are reported in humans annually. Treatment is extensive, expensive and includes six months of post-exposure blood monitoring by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Physical demands and ailments became debilitating.

“I was in my 20s and my body had degraded rapidly,” she said.

When she admitted chronic back problems, I felt a twinge of guilt for brushing off the look of discomfort I saw on her face when she first sat down.

As her medical bills piled up, her body was breaking down. Eventually, she released the hook and scalpel to work as the Back Bay Restoration Foundation executive director and contractual researcher for the aquarium. 

In 2016, a series of fortunate events for Reinheimer began with knowing someone, who knew someone else, who knew USACE Norfolk District was looking for an environmental scientist.

She said the job seemed too good to be true and had little hope of even scoring an interview. Applying for a military-agency job without military experience was a stretch; not being a recent college graduate decreased her chances more and having no previous federal employment rounded out her trifecta of cynicism.

“I thought, ‘Oh, there’s no way I’m gonna get this job,” she recalled.

A few months later, she was hired into her position. Her first real challenge wasn’t the job, but an internal trial: She needed to learn to calm down.

“I’d go from one thing, to the next, to the next and kept feeling like I had to continue that 90-hour workweek,” she said. “It took me a while but then I realized, ‘Wow, the Corps actually values time with family.’”

She stated that her husband appreciated the change as well.

Now, Reinmheimer is a staple on the district team as a scientist and volunteer in outreach programs, as well as those in science, technology, engineering and math – known a STEM. She uses her collective capabilities as a student, educator and scientist to instruct the next wave of conservationists.

She believes making positive change in the world begins within her own life. An end goal is having others follow her lead in conversation through self-motivation. Her philosophy: One person leading by example is more effective than a hundred people telling others what they should do.

With that in mind, Reinheimer has proven an essential building block of the Norfolk District team.

“Coexisting,” she said. “That’s what I work for now. There is that balance between growth and not harming the habitats around us. And that’s part of what the Corps is. We lead by example and instead of telling someone to make conservation a priority, we show them.”