Serving the Country and the Environment: David Bourbeau’s Application of RI CHAMP to the U.S. Coast Guard

With the effects of climate change creeping up the coast, the world needs Big Thinkers like David Bourbeau. A recent graduate of the Master’s in Marine Affairs program, Bourbeau is bringing his knowledge of marine governance and coastal resilience to his work in the United States Coast Guard at a critical time where climate change is threatening coastal infrastructure through sea level rise and storm surge. His work with  RI-CHAMP  may have major implications for the future of coastal resilience planning for the Coast Guard.

In 1997, Bourbeau enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. Inspired by one of his role models from back home in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, he knew he wanted to serve. His early years in the service took him all over the country, from working on a Coast Guard cutter in California to Burlington, Vermont, where he provided aid after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. But he also wanted to take his career further. “I had a couple of really important supervisors who put the bug in my ear that I should go to college and  seek a commission,” Bourbeau said. As a commissioned officer, Bourbeau would be able to take on a greater leadership role within the Coast Guard. While he was stationed in Newport on the Coast Guard cutter Tiger Shark, he applied for a Coast Guard scholarship to pursue his undergraduate degree. “The scholarship was an excellent opportunity for enlisted members  to pursue higher education,” Bourbeau said. “It allowed me to go to school on the Coast Guard’s funding while continuing my service.” In 2008, he began the business administration major at URI. “I thought business administration had a general skill set that would be useful for Coast Guard operations,” said Bourbeau.

Going back to school was a very different pace from working in the Coast Guard, but Bourbeau worked at a rigorous pace to complete his degree in the two years his scholarship lasted. He brought a level of intentionality to his studies, shaped by his experiences in the service and his goals for after graduation. “It’s quite the opportunity to go back to school as an adult because your mindset is different, you’re more mature, and I felt expectations placed on me that really made me focus on my schoolwork. I was there to learn, and I recognized that,” Bourbeau said. 

Following his undergraduate studies, Bourbeau completed Officer Candidate School at the Coast Guard Academy and tours of duty in Norfolk , Virginia; Portland, Maine; New London, Connecticut; and most recently as a Marine Safety Detachment supervisor in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. While stationed in New Hampshire , Bourbeau’s unit witnessed a major inundation event where three feet of water surrounded the coastal property, causing substantial damage  to the facility. “The storm caught us off guard; it  surprised me that the extent of the flooding seemed to come out of nowhere.  I don’t recall getting warned that we should take extra precautions  or expect significant coastal flooding. Having experienced that  got me thinking about  what tools were out there  that could help us plan for these heavy weather events,” said Bourbeau. 

In 2021, Bourbeau applied for the Coast Guard-funded Advanced Education Program, a well-known program within the Coast Guard Officer Corps that allows officers to pursue post-graduate education opportunities as a way of increasing formal education among mid-level ranks of service. The program is not specific to a certain university; suitable programs are determined by the ability to specialize in a certain craft within the Coast Guard. “As a prevention officer, I had a sub-specialty in managing marine transportation systems , so I applied for marine transportation  and maritime operations post-graduate opportunities,” said Bourbeau. Once selected as a candidate, the Coast Guard determines which college programs are most appropriate to complement the skill sets the candidate is looking to receive. “The Master’s in Marine Affairs program checked a lot of boxes for  the core academic courses and research opportunities,” said Bourbeau. “I felt when it came to coastal and marine challenges that the environment faces from climate change and pollution to  competitive uses of waterways that there was a lot that seemed to line up very well in the URI-MMA program.” 

While pursuing his degree, Bourbeau took courses ranging from international ocean governance to GIS. Several of his professors helped make the experience impactful. “I appreciated the way Beth Mendenhall engaged the class and prompted students to participate,” he said. But Bourbeau wanted to have a concrete way of connecting his education with his service. “I was wondering what I could study to meet the requirements for degree completion and do something to potentially benefit the U.S. Coast Guard,” said Bourbeau. “I was wondering what I could do to bring a more quantifiable and actionable risk assessment to the marine transportation system or coastal infrastructure.” Now-retired professor of marine affairs Rob Thompson, who taught the GIS in Coastal and Marine Management course that Bourbeau was taking, encouraged him to speak to Austin Becker, associate professor and department chair of marine affairs, about the RI-CHAMP project. “It was really serendipitous,” said Bourbeau. “I wanted to do this project and Professor Becker was looking for opportunities to expand CHAMP’s footprint.” 

Bourbeau’s desire to bring more quantifiable and actionable risk assessments to the marine transportation system and Becker’s work on CHAMP created the ideal atmosphere for Bourbeau’s capstone work. He reached out to the local Coast Guard units to get permission to do his study, and he was able to collect the data required to build up the hazard consequence database that the CHAMP model incorporates. “We weren’t using real storm data. We were using an existing storm model of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 with one foot of sea level rise and moved the track line to the east to make it a direct hit on Rhode Island,” Bourbeau said. “Choosing Coast Guard units in Rhode Island was enough to gain a foothold in proving the concept that CHAMP is an excellent tool that can be used for the Coast Guard.” Bourbeau’s work culminated in a final presentation given to the URI community, local Coast Guard representatives, CHAMP teammates, and faculty from other schools. “A lot went into preparing adequately and it felt good getting feedback that I hit the mark. It was a relief and was rewarding,” Bourbeau said.

  Since graduating from URI in December, Bourbeau has already started a new position at the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. as a program staff officer in the Office of Waterways and Ocean Policy. “When you go through the Coast Guard Advanced Education Program, it’s expected that you will return the Coast Guard’s investment in you in your next job, so it places those people in something relevant where you’re using your newly acquired skill set in the new job,” he said. Bourbeau’s work with CHAMP is already piquing the interest of the Coast Guard. “People are talking about it,” he says. “The Department of Homeland Security Coastal Resilience Center is looking to fund CHAMP in its tenth year of existence with a focus on expanding use in the Coast Guard, continuing the case study based on the groundwork I did.”

Bourbeau’s experiences are a testament to the impact of cutting-edge research in CELS and the many opportunities for marine affairs graduates in the Coast Guard. “I was lucky to be placed in this position around a great team down at URI.  I was fortunate  that I landed there and that there was this opportunity to explore an innovative solution to address resilience and readiness to combat the impacts of climate change for  the Coast Guard,” he said. By making his education applicable to his career interests, Bourbeau left a stamp on CHAMP, opening doors for future research. 

By Sarah Heavren, CELS Communications Fellow