By Lindsay Key

How can we create a more sustainable future for the Gulf Coast of the United States and all who call it home? What further research is needed to inform environmental decision-making and what are the best ways to bring it to life? These questions are the focus of Megha Khadka’s work at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Gulf Research Program (GRP). Megha, an alum of Virginia Tech’s Online Master of Natural Resources (MNR) program, joined the Academies in March 2021.

Bringing the best and the brightest minds together 
Megha is part of a small team that administers funding for research and other efforts designed to better understand how climate change and other environmental drivers will impact Gulf ecosystems—including people. The Gulf Coast encompasses the coastline along the southern United States that includes the states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

In her role, Khadka is a jack-of-all-trades. Her daily tasks might include reading research proposals from investigators from across the United States or researching issues to influence programmatic direction. The most rewarding part of her job, she says, is bringing diverse sets of people together to tackle important environmental issues affecting the Gulf. Megha helps plan webinars and other activities that allow researchers to collaborate. “We bring experts together to talk, share knowledge, and learn about a topic—and these discussions may help lay the groundwork for larger initiatives or may lead to specific outputs like a workshop report or the development of funding opportunities. A big theme of the work we do is to produce highly actionable information that decision-makers can use and that may influence local, state, and federal actions and policy, “ she said. In the past, the Gulf Research Program has brought researchers together to discuss offshore energy operations, sea level rise, and climate and environmental justice in the Gulf.

“These encounters present unique opportunities to managers or decision-makers handling diverse socio-ecological systems—from the coast to offshore,” said Megha. “Our efforts also encourage collaboration between different stakeholders, including resource managers, policymakers, and academics. The idea is to be able to provide science and evidence-based guidance to foster sound decision-making about important environmental issues affecting the Gulf.”

Growing stronger in the wake of disaster
Megha’s work with the Gulf Research Program is made possible due to one of the most devastating oil spills in U.S. history—the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill that occurred April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico on the BP-operated Macondo Prospect. The spill, which continued over 87 days after an initial explosion, resulted in the tragic deaths of eleven people. It also affected countless marine life, including birds, fish, and mammals—as well as the ecosystems they rely on, such as estuaries, marshes, and seagrass beds.

In 2013, with $500 million in criminal settlement funds from the companies involved in Deepwater Horizon, the National Academies’ Gulf Research Program was created. The studies, projects, and activities conducted by the program are intended to advance and apply science, engineering, and public health knowledge to reduce risks from offshore oil spills. It will also enable the communities of the Gulf to better anticipate, mitigate, and recover from future disasters, the Academies explains on its website.

“Within the Gulf Research Program, we have different units that concentrate on different components of the Gulf,” explains Megha. “For example, we have offshore energy, safety, health and resilience, education and capacity building, and data teams. And then the unit I'm in is Gulf environmental protection and stewardship. It’s a really interdisciplinary, multi-faceted program.”


Applying sustainability concepts to cities, coastlines, and beyond
Researching environmental protection issues in the Gulf Coast region is an exciting new challenge for Megha. Born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal, she moved to the United States for the first time as a teenager when her mother was appointed visiting professor at Wayne State University, MI. 

After moving back to Nepal for a short while, Megha eventually came back to the United States to pursue an undergraduate degree in geography at St. Cloud State University, MN, where she also took several environmental science courses. After graduation, she moved to Arlington, VA and began work as a program assistant for various nonprofit organizations, including the National Academies’ Transportation Research Board.

At first, Megha pursued a master’s degree in public administration, enrolling in Virginia Tech’s Alexandria-based program. But she began to feel an unmistakable pull toward environmental issues, an area of study she had always been interested in but had not yet fully committed to. A discussion with Dr. Kieran Lindsey, the director of the Online MNR program at Virginia Tech, sealed the deal: Khadka transferred from the MPA program to the OMNR in 2016.

“I talked to Dr. Lindsey, and then after that, I just didn’t look back,” said Megha. ”With the credits I was able to transfer from the MPA program, I completed the OMNR in a year and a half, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed school so much. I actually really wanted to take more classes after I graduated!”

At the outset, Khadka was most interested in the urban component of the program and chose to focus most of her elective coursework on urban ecosystems and human–wildlife conflict in cities. Now, working for the Gulf Research Program, she said that although the region in which she works is not just “urban'' but a mix of landscapes, she still finds the OMNR coursework extremely relevant. Core courses like “Constructing Sustainability,” “Global Issues in Environmental Sustainability,” and “Sustainability Systems” teach students broad sustainability concepts that can be applied to any region or landscape across the globe. 

“My goal is to learn as much as I can to increase my personal and professional knowledge of the Gulf region as well as the different environmental challenges that the Gulf faces, from the physical and ecological to socio-economical,” said Megha. “I think this is important not just to perform my job well but to gain valuable insight on how different regions are impacted and how they react to different environmental stressors, especially in the face of climate change. I am thrilled to be given this opportunity by the GRP, and even though coastal systems are a new area for me, I appreciate the opportunity to put my interest and passion for the environment and my skills to support the program.”