Taking citizens, students under her wing

Dawn O'Neal is the newest executive director of the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve and Biological Research Station.

RENSSELAERVILLE — In an old white house along the Rensselaerville Falls, Dawn O’Neal works at her desk on the first floor facing desks of the other staff members in a small room with cream-colored walls and windows every few feet.

She is responsible for overseeing the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve’s research grants and internships, and she leads its main educational programs, which mentor high-school-aged students who conduct ecological studies to publish in the preserve’s journal.

O’Neal, 34, is the newest executive director of the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve. It’s a position that makes her a steward of both scientific integrity and citizen interest in nature.

Since she first arrived at the preserve as its director of conservation education in 2011, O’Neal has led a Christmas bird count and a bird-monitoring program for which she is the master bander. That year, a bridge on the preserve’s trails was wiped out and rushed downstream when tropical storms ravaged the region. O’Neal’s main research focus is how long-term climate changes in North America are affecting the dark-eyed junco’s migration and immune response.

The preserve was established by Jessie Van Antwerp Huyck in 1931, in honor of her husband, Edmund Niles Huyck, who ran a felt mill along the falls in the Rensselaerville hamlet.

The preserve’s total revenue in 2012 was $481,000.

One of her main goals in leading the preserve is to have citizens participate in more of its field research. She’s hoping to start a water-quality testing program and expand science projects with middle-schoolers across several different preserves in the area.

O’Neal said she’s excited by people who love to talk about birds. Followers on her bird-monitoring hikes have never held a bird before, she says. They comment on a bird’s heart, beating nervously and rapidly, its delicate wings and tightly gripped claws.

“How delicate and strong something can be at the same time,” said O’Neal.

After the former executive director, Chad Jemison, left in July of 2012, O’Neal absorbed the responsibilities of the role.

She later became the director of conservation, education, and research as the preserve’s search committee interviewed for a new executive. A good fit was hard to find, she said, with candidates who weren’t interested in all four of the preserve’s functions: conservation, education, recreation, and research.

The board unanimously decided to offer the top position, overseeing 2,000 acres and a handful of staff, to O’Neal at its January meeting.

Finding her life’s path

O’Neal enjoys cold weather. She said her research with winter birds was fate.

Growing up in University Heights in the suburbs of Clevland, Ohio, O’Neal and her younger sister played with their Barbie dolls outside in the snow.

Their father and mother both have business and accounting degrees from college and come from rural upbringings in places not known for country life — her mother from Houston, Texas and her father from New Jersey.

O’Neal’s father joined the Snow Bums, a skiing club started at Boston Mills/Brandywine Ski Resort, and took his daugthers. In the summers, they went on camping and canoeing trips in state parks.

The O’Neals impressed on O’Neal’s sister their desire for her to study business. For O’Neal, it was science. Her mother wanted her to be an engineer.

“Some man told her women couldn’t be engineers and she believed it,” O’Neal said of her mother. “And she always regretted it, to this day.”

In her junior year of high school, O’Neal enrolled in an introductory engineering and technology course at Ohio University. Before that, she had studied at a summer math program for girls at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

The first two years as a biology student at Washington University were frustrating. O’Neal followed the wisdom given to biology majors and signed up as a research volunteer, but most professors were doing lab work with micro and molecular biology. Ecology wasn’t on her mind, but she knew she liked science and being outdoors, not math.

A junior in college, O’Neal knocked on her advisor’s office to change her major from biology to environmental studies, “in part because my advisor could never remember I wasn’t pre-med,” she said, “and I didn’t want to take molecular biology,” a requirement of pre-medical studies.

O’Neal intended to be a marine biologist, “something like Flipper,” she said, referring to a 1960s TV show aout a Florida park worker with a dolphin companion.

On the advisor’s office door, a poster for the Mountain Lake Biological Station in Virginia advertised for research assistants. She applied to work there that summer, describing her research interest in behavior. She was placed in the bird lab.

“I was upset about it, at first,” she said.

At the research station, O’Neal said, she had her “first true ecology experience,” assisting with bird research at the Mountain Lake Biological Station, where she met Ellen Ketterson, a distinguished professor of biology and gender studies at Indiana University. O’Neal described the professor as “this great, amazing woman coming down from on high.”

The two talked over drinks about what O’Neal had worked on that summer, and where she wanted to take her career.

“I wanted to be on a project that I could more easily explain to my mother,” O’Neal recalled.

Ketterson invited her to come back the next two summers and eventually encouraged O’Neal to apply to Indiana for her Ph.D.

Working at the research station in Virginia, O’Neal saw the variety of science-related paths she could take.

She felt working at a research station changed her life, and now she works at one.

She still considers herself a researcher, even though she isn’t affiliated with a university. She’s aware of being a woman leading a scientific institution, as schools try to close a gap between the genders in scientific fields.

She was on a trajectory for a university job, but says she can’t speak to its work-life balance with her female students; she tells them a Ph.D is more versatile than they might think.

“There are thoughts you have to be a slave to your research,” said O’Neal. “It’s not true.” In fact, she said, it’s better if you don’t overwork.

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