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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 4, 2011

Huyck Preserve’s new education director
Dawn O’Neal wants to teach conservation

By Zach Simeone

RENSSELAERVILLE — Environmental biologist Dawn O’Neal is in the midst of a transition this week, from studying the effects of pregnancy on the immune systems in African buffalo, to educational outreach at the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve.

“We’re just kind of nerdy geeks who like to be outdoors and want to know why the natural world works the way it does,” said O’Neal of environmental biologists. And it’s that sort of company she hopes to keep at her new job as director of conservation education at the Huyck Preserve. She started on Monday.

“We have lots of ideas about what this position entails,” O’Neal told The Enterprise. “A lot of it has to deal with trying to get the community involved in field biology courses, and more rigorous nature walks and stuff. Getting people to understand, not only ‘this is this kind of tree,’ but also the natural area and the biology of what were looking at.”

She will also be looking at the possible formation of a research consortium with local universities, bringing in students to do research at the preserve, and creating field courses for college credit. This new position at the Huyck Preserve is funded by the Environmental Protection Fund, and a partnership between the New York State Conservation Partnership Program, the Land Trust Alliance, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

O’Neal, 31, completed her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology last year from Indiana University. Prior to taking the job at the Huyck Preserve, she was finishing her work as a post-doctoral research assistant at the University of Georgia, where she studied the African buffalo. Her thesis was titled Considering the Roles of Climate Change, Winter Habitat, and Immune Function in a Differential Migrant.

“There’s been research suggesting that, when females are pregnant, there are tradeoffs in the immune system,” O’Neal told The Enterprise. There are two parts in the immune system, she went on: the humoral, or antibody response; and the cell-mediated, or inflammatory response.

“The idea is that, when females are pregnant, they downgrade that inflammation response because it may be bad for the fetus, but they up the antibody response for various reasons,” said O’Neal. “We were looking at tuberculosis and intestinal parasites, and tradeoffs in the immune system, and how they handled those parasites, and how pregnant females dealt with concurrent infections,” she said of the African buffalo that were studied.

O’Neal’s interest in taking this position in upstate New York stems from her undergraduate work at Mountain Lake Biological Station just outside of Blacksburg, Va.

“I did a whole lot of field research there, and really got into the field station sort of field ecology realm, and I really enjoyed it,” she said. “So, when I saw this job posting and saw they were looking for someone with field-station background, I got really excited. I love this idea of conservation education. It’s one of my favorite things about science.”


There will be a welcoming reception for Dawn O’Neal following the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve’s annual Science Symposium, which runs from 1 to 3:30 p.m. this Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Huyck Preserve, located at 5052 Delaware Turnpike in Rensselaerville.

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