Paul Marangelo Splash
Paul Marangelo Paul Marangelo checks out a beaver lodge in Vermont. © Bob Klein

Stories in Vermont

Actual Living Scientists: Paul Marangelo

Meet the people behind the science in Vermont! In this ongoing series, we'll introduce you to the folks that are working hard to advance conservation in the Green Mountain State.

Name: Paul Marangelo

Title (official and unofficial): Senior Conservation Ecologist

Hometown and Years in Vermont: River Vale, NJ – I have been in VT for 14 years, after many years of itinerant living, mostly in the mid-west.

Favorite plant, bird or place in VT: Because too few people speak for invertebrates, I’ll choose the Pink Heelsplitter (Potamilus alatus), which is a freshwater mussel species from the lower Poultney River.

An interesting non-science fact about you: I once aspired to be a rock musician. My last gig and career highlight was being in a band that opened up for The Pixies at CBGB’s in New York City in the 80’s. Playing music is still an important avocation for me.

What type of scientist are you? Generally speaking, I am an applied ecologist, and have worked on both terrestrial and aquatic issues over my career.

How did you get interested in the sciences? While always interested in science-oriented topics, I belatedly realized that my skills and way of thinking were best suited to the role of a scientist. I started to become a scientist in a more formal sense after I figured out that working in this role was best way for me to contribute to work to prevent degradation of the natural world.

What do you hope your Conservancy work will contribute to? In an immediate sense, to research, identify and implement solutions to conservation problems that are both viable and effective. In a broader sense, I hope that this work is in service of creating a comprehensively sustainable trajectory for our society.

Why do you think this is important? The natural world is a part of us as much as we are a part of it. It is the evolutionary crucible that formed human consciousness, yet paradoxically, it is being degraded, perhaps irrevocably, by human activities. I believe that, among other things, we all collectively suffer from this degradation in ways that are not readily apparent to casual observation. Nature, its life-sustaining processes and its treasure of diversity, is the fundamental economy of life on earth.

What is your favorite part about your work? Being able to work on interesting projects that gets me outside on occasion, projects that frequently requires me to think creatively, and hopefully makes positive contributions to conservation.

Do you have a funny or interesting story from the field? I used to work as a freshwater mussel biologist. Mussel survey work requires mucking around on the bottom of rivers, where you inevitably find all sorts of discarded junk. Waterlogged dolls dredged from river bottom mud have been resurrected to become totemic dashboard-residing field protector goddesses. I found a gold ring under a rock once in a river while surveying for mussels (for Lord of the Ring fans, no it was not the “one ring”).

What would you want a young student to know about choosing a science career path? I can think of a number of things: That while crucially important, science also has its limitations. At its center, it is a probability-based method of testing and investigation that is by design, supposed to be objective. Yet if you study psychology (my undergraduate major), you learn that objectivity is not inherently a part of human nature. In addition to science-related education and training, I’d encourage students to develop as broad a disciplinary background as possible. Beneficial applications of science require as complete an understanding of larger contexts as possible (anthropological, economic, sociological, etc). Also, most of the science that we use to inform our work is, by necessity, reductionist, while the natural world and the human systems that we build upon it are highly complex systems – this often creates not a small amount of uncertainty when we apply science to solve problems. Science is a necessary but alone insufficient part of addressing the world’s problems, which is important to be conscious of because “science always solves problems” and “science underpins prosperity” are dominant cultural narratives.

Who is an inspiration to you? Scientists who strive to synthesize information from a broad array of disciplines to gain otherwise hard-to-see insights. For example, I’ve always got a lot out of reading the works of Jared Diamond. I also admire scientists who are compelled by the implications of their research to step beyond the comfortable confines of carefully parsed scientific language and probability-based recommendations into more uncomfortable and messy realms (such as advocacy and exploring the spiritual implications of their work). James Hanson is a good example of this. And in another way, so is EO Wilson.

How do the sciences feature in your personal life? Probably in ways that are deeper than I’m aware of, since I’ve been working in the capacity for many years. If you systematically observe the world to gather information, draw conclusions from what you observe and rigorously test/question derived conclusions with additional observations, you are in a way a scientist – I’ve been reflexively doing this informally as long as I remember. I’ve always felt compelled to clearly understand how the world works in the sense of all its systems (both human and natural), and act in accord with these understandings.