Dan FarrellSplash
Wild Edibles Field Trip Dan Farrell instructing trip attendees on wild edibles © Susi Richardson

Stories in Vermont

Actual Living Scientists: Dan Farrell

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: Dan Farrell

Title (official and unofficial): Conservation Information Manager (official),GIS Analyst, Spatial Ecologist, Botanist, Plant Ecologist, Naturalist.

Hometown and Years in Vermont: New York City, 20 years in VT.

Favorite plant, bird or place in VT: Spikenard (Aralia racemosa).

An interesting non-science fact about you: I have a big garden and love to grow my own food.

What type of scientist are you? I am a botanist and plant ecologist by training. These days, I am more accurately described as a spatial ecologist. Traditionally, spatial ecologists map likely habitat for populations of different species. I do some of that, but I also map and analyze areas and infrastructure likely to have a negative or positive impact on such species. I map areas likely to be sources of environmental problems such as water pollution, as well as areas that are likely to attenuate those problems. 

How did you get interested in the sciences? Of all the fields of study presented by my freshman college adviser, the sciences seemed most likely to offer a path to truthful answers. I was inspired by the possibility of working towards answering important questions and eventually, perhaps, solving problems objectively, and as far as possible, without the influence of special interests.

What do you hope your Conservancy work will contribute to? I hope that my work will result in the conservation and restoration of species populations, natural habitat, and functional natural systems.

Why do you think this is important? Fly, drive, or walk practically anywhere, and it’s clear that humans have damaged a large part of the planet’s natural habitat and systems, directly and indirectly.

What is your favorite part about your work? I like, while on the path to an answer, to be forced to answer additional questions, which means I learn even more on the way. Nature is extremely complex. We always seem to expect simple answers, but rarely get them.

Do you have a funny or interesting story from the field? What is the most common form of garbage in the trail-less mountains of VT? It just might be balloons! While doing plant surveys of 2500 acres in Mountain Mansfield State Forest, I must have found 100 party balloons, formerly filled with helium. After floating away, they tend to land randomly everywhere, but they stand out in a place like that. A bit of shiny ribbon poking out above the moss; the words “Happy Graduation!” hanging from a tree. Deep into an 8-hour bush-whack in remote wilderness, your mind and body immersed, the modern world surprises you with a joke.

What would you want a young student to know about choosing a science career path? I think you know your path when you enjoy its increasing complexity without being bored or intimidated; when the very complexity gives you joyful energy.

Who is an inspiration to you? Nikola Tesla. I’ve always wanted to be a mad scientist.

How do the sciences feature in your personal life? I tend to try to simulate the scientific method, or at least the step of hypothesis formulation, in my thoughts or discussions on all types of topics. “What is the best response to this event?” “When, how, and why did this tree fall?” Assumptions abound. They can all be questioned, tested, and then modified, rejected, or retained. In your head, on the back of an envelope, or through more extensive research.