Someone to Know: Dr. Patrick Doran

Our conservation director in Michigan leads statewide investigations of conservation priorities.

Science may be the foundation of our conservation work at The Nature Conservancy, but who are the builders of that foundation? We talked to our director of conservation, Dr. Patrick Doran, about the personal and professional challenges behind leading a dynamic team in Michigan and the Great Lakes.

"One of the great advantages to working with an organization such as The Nature Conservancy is that I have more than 600 science colleagues spread around the world."


What science projects at The Nature Conservancy are you most excited about?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

Conservation science at The Nature Conservancy is like playing baseball and making it to the Major Leagues. This is the big-time, and a real chance to make the connection between scientific theory and on-the-ground action.

That said, we have a number of projects that are changing the face of conservation across the Great Lakes region. For example, Dr. Scott Sowa's work on decision support tools change the way we communicate and track our conservation actions. Dr. Kim Hall's work on climate change adaptation (Wavelengths, Fall 2009 [1.44MB PDF]) is influencing how many organizations and agencies manage natural systems in a changing world. Dr. Doug Pearsall and his colleagues are launching comprehensive conservation plans for both Lakes Erie and Michigan.

A common thread across each of these projects is that they espouse the Conservancy's approach of "Conservation by Design." First, by setting specific conservation goals; second, through implementing conservation actions; third, in tracking progress and measuring success; and, finally, by adjusting our practices in light of our successes and failures.


How vital is the Conservancy's interaction with universities and other organizational partners?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

To me, collaboration is vital. The Conservancy is one part of a conservation community. We will not achieve success alone. Over the past year, I have spent much of my time formalizing the Conservancy's relationships with major universities. These agreements unite the strengths of our respective organizations — the universities' contributions to research and the Conservancy’s on-the-ground actions — to have major impact on issues such as invasive species, sustainable forest management and water management, and coastal restoration. Furthermore, we can dovetail with each other in education and training. Through internships and graduate and post-doctoral research opportunities, the Conservancy can have a hand in training the next generation of conservation professionals.


How does science help us achieve greater outcomes? Leverage greater results?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

The Nature Conservancy is a science-based organization. When I was first offered my position at the Conservancy, I sat down with State Director Helen Taylor and she told me: "Patrick, your job is to ensure that our conservation actions are rooted in sound science." And, every day since, I remind myself of those words.

At the Conservancy, science plays three main roles. First, we determine the Conservancy's goals — where to work and how much needs to be done. Which watersheds, which coastal wetlands, which rivers, which dunes, and which forests should we spend our time and resources? And, how much? Second, we develop new tools and technologies. Our staff is working with partners on innovative tools like a "Groundwater Recharge Calculator," a "Decision Support System" and on promoting use of a "two-stage" ditch. Each of these tools, whether using a computer or working on the ground, help make our conservation actions more efficient and effective. Third, we measure the effectiveness of our conservation actions. Are our preserves conserving what we think they are? Is our Two Hearted River sustainable forestry project improving the quality of the forests while maintaining economic benefits? Are our dune or fen restoration efforts working? And if they are, is it over the short-term, the long-term or both? These are some pretty tough questions, but someone has to ask and know how to answer them.


Your team is not only in the Lansing office, but also in two other offices around the state, and a couple more outside Michigan. How do you manage such a geographically dispersed Science Team?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

One of the great advantages to working with an organization such as The Nature Conservancy is that I have more than 600 science colleagues spread around the world. My own staff and colleagues work in offices throughout Michigan, in Chicago, and at Notre Dame. However, given today's tools and technology, the distance is really not an issue.

I can tap into people and resources from around the world, to share information and knowledge, to write a proposal and tell others about our mistakes and success stories. Then there are all the partners outside the organization, too! If we have the right tools and technologies, it really does not matter if you are standing next to me or a thousand miles away.

The flip side of that is in our informal work, in spontaneous and personal conversations. Events like conferences and workshops help me bond and connect more with others who I talk to on the phone or by teleconference most of the time. When it gets down to being an effective scientist, it does depend on individual relationships. We are social beings and still communicate one-on-one.


What are you currently reading?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

I am definitely a non-fiction person. Besides a few magazines, I mostly read science, finance or management books. I just finished reading Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. This book, written as short chapters in a blog-like style, focuses on different management concepts representing a "reworking" of the way we run business, manage staff, and market our products. For example, one chapter, entitled "Emulating Chefs," discusses the way that chefs disseminate information and sell their products. Chefs write cookbooks with specific recipes and the exact ingredients necessary for their creations. On the contrary, most businesses guard their ingredients and recipes. It's the exact opposite in conservation with The Nature Conservancy. We don't hide our data, our tools, or our science. Rather, we realize that openly and actively sharing our information will better serve the conservation community. If we do that, we can leverage our science and knowledge to make a broader impact on conservation for people and nature.


You were featured in nature.org's Everyday Environmentalist web feature. What things do you do at home for the environment?

Dr. Patrick Doran:

I have a native Michigan garden which has many benefits — it is adapted to the climate here and needs very little watering or maintenance. And, perhaps most importantly, it serves as a conversation piece for my neighbors. During their evening walks, people stop to ask questions that often lead to a discussion about choosing native plants, and the use of rain barrels and compost bins. I've noticed a few neighbors have followed suit, installing some of these in their own yards.

We also use canvas grocery bags and look for local, in-season fruits and vegetables. We run the washing machine and dishwasher on the light cycles, and we tend to keep the house at the temperatures of the season, reducing our air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter.

Each of these practices adds up. I try to tell others that you don't have to do everything all the time. If I can manage to ride my bike to work just one day a week, it cuts my gas consumption and car maintenance by 20 percent. It's easy to calculate your carbon footprint and see what a difference a few small steps can make.

About Dr. Patrick Doran

Patrick Doran, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, leads statewide investigations of conservation priorities. In his life outside of the Conservancy, he enjoys every possible minute engaged in some sort of outdoor or sporting activity with his wife, Heather, and two children, Griffin and Carly.


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