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Donald Brown

Donald Brown


I have a unique position; in fact, in the country there are about half a dozen of these. Half of my position is supported by the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station in Parsons, West Virginia. The research that my lab focuses on is really tied to management decisions and strategies with a focus on non-game wildlife and a focus on the national forest system. We largely work on amphibians and reptiles in the lab. Some of the current projects my graduate students are working on are responses of salamanders to climate change, nontargeted impact of pesticide use on salamanders, responses of wood turtles to habitat fragmentation for oil and gas development and improving understanding of the distribution of spotted turtles in West Virginia.

We’ve been working on the salamander-climate change research for a while now and that’s been really interesting. Particularly, for upcoming projects, I’m really interested in the project of how wood turtles are using heavily fragmented forests by oil and gas development. Specifically because they can both benefit from that fragmentation as well as be harmed by it.

A lot of research in the past has predicted that the climatic niche of high elevation woodland salamanders is going to disappear with climate change. Some of the work that we've done has shown there may be some refugia in these high elevation landscapes that may allow those salamanders to persist.

If you weren’t working at WVU, what’s the most likely alternative?

I think I would still probably be a wildlife research scientist. Probably working for a federal or state agency, which I sort of am right now. And if I weren’t doing anything like this I think I'd be happy working in a record store or a bike shop. That would be my nonacademic career path.

Moment you knew what you wanted to study?

I took a couple years off after high school. I was living in Minneapolis and I was working for Best Buy, opening new stores and remodeling stores around the country. I was constantly traveling. My project team happened to be working in Missoula, Montana, when the September 11 attacks happened. We weren’t allowed to fly back home to Minnesota, so a buddy and I took a road trip to Yellowstone. And going around Beartooth Pass, just the overlooks were kind of what were the final push for me to go to school to work in natural resources. At the time I thought I was going to become a park ranger. A few years into my undergrad, I worked as an undergrad research assistant for a Ph.D. student, and I caught the research bug. Coincidentally, he was working on interactions between wolves and bison in Yellowstone. So it seems like it’s all tied to Yellowstone for some reason.

Moment you knew what your current role was right for you?

I really enjoy this role because I’m connected directly with the Forest Service and to the managers. I’ve always been really drawn to applied research and research with a strong management focus. That's been good for me in this position. In addition to that, I kind of have two bosses. I have a WVU supervisor and a Forest Service supervisor, and both of them have been really flexible in allowing me to research what I want to research. Basically, I get to do what I want to do. I feel really fortunate to be in this position.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I think my favorite place that I’ve ever visited is Vancouver, Canada, but there’s a problem with Vancouver for me. Their amphibian-reptile diversity is extremely low. It’s not a good place for me to live from a research perspective. I love the city; I love the university; I love the scenery and just the diversity of things to do there. They have a great transportation system, and all the people I met there were really nice.

Favorite part of social distancing?

My favorite parts have been work-related. The main one being having long stretches of uninterrupted time to catch up on manuscripts. I feel like my partner and I are lucky because we work really well from home, so we’ve been able to transition to working from home pretty easily.

Least favorite part of social distancing?

I think just trying to plan small trips or plan to see people in a socially distanced way has been the toughest. Although recently, with the students coming back, all of the sudden we’re having to wait in line to get in Target. I consider that an annoyance now.

Just for Fun

Favorite Book: Lord of the Rings, Infinite Jest

Favorite movie/tv show: Ghost World, Breaking Bad

Favorite Spotify playlist/band/song: Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine

Favorite local restaurant: La Tapatia, Fresh Mint

Favorite local activity: Biking the rail trail