Dan Dawson and his wife Leslie, staples of the Eastern Sierra community and at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) and Valentine Reserve, are pulling up stakes and moving north. Dan has been the director of the Valentine Eastern Sierra Reserve and SNARL for 36 years, 38 with the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dawson has some big and well-traveled shoes that will be hard to fill.
Carol Blanchette, Dawson’s successor, said she hopes to fit into the shoes—but she’s also bringing her own pair.
Dawson has been a director, planner, grant writer, researcher, and mentor, but never a manager before coming to SNARL. He had been to the Eastern Sierra many times before applying for the director position, visiting his brother, who loves Mammoth.
Dawson started out as a chemist in graduate school at UCSB and was set on becoming a professor. But he had second thoughts about a career that would expose him to a variety of chemicals and toxins.
He got the director’s position fresh put of grad school, not knowing anything about running a research facility. He thought he would do the job for a couple years and could retreat back to UCSB or the chemistry field, if the job wasn’t a fit. But after taking in the Eastside and realizing he’s “a small town guy at heart,” the job and the area become much more appealing.
Blanchette decided to move to the area permanently because of the small town hospitality, made evident after the Round Fire in February 2015. It wasn’t the destruction of her home that inspired her, but the communities’ reaction to the tragedy and the tremendous outpouring of support. Despite the fire, the experience was a chance to get to know her neighbors, and all the more reason to live here.
“There’s no better community on Earth,” she told The Sheet.
Blanchette will be reaching out to the community with science. She has a background in environmental and outdoor science education and hopes to build on that foundation of engagement started by Leslie that includes the popular lecture series.
Dawson leaves behind an impressive legacy. He spearheaded every part of a project from grant writing—he wrote 30 successful grants—to planning and overseeing the construction of new buildings at SNARL and Valentine Reserve. Dawson didn’t know much about construction until he started at SNARL. He described a project from grad school, a new type of laser, that was a bit out of his league when he started, but he worked his way through it. It was a learning experience, he explained, and gave him the confidence to tackle any project.
Dawson noted that he has always had a knack for “figuring things out.” When a search for his successor started, one of the attributes desired in a candidate was Dawson’s ability to find solutions. He said Blanchette was a perfect fit.
She is going to figure out how to make SNARL and Valentine Reserve research findings more accessible. One of her goals is to make the data systems available for peers and for the general public, in bite-sized pieces understandable to the layman or journalist.
Another way to make science and learning accessible is by making it fun and creative. The integration of the humanities—creative writing, visual arts—with science has been found to make complex subjects palatable. Some people are motivated to learn more about a subject when it’s in an art form.
“One of the things I’ve learned is people process information in certain ways,” she said.
Blanchette has processed plenty of information. She has coordinated research projects for 20 years and is currently an Associate Research Biologist at the Marine Science Institute at UCSB. She studied “ocean acidification” or the effects of carbon dioxide caused by climate change on coastal ecosystems. She said that over time, her interest became education.
Dawson’s interest has moved from research to fundraising. He explained that while funds are important, so is having a director on-site to assist researchers.
He has had some heartfelt projects, like SNARL’s ongoing study of Mono Lake, which was taken over by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Since the take over, data from the studies have not been available. He said he hopes the pendulum will swing the other direction and repair the break in the records.
The people are just important as the research, Dawson said. “One of the greatest things about working here, is I’ve gotten to meet some of the smartest people in the state.”
Dawson and his high school sweetheart, wife Leslie, plan on moving to Oregon.
Blanchette will be moving into Dawson’s residence (literally, the director lives on site) in April.