Dr. Sarah Nelson brings more than two decades of scientific scholarship to her role as AMC’s director of research. Before joining AMC in September 2019, Nelson spent 21 years at the University of Maine, most recently directing the Ecology and Environmental Sciences program and serving as associate research professor in the School of Forest Resources. Although she’s still relatively new to AMC’s conservation research team, Nelson is already making her mark: She partners with the Environmental Protection Agency on long-term monitoring research of Northeast freshwater lakes and ponds; co-authored two new papers on how climate change is transforming Northeast winters; and helps lead a national program she cofounded collecting citizen science data on mercury levels in dragonfly larvae—a project that has engaged 4,500 citizen scientists in 100 parks across 47 states over 10 years. We asked the Berlin, Mass., native to reflect on how she approaches the work she does.
The path is not always straight. After I graduated [from college, with an art history degree], I ended up back in my hometown for a while as a volunteer on the Assabet River with an organization called OARS. We were focused on taking water samples near wastewater treatment plants to confirm the river was becoming cleaner. Being able to go back to the river where I spent lots of time kayaking and canoeing to do what scientists do—that really sparked my interest.
One of the great things these days is there are lots of opportunities for students to jump in and try a job or internship for a season. It was harder to find those opportunities when I was in school. Trying lots of different things is key.
All of the work I did at the University of Maine focused on thinking about pollution and the changing physical climate as well as the changing chemical climate in largely protected and remote places in the Northeast. When I saw the job posting for research director at AMC, I thought, I can’t not apply. It’s the perfect fit for what I’m interested in.
My research here focuses on understanding impacts of air pollution and climate change on forests, food webs, and fresh water in protected ecosystems: working with the EPA on long-term monitoring of lakes; looking at how [climate change] is changing winters [in the Northeast]; and using [data from] citizen scientists to sample dragonfly larvae to determine mercury levels at parks across the country.
It’s been great to work more closely with the policy team at AMC and the work they do. Our core goal is to provide that credible scientific information that backs up everything we do at AMC, from policy alerts to interaction. The depth and breadth of knowledge in AMC research staff has floored me.
I’m a lifelong New Englander, except for some time in college in the Mid-Atlantic and New York City. I’ve always loved the Northeast. I love the seasonality we see—seeing the changes.
We have two rescued beagles. We do a lot of walking to tire them out, whether it’s hiking or snowshoeing. We have a camp over in Maine on a small mountaintop pond, and we love getting over there to kayak around in summer.