A day’s work: Research ecologist

Megan Napoli is a research ecologist at the Mohonk Preserve. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Megan Napoli has been the Mohonk Preserve’s research ecologist since March of 2016. Her job is to help carry on the biological research that’s been done on the property since Daniel and Keith Smiley began recording bird observations there in the mid-1920s. Most of the research done at the Preserve is observational in nature, watching what happens on the land and comparing that to what happened in previous years or in other places, using what they find to inform how the Preserve manages the land.

Napoli’s office is inside the Daniel Smiley Research Center, located a stone’s throw from Mohonk Mountain House in the former home of Daniel Smiley, who lived there from 1945 to 1989. The research center houses the offices of the Preserve’s Conservation Sciences department and is the repository for nearly a century of scientific and cultural history archives and natural history records and collections; a resource all the more valuable for the length of time records have been kept and, as Napoli points out, collected consistently and in the same place for all these years.


Meeting in her office, it seems a pleasant place to work, still feeling much like the private residence it once was. But Napoli’s work takes her just as often — if not more often — outside to do field work. And that’s just fine with her; being outdoors a lot and having a variety of things to do on the job are among the things she says she enjoys most about her work.

“I’m basically the point person for all of the field projects that go on here, which really depend on which season it is,” she says. “In January, we do a lot of water sampling from the lakes — the sky lakes, Mohonk, Minnewaska and Awosting — and we also do natural spring sampling.”

A nice perk of the job, she adds, is getting to cross-country ski to the locations in winter.

In February, Napoli’s focus turns to vernal pool monitoring. “We look at these ephemeral pools of water that come when the snow melts, to see what species are breeding. We have a lot of vernal pools on the Ridge, but we only look at eleven of them, because logistically we can’t look at them all. That occupies a lot of my time between February and April.”

February is also when a lot of phenological observations begin to be recorded. “This is something we’re known for,” Napoli says. “It involves looking at the timing of natural events, such as when the birds migrate back and a specific bird arrives, or when a particular plant blooms. We have a whole list of things, flora and fauna, and we spend a lot of time going out into the field, making sure we go every day to keep up on everything that needs to be tracked.”

She also does a lot of vegetation sampling, and monitoring of the vegetation on the Preserve’s grasslands and forest. Last spring a new project was launched looking into the health of the forest. “We’re losing some species of trees, such as the Eastern Hemlock and the White Ash, because of invasive insects. And when we lose these trees, we go out to see what regenerates in the forest in their place.” Every species is important, Napoli notes, but the Eastern Hemlock is a “keystone” species. “When we lose that, it’s going to change the habitat drastically: the temperature of the forest will go up and it won’t be as moist. The way the hemlocks are stacked, the branches group so close together that it keeps the forest cool, moist and dark, so without them, it will be warmer, lighter and dryer.”

The best-case scenario would be to find native and harmless species such as birch and maples taking the place of the hemlocks, but unfortunately, Napoli adds, “in some areas, we’re seeing invasive species come in. We don’t want to see that, but it is happening. Our job is to see how the forest is changing, and collect that data to give to our stewardship department so they can make a forest management decision. We work very closely together.”

Napoli also administers the deer management hunting program in the fall and carries out a breeding bird census on the Preserve. 

Born and raised in Syracuse, she earned her undergrad degree in environmental forest biology with a concentration in wildlife science from SUNY ESF (State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry) in Syracuse. After graduation, she worked in a number of related fields, from animal husbandry to wildlife rehabilitation, and worked for West Virginia University for three years doing bird research projects before going to graduate school, earning a master’s degree in biology from East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania.

When we chatted with Napoli recently, we asked her a few questions about how she came to be a research ecologist and what a day’s work is like in that profession. 

How did you get into this line of work? 

I’ve always been interested in biology; science was my strong subject growing up. I knew that I loved being outside, and I loved biology, and animals, so when I went to SUNY ESF, I originally thought maybe I could be a veterinarian. And I feel so lucky having gone to that school, because it really showed me all the options that are out there in the biological sciences. From there, I got really interested in ornithology [the study of birds], and herpetology [the study of reptiles and amphibians], and I took all the macro-biology courses and just fell in love with it. ESF is an amazing school and really opened my eyes to the opportunities.

What is the most challenging thing about the work?

Time management. We have so many different projects that we do, and I love them all, but it’s challenging finding time to make sure you’re doing them on a punctual basis. One of the wonderful things about working here is that we have the freedom to choose pertinent projects, but it’s just making the time to squeeze them in with everything else that is going on. With my background in ornithology, I really want to do some reproductive success projects on specific species of birds, but that would take a lot of time. It’s something that I can do, and want to do, but it’s just finding that time. That’s definitely the hardest thing with a lot of what we do, not just in the Conservation Science department but all of the Preserve; we’re a small staff, but we all work really hard!

What personal attributes does a person need to be in your line of work?

To be a biologist or an ecologist in general, you need to have a lot of flexibility, and be able to adapt to different situations or environments. I work outside a lot, and I love it, but sometimes we work when it’s raining, there are bugs, poison ivy…  so you have to love being outside and be able to adapt to these things.

Have there been many changes or anything new in your field recently?

Population modeling is becoming a trend, as opposed to going out in the field, collecting the data and analyzing it. Population modeling is more taking other people’s data and manipulating it, doing very advanced technical models. And a big push for us this year at the DSRC [Daniel Smiley Research Center] is to let other scientists know that we have this huge data set, our phenology and other data, just sitting in our library without really being publicized. We’re trying to get that to be open-shared so that anybody can use it for publication. So we go to conferences and do presentations on it, to really just get the word out there that we have all this data available.

What advice would you give to someone
contemplating going into research ecology?

You really have to love the biological sciences. For me, I can’t imagine doing anything else. This is not just what I do, it’s who I am; a biologist. And you have to really love it, because it’s very challenging finding that permanent position in this field. There are a lot of seasonal jobs, but to find a permanent job, I would definitely say, ‘be prepared to get an advanced degree beyond your bachelor’s, and then just be patient. If you want to have that job, they’re there, but you have to persevere and be tenacious.’

But I also recommend to our interns who are graduating with their bachelor’s, to consider taking some time off afterward to do seasonal jobs or try something else to see what you’re really interested in before going to graduate school. I gained a lot of experience and learned a lot of things in the six years between ESF and getting a master’s. And when I did go back to school, I made sure that I did a lot of different things. I worked in a DNA lab, and molecular biology was very different than anything I’d been exposed to before, but I’m really glad I got that experience. And I made a point of working on different projects other than bird ecology, helping out any of my fellow students with their projects, so I could make myself well-rounded, which I also thought important to being a biologist.

Did you first come to the Preserve as an intern?

No, I was hired directly as the research ecologist. I was never even in the Hudson Valley before coming here. And I feel so lucky — beyond lucky, really — to have found the job here. Most permanent jobs in my field are out west; having a job in the Northeast is very coveted in the biological field, and the fact that I found one in New York, only three hours from where I grew up… When I graduated with my master’s degree and everybody said, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I would describe the job that I wanted, and that’s the job that I have now. How often does that happen? That’s why I still feel so lucky to be here. ++