Brett Amy Thelen

Brett Amy Thelen

From Citizen Scientist to Conservation Biologist

“The natural world is endlessly interesting. There’s always some surprise around the corner. People who gravitate toward the Harris Center all share that excitement about the natural world and want to see it for themselves.”

A New Jersey native, Brett found her life’s calling when she volunteered with AmeriCorps after graduating from the College of William and Mary with a degree in literary and cultural studies. Her AmeriCorps placement was on Cape Cod, and was focused on land conservation, water conservation, and environmental education — including several citizen science projects that whet her appetite for field biology.

Brett worked for Cape Cod Natural Seashore for a number of years before enrolling in Antioch University New England’s graduate program in conservation biology. While at Antioch, she was introduced to the Harris Center through Meade Cadot’s mammalogy class, which was held at the Harris Center “field station.”

“It was a fascinating class. The first time I ever saw a live bobcat was in that class; it was skirting the edge of the Harris Center field. The course ended with a taxidermy day, which was wild. We had all collected roadkill during the semester, and Meade brought in Marian Baker to teach us how to skin and mount our specimens. I had a mink, which required special care so as not to puncture its musk glands . . . .”

“The Salamander Lady”

Brett escorts a spotted salamander to safety during the spring amphibian migration. (photo © Anna Miller)

In 2007, Brett relocated from Cape Cod to the Monadnock Region to take the position of Science Director at the Ashuelot Valley Environmental Observatory (AVEO), based in Keene. Founded by David Moon, the startup non-profit focused on connecting community volunteers and professional researchers through a variety of place-based citizen science projects. It was there that Brett first became involved with the popular Salamander Crossing Brigades, Vernal Pool Project, and Project Nighthawk citizen science programs – all of which she still runs for the Harris Center today. After 13 years at the helm of the Salamander Brigades, many in the greater Keene community have come to know her simply as “the salamander lady.”

AVEO merged with the Harris Center in 2010, bringing Brett’s Harris Center experience full circle. Citizen science continues to thrive in the Monadnock Region under Brett’s guidance as the Harris Center’s first Science Director. Brett also regularly works with local undergraduate and graduate students who are conducting research on Harris Center protected lands.

Fostering Scientific Literacy

“When I was at Antioch, my friend and mentor Tom Wessels spoke of how relationships with nature are like those we have with people. We can have a superficial appreciation of beauty, but a deeper relationship requires understanding what makes the other person tick. The same applies to nature. What the Harris Center does is help people move from appreciation of simple beauty to a deeper understanding.”

Brett shows community members how to identify amphibian eggs to species during a Vernal Pool Project training in 2013. (photo © Emily Hague)

The Salamander Crossing Brigades and other Harris Center citizen science projects are often entry points for people to begin connecting with nature on a more intimate level. These connections can lead to further exploration, understanding, and perhaps commitment — to care and protect.

“If we’re going to have scientifically literate people, they need to participate in science. It needs to be accessible to them, and that’s something the Harris Center can provide. It’s more important than it’s ever been.

We’re at the center of a community of people who care. When I go back to New Jersey, I’m reminded of how many people have only a rudimentary understanding of the natural world and how necessary places like the Harris Center are. The Harris Center is part of what makes this region special, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of it.”

The Harris Center and the many, many people who are touched in some way by Brett’s work are likewise fortunate to be the beneficiaries of her passion, intelligence, and love of the natural world.

Contact Us

For more information on the Harris Center’s 50th anniversary celebrations, please contact Lisa Murray at (603) 525-3394 or by email.