Dana Mitchell

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Portrait of Dana Mitchell

Meet Dana Mitchell, a Research Engineer and Project Leader from the Southern Research Station’s Forest Operations Research Unit in Auburn, Alabama. Her unit is unique, because it is the only unit in the agency devoted entirely to Forest Operations. Mitchell joined the Forest Service after graduating from Washington State University, where she took an interest in economics and harvesting. She is able to apply those interests every day in her current position, overseeing the harvesting of forest products like timber and biomass. Her research works to ensure that any physical alterations of a forest are conducted in an ecologically friendly manner. The use of biomass to produce electricity is a relatively new idea which will become more and more relevant as we continue our transition to renewable energy. Mitchell has worked with biomass on many levels, even testing her ideas at a power plant and introducing a new piece of equipment to their market. Keep reading to learn more about her life and work.

What do you do for the Southern Research Station?

As a Research Engineer, I study the forest operations that are employed to bring about change in the forest. It’s a pretty big umbrella of topics—from studying traditional harvesting operations to specialized forest product harvesting, to mulching, trucking, and even impacts of shift work, my job is never boring.

Basically, my work provides information and knowledge to help private and public land managers meet their land management objectives. Understanding how machines work can help managers make informed decisions that include the selection of various forest technologies, cost estimating, as well as potential ecological impacts.

When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?

My career has been a bit more creative than most. When I graduated from Washington State University with a degree in forest management, there weren’t many jobs available. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I really liked my coursework in economics and harvesting.

I thought I would like the Forest Service, so I took a job as a clerk-typist. They soon figured out that I couldn’t type and moved me to Personnel. It was a great job, and what I learned about personnel has helped me many times in my career. Back then, we had this saying that you had to “move to move up.” So, I moved from the Wenatchee National Forest to be an Engineering Technician on the Okanogan National Forest in north-central Washington.

This next part reads like a travel log, but over the next seven years I found myself in northern California as a pre-sale forester (National Environmental Policy Act writer), then on to Prince of Wales Island in Alaska as a sale preparation forester, and then on Mitkof Island in Alaska as a documents coordinator (more environmental documentation writing), and eventually landed in Mississippi as a Planning Team Leader.

After a brief stint in private industry, I returned in 2004 to the Forest Service in my dream job, Research Engineer in the Southern Research Station. In my current position, I finally have a chance to blend my two interests: harvesting and economics.

Operating a chipper using a remote control

Operating a chipper using a remote control. Photo by Wes Sprinkle, USFS

What led you to pursue this field of study?

When I was working in Alaska, my Forest Supervisor encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree in forest engineering. She had been through the program at Oregon State University and recommended it to me. I didn’t know that my interests in harvesting, logging systems, logging planning, payload analysis, efficiencies, etc. were the core of a graduate program at any university, but I found my niche and the rest is history.

What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?

I have all three types of workdays, but field days are the most rewarding because they create memories of nature, new work partners, and strengthen existing work relationships. Field days can take our work team to Oregon, Virginia, Florida, or anywhere. Some days it is really hot and we smell like bug spray even after showering. Other days it is so cold that our camera batteries refuse to work. We work hard climbing up and down slopes and following in dust clouds behind machines. There is a lot of camaraderie within our team and we get to see new things, like wind turbines along the Columbia River or sandhill cranes in Florida. Whether we are studying bark removal from poplar trees for biofuel production or testing a new whole tree chipper in Alabama, there is always something new and challenging to do. We look like geeks with our clinometers, clip boards, video cameras, measuring tapes, hypsometers, paint cans, orange safety vests, hard hats, and safety boots. But the work is rewarding. What better goal can you have than to work as a public servant to help sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands?

Portrait of Dana Mitchell

Sometimes you just have to sit and wait for the next chip van. Photo by Wes Sprinkle, USFS

Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?

The Forest Service is absolutely full of opportunities. I have had my fair share of opportunities. A recent experience was travelling to Washington, DC as part of a leadership program. While learning about congressional operations, I sat in on congressional hearings and visited with some congressional staffers. I even had an opportunity to share my research with a congressional staff member during a metro ride to the Capitol South Metro Station! Seeing our elected officials in action was a new experience for me, and after years of federal service, I know that there are even more new experiences awaiting me.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Other than my overall research assignment, I also enjoy my co-workers. On a daily basis, I work with a team of researchers, support engineers, and technicians who share the same research interests and work well together. From collecting and analyzing field data to fabricating new tools to testing wood, we possess a unique set of skills.

Our research partners are like extended team members. We all contribute in different ways to accomplish our research tasks. I also find it rewarding to host international students and have them participate in our research as full team members. Their new ideas and desire to learn about forest engineering is astounding, and it is rewarding to continue a professional relationship with them as they move through their careers. I am continuously amazed by the success of some of the national and international students who I have had the privilege to assist in their graduate research programs.

Logging equipment in a forest at night

Collecting production data from a night logging operation was an unusual experience. Photo by Wes Sprinkle, USFS

To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?

Early on in my career, I thought that I had to work harder to gain recognition for my work. I don’t know that I can blame 100% of this on others. I’m sure that I had some responsibility for thinking that way, too. But, as I moved between various duty stations, I found that local cultures and even office cultures differed. Sometimes you are an ‘outsider’ for no reason other than being new to an office.

Our Agency places a high priority on valuing diversity. In more recent years, employees have been getting exposure to thought-provoking training on topics like gender bias. As an Agency, we have come a long way in learning to value others and in embracing our differences.

What women have inspired you?

I once worked for a female Forest Supervisor named Gail Kimbell. She was the Forest Supervisor on the Tongass National Forest, Stikine Area. I had never heard of a female Forest Supervisor. I knew she had to be smart, maybe smarter than most, to get where she was in her career. When she arrived in town, she didn’t keep everyone at arm’s length—she was accepting and trusting of everyone. She treated employees fairly and valued everyone’s contribution to our shared mission. She took a unique interest in my career, gave me some career advice, and gently shoved me toward an advanced degree program. She inspired me to think outside of the box and to pay it forward.

I also credit my achievements to my family. From choosing an education in forest engineering to working in a male-dominated field, I always knew that I had my parents’ support in anything that I wanted to do. They never limited my choices to more traditional female roles.

What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?

Seek and take advantage of summer job opportunities, even if it is something you are not particularly interested in. This will help you figure out what you like and don’t like. I worked in a pulp mill for two summers. I performed various pulp and paper tests. I liked measuring chemicals with a pipette and recording my entries. I liked making paper, then testing the strength of it. I liked learning how the whole mill worked, not just my small part. I like details and processes. As a research engineer, I still like to gather information and analyze it, but I really like examining processes.

Take field trips when you can. See what’s out there. Ask questions, lots of questions. Find out if people like their jobs and why. Think about your classes in school. Which ones do you like? Why? Visit with your school guidance counselors, family members, and neighbors, ask about their careers, why they chose them, what they like and don’t like about them. A career can be a lifetime commitment and going to college is a big investment, so put some real thought into it.

Dana Mitchell and John Klepac classify stump damage data from harvesting in Washington State.

Dana Mitchell and John Klepac classify stump damage data from harvesting in Washington State. Photo by Wes Sprinkle, USFS