Dan O’Connell – Teacher, Scientist, Lawyer, Activist

Dan O’Connell is a St. Andrew’s School biology teacher, scientist, lawyer and environmental activist who swims to school.

I published this story in Middletown Life Magazine, Summer 2007, under my byline, Carol Child.

Dan O'Connell & Son, Liam

Dan O’Connell & Son, Liam (Photo courtesy Dan O’Connell)

Dan O’Connell swims to work when he doesn’t canoe. He is a scientist, lawyer, activist, runner and St. Andrew’s School biology teacher.

A molecular biologist, in the summers he works with scientists at SomaLogic in Boulder, Colo., producing aptomers, DNA molecules that can be used to capture closely matching proteins and detect diseases early. The aptomer binds to its particular protein, as a key with a lock, producing a protein fingerprint.

“Doctors realize that the current stethoscope they’ve used for years is crude,” said O’Connell. “They want to know, can we make a stethoscope that can give us much more detailed information?

“There is a lot going on in the body, going on at the molecular level. It’s not like someone’s missing an organ. There is something wrong with minute component parts – a machine inside us tells cells when to divide. Sometimes they divide correctly; sometimes something goes wrong.

“This is a useful technique to get funds for research,” O’Connell explained. “You have to sell half of the intellectual property and then use the funds to make diagnostic tools. It is the business world intertwined with the scientific: There has to be a market for it. Poor people with diseases don’t provide a market for it.”

“If only you could detect [diseases] very early, they’d be a cinch to treat,” he said.

Growing up in Chatham, N.J., O’Connell had his hands into everything, like taking apart his parents’ alarm clock. “My parents had a nickname for me – ‘Terrible Fidget.’”

“I derive a kind of hedonistic pleasure from understanding how things work … to see ‘oh, that plant produces that seed which produces that kind of flower’ – putting it together, connecting a complex system.”

Teaching at St. Andrew’s gives O’Connell the opportunity to indulge that kind of fun. “I get to practice that and model that and riff off that fun and excitement the kids get,” he said. He always wanted to teach, yet never could have imagined ending up at a boarding school in Delaware.

Noxontown Pond

Noxontown Pond

O’Connell’s course to St. Andrew’s was not as straight as his 45-minute swim along Noxontown Pond.

At Chatham Township High School he captained the cross-country and track teams; later he competed on the varsity track and cross-country teams at Haverford College, where he researched the molecular biology of bacterial ribosomes and graduated with honors in 1990. The results of his research were published in prestigious journals.

After college, for three years he worked for a biotech company in Boulder, Colo., making aptomers and searching for new therapeutics for the treatment of life-threatening inflammatory and immune disorders. He joined the Nature Conservancy. In 1992 he received a master’s degree in molecular biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, got into environmental work, earned a law degree from the same university and worked in environmental law. He soon found, however, that law was not a good fit for him. He still wanted to teach.

He went to his law school career counselor who suggested he consider teaching law at a private secondary school where he would have the opportunity not available to him at a college or public school to teach and pursue his activities and interests such as running and coaching.

“I see running as an opportunity to get out into the world and explore,” he said. “I experience running as a meditation: Your breathing is controlled and it takes you out of your own little self-absorption.” He runs maybe four days a week, usually more during his summers in Colorado. He has completed 50-mile trail races in Colorado and Vermont.

So, pursuing his counselor’s advice, O’Connell explored private secondary schools, wrote to St. Andrew’s and was hired in 1999.

“Dan is a brilliant lawyer, biologist, teacher and environmentalist,” said Headmaster Daniel T. Roach. “As the President of the Board of Directors of the Appoquinimink River Association, Dan has worked with dedication and energy to protect the needs of the watershed. He brings great energy, wisdom and passion to his work at St. Andrew’s as a biology teacher, coach of cross country and Mock Trial, and advisor and mentor to students.”

Since O’Connell arrived on Noxontown Pond eight years ago with his wife, Quinn Kerrane, director of the a cappella group and voice coach at St. Andrew’s, and their son Liam, and now Finn, much has changed around Middletown, some say shockingly.

O’Connell said, “There are far fewer natural places. East of the post office on state route 299, nothing was there.”

“What type of environment do we really want?” he asks. “There are two sides. It’s great that the developers get to build; there are places to go to, like supermarkets. That’s the upside. Can we live without the upside in a way we can’t live without what we traded?

“Everyone I talk to has had the same experience. Connect the dots. Is that what I want for the future and for my kids? What do we do? It’s a huge problem. We’re up against a power force.

“We have to break it down into pieces.”

O’Connell works to build partnerships between the Appoquinimink River Association (ARA) and comprehensive sustainability efforts at St. Andrew’s via public outreach and education. The Appoquinimink River Association evolved from a group of local citizens, whom O’Connell joined in 2001, set up by the state, as a result of 1990s lawsuits surrounding the Clean Water Act, to work on a pollution control strategy for the Appoquinimink watershed.

“By accident we ended up focusing on water,” he said. “The Appoquinimink River Association doesn’t focus on water issues; it focuses on what happens on the land.

“How do people want to use the land, the ‘impervious surface’? – that’s what we call the area paved over. It is a civic duty. The Appoquinimink River Association breaks it down into more and more little problems.

New housing developments encroaching upon Middletown farmland.

New housing developments encroaching upon Middletown farmland.

“We could have a law that says no more nutrient pollution. Pollution of the Appoquinimink watershed doesn’t come from pipes; factories; Evil Industries, Incorporated: it comes from those who use the surrounding land.

“Sustainability is a code word: Everyone is in favor of it. What I mean might not be what you mean.

“What really bothers us about that housing development – environmental or the aesthetic impact? You have to do it, admit it, and address that. You can’t have everything.

“This is a difficult period in the development of the town. Fortunately, we now have the big Appoquinimink River Association win of the Riparian Buffer Ordinance adopted by the mayor and council.” The Ordinance creates a conservation district surrounding all the bodies of water in the Appoquinimink watershed, 100 feet from the edge of the body of water and 50 feet from wetlands, establishing areas of vegetation – trees, grasses and bushes.

Sara Wozniak, Executive Director of the Appoquinimink River Association, explained how the Ordinance came about: “The ARA approached the Town of Middletown with the idea to apply for a grant to develop a riparian buffer ordinance for the Town. As part of the Town’s comprehensive Plan Update in 2005, the Town realized they needed to update environmental ordinances and add ones that were lacking so they were happy to work with us.” The grant money came from the Delaware Coastal Program of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

Appoquinimink Watershed

Appoquinimink Watershed

“The plan included mapping areas which were at least 100 feet in width and which were not,” stated Wozniak. “The second part of the plan … included the creation of the riparian buffer ordinance for the Town of Middletown, including hiring a consultant … and creating a steering committee. … We held a public workshop for residents …, also met with groups of concerned citizens and developers….”

The Appoquinimink River Association members have dedicated extensive time and effort to their projects.

“We do so many different things than just the buffer ordinance,” said Wozniak, adding that she has a list of thousands of things for anyone who wants to help.

At St. Andrew’s, Headmaster Roach said, “We help students and adults believe that small individual efforts of a small group can have extensive effects.” Getting students outdoors and integrating environmental sensibilities into class work to instill stewardship support that effort.

This spring St. Andrew’s, as part of the school’s sustainability efforts, began a three-year cooperative project with the University of Delaware to study the campus and re-think practices for the cropland, forests, riparian zones and ponds.

Peter McLean, St. Andrew’s biology and environmental science teacher for two decades said, “We in environmental science and others are lucky to have these two-thousand-plus acres, to use the campus as a living lab – habitat for bald eagles nesting for seventy years, osprey, fishers, fish…. The pond is still in decent shape as measured by these wildlife species.

“To not do something about the environment,” said McLean, “the students and the rest of us will be doing themselves and all of us, and the environment a disservice – to themselves and the landscape.

“Mistreatment comes from under-appreciation, from taking it all for granted as if it’s infinite. Now it’s come back to sting us.”

On a November day, O’Connell brought his biology class to St. Andrew’s organic garden for their lab period. The students gathered knowledge about carbon cycles as they harvested sweet potatoes, digging them up with their bare hands.

In recent years, elodea has been growing in the pond. “If it’s good or bad, we’ll never know,” said O’Connell. “That’s the nature of biology. We know it’s not good for rowers or swimmers. We know it is good for chain pickerel; for the turtles? — maybe. What causes it? Probably nutrient pollution, but that’s just a hunch. We don’t really know.”

The pond is clear enough for O’Connell’s 1450-meter swim (just under a mile) most days. He said he’s not a good swimmer. “I just keep going. That’s what I’m good at in life.

“The pond is shallow – I could stand up in it if I wanted to. It was dredged in the mid-eighties, probably the first time since it was originally formed in the 1780s [or some years earlier], when Thomas Noxon built a dam for his mill. Now, twenty years later it needs to be done again.”

While O’Connell’s family is very important to him, during the school year teachers and students follow a rigorous schedule. “Quinn and I never see each other at night, only at odd times, such as a Tuesday morning,” he said. “I have the Appoquinimink River Association meetings, chapel duty, evening duty, and weekend duty every three weeks, and Quinn works at the library. We have the summers off. So, it’s a tradeoff.”

Red Canoes & T-Dock, on Noxontown Pond

Red Canoes & T-Dock, on Noxontown Pond

He sometimes paddles his canoe the 20 minutes home at 10 or 11:00 at night. His favorite nights to canoe on Noxontown Pond are at the new moon, the full moon and the night before the full moon: “The new moon because you can watch the stars. The night before the full moon, it rises at sunset and it’s red and beautiful. The night of the full moon, it rises right at the end of sunset, so it’s white.”

The night of the new moon in May, O’Connell paddled home at 10:00. It was one of his most fascinating canoeing trips across the pond, he said. “You learn about the sounds. A beaver was slapping its tail alongside the canoe. It did this four or five times. It was a big splash. It sounded like a cinder block. Then the fish were doing something near the surface. They made this sound that went sloosh … sloosh … sloosh.”

“I do have faith in people’s ability to transform the environment,” he said, “but not out of the goodness of their hearts. It is unrealistic to say we’re all going to be good citizens. The natural system is breaking and we’ve ignored the cracks – water wasn’t pouring out of the vessel.

“Environmental warnings create seed change.

“We have to change the way we do things for our own self interest. Once people see that the economy is stronger, that’s what’s happening.”

For his family’s and his future, O’Connell wants more of the same. “We’re in a good place now,” he said.

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