Oh, Danny Boy! on shamrock background

Oh, Danny Boy!

Ireland-born Daniel Harris’s environmental work is all about making the world … green

Daniel Harris has a fond childhood memory. He’s a toddler on a shoreline near Sligo, his Irish birthplace. Bundled in oilskins, he’s helping his parents gather periwinkles, a tidal shellfish, to sell in town.

“It’s pretty clear from this memory,” Harris says, “that my career traipsing through intertidal waters and the natural world began at an early age.”

Daniel locating a puffin

As a kid, Daniel found a puffin nest on Skellig Michael. His dad would go on to see that same marked puffin every year for more than a decade.

The traipsing never stopped. Harris is currently polishing his dissertation for a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Georgia.

Harris came to the United States in 2006, after completing his undergraduate studies in geology and zoology from the National University of Ireland, Galway. After absorbing Southern culture from Georgia family members, he fell into a job in coastal waters almost by chance.

Or maybe it was the luck o’ the Irish.

“My aunt got jury duty, and another juror had a son who worked for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources,” Harris says. “They talked, and I learned about a job opening with UGA’s Marine Extension Service (MAREX). I applied and then found out my boss was also Irish and a NUIG alum.”

Harris guided oyster restoration projects and oyster shell recycling programs along Georgia’s rich Atlantic intertidal coastline.

Daniel Harris

Daniel is just one example of thousands of committed graduate students at the University of Georgia who are seeking to change the world through their research and service.

“I worked as program coordinator for G.E.O.R.G.I.A., which stands for Generating Enhanced Oyster Reefs in Georgia’s Inshore Areas,” Harris says. “I fell in love with the Georgia coast and its people.”

After praise for a presentation on his green work at “Restoring America’s Estuaries,” a big conference in Texas, Harris began to consider graduate studies in ecology.

He knew James Byers of UGA’s Odum School of Ecology, who conducted research on the coast not far from Harris’s MAREX office. Harris raised his profile with Byers, volunteering to help his team of researchers in various ways, including loaning expert boating skills. (Harris has thousands of hours of small craft piloting.)

Harris applied for the university’s doctoral program in 2012, and Byers gladly became his advisor.

“Daniel,” Byers says, “has used drone and airplane aerial photography, plus field and lab experiments, to study the relationship of two beneficial coastal organisms–the oyster and the smooth cordgrass growing everywhere in the Georgia estuary system. Daniel’s work has furthered our knowledge about how they interact.”

“Like the beaver,” Harris explains, “both species are ecosystem engineers, designing the environments around them. Our work mapped the distribution patterns of these two species, and we studied how those patterns might change with changes in climate and sea level.”

Harris says financial support from UGA has been fundamental, funding MAREX, where he worked six years, and relieving costs of his UGA studies and research.

“All of my work has been in Georgia,” Harris says gratefully, “and it’s been very much helped by people at UGA or affiliated with UGA.”

In 2020, Harris moved on to work with Katharyn Boyer at the Estuary and Ocean Science Center at San Francisco State University while finishing his dissertation. Harris and his researcher fiancée, Laura Hollander (BSFR ’09), share a tiny house a short walk from San Francisco Bay, where Harris designs innovative reef structures for oyster habitat in San Francisco Bay and researches habits of an endangered marsh bird.

The color green, to many Irishmen, means St. Patrick’s Day. Harris appreciates the holiday honoring Ireland’s patron saint, but he explains that the holiday is a much bigger occasion in the U.S. than it is in Ireland. He recalls colorful childhood parades, but nothing on the scale of holiday festivities like those in Savannah, where he lived five years during his Georgia coastal work.

Men in a St. Patrick's Day parade in Ireland

A St. Patrick’s Day parade on Achill Island features gentlemen wearing the bushes of shamrock that are characteristic of the celebration in Ireland.

“Now that’s a spectacle,” Harris says. “For two of the years I was there, the Savannah parade was the best-attended St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world–bigger than Boston’s or New York’s.”

“Not many people in Ireland would put on those shamrock-embroidered green blazers they wear in Savannah,” he laughs. “But it sure is a sight to see.”

Young Daniel Harris on St. Patrick's Day

Daniel, shown here with his St. Patrick’s Day hat and badge, was always up to no good, he says. He’d charge the drunken men to use the pub toilets in his hometown.


A few notes:

  • Daniel’s father is publishing a book about life on Skellig Michael, an island off the west coast of Ireland. Read more about the book and peek at a photo of Daniel on the island … stalked by a puffin!
  • The Savannah Alumni Chapter will host a float in the 2022 St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Follow their Instagram account for more details.

This profile was written by Charles McNair.