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SESYNC
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. We support new interdisciplinary collaborations that pursue data-driven solutions to pressing socio-environmental problems. SESYNC features a range of services from project inception through results dissemination, including supporting the team science process, meeting planning and facilitation, travel and logistical support, and cyberinfrastructure resources. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

SESYNC Welcomes Christopher Trisos

September 14, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is pleased to welcome to our Annapolis center Dr. Christopher Trisos, a Socio-Environmental Immersion Postdoctoral Fellow. Get to know our newest researcher:

Name: Christopher Trisos
PhD: Zoology, University of Oxford
Hometown: Cape Town, South Africa
SESYNC Project: Global patterns and drivers of urban plant and bird biodiversity
Mentors/Collaborators: Dr. Jeannine Cavender-Bares, University of Minnesota; Dr. Madhusudan Katti, California State University, Fresno; and Dr. Walter Jetz, Yale University

How would you describe your primary field of study?

Ecology and evolutionary biology.

What does that mean in terms of the broad questions you’re interested in studying?

I’m interested in knowing why species live where they do and what factors influence which species live together. My work is framed by both an historical evolutionary perspective (how an organism is influenced by the history of speciation and extinction of its taxon) and a contemporary environmental perspective (how an organism is influenced by climate, for example).

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I grew up in Cape Town, which is a city with mega-diverse ecosystems on its doorstep. As kids, my parents always encouraged my brother and me to explore the outdoors. And my gran was a botanical artist, and my grandfather a mining geologist—so a lot of our childhood was spent picking flowers and picking up rocks and trying to find fossils on the weekends.

And then I actually quit biology in high school. I spent a lot of my first year of high school biology in trouble for not coloring in pictures of cell organelles correctly—evolution was only introduced into the South African curriculum in 2008. I initially registered for a business degree at university as a result of all of that, but took a year off to travel before starting and then switched to geography, which meant that I had to complete a required biology course. I went so far as to go to the dean of the science faculty and said, look here; me and biology, we just don’t get on. Please give me an exemption. And they refused. But I ended up in the classroom of the most wonderful, Father Christmas-like marine biologist named George Branch. He taught the diversity of life as a six-month course, and I was hooked. It was all about the cool outdoor stuff I did between the ages of 3 and 13, but formalized in a university and research setting. So I switched my major again to ecology, and here I am.

Can you briefly describe your proposed SESYNC postdoctoral project?

Modern ecology as a science has been around for a couple of centuries, and typically ecologists have sought out the most wild places on the planet with the least amount of human disturbance to figure out how nature works. But more than half of humanity now lives in cities, and many people’s first interactions with nature will be in urban settings. It’s becoming increasingly clear to ecologists that if we’re going to understand nature in a way that is relevant to the everyday experience of lots of people, we need to understand how it works in an urban environment.

So a large part of my postdoc will be trying to understand how much of the biodiversity in cities is structured by the environmental factors we typically think about when doing ecology in wild places (such as climate), and how much of it is structured by human’s cultural and socio-economic preferences in an urban landscape (for example, planting grass lawns in a Phoenix, Arizona or other desert environment).

Why is SESYNC the right place to undertake this research?

I’ll be using many different datasets from household economic surveys to US census data to more traditional ecological surveys on phylogeny and life history. SESYNC has a lot of in-house expertise in the practice of utilizing existing datasets from very diverse sources, which will help me make the most of these data. It’s the kind of expertise that’s difficult to find in a more traditional, less interdisciplinary academic environment.

The diversity of the postdoc group is also really attractive to me. I can feel like I’m in an ecology lab because of interactions with my mentors and their lab groups—but on a daily basis I’ve got sociologists and political scientists and all sorts of other people who have really interesting perspectives on cities sitting in the same office.

How have you used non-traditional science communication methods to engage new audiences in science?

There’s an open streets initiative in Cape Town where whole neighborhoods shut down the main roads to cars on Sunday, and everyone comes out to play in the street. A couple other postdocs and I put on a pop-up stall that had big white boards that read “I’m a scientist; Ask me a question.” People would just walk past and ask us whatever they wanted, and we’d try to answer them. The thing I was surprised by was that adults were very nervous to ask a science question. Younger students showed no hesitation, but their mums and dads and older siblings would just kind of hang around the edge of the circle listening in. When we asked them if they had a question, they’d be in a hurry to respond, “No, no.”

Otherwise, the house I lived in during my PhD hosted “wacky science nights”; we’d just invite over people from the neighborhood and do wacky science experiments. Once we measured the speed of light by disabling the rotation disk of our microwave and heating a big tray of marshmallows. Wacky science nights came to an end when a friend accidentally made a bomb of potassium nitrate and sugar that literally blew up the kitchen.

To learn more about Dr. Trisos and his work, click here.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

SESYNC Welcomes Meghan Avolio

September 8, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) are pleased to welcome Dr. Meghan Avolio, a SESYNC–LTER Postdoctoral Synthesis Fellow. Get to know our newest researcher:

Name: Meghan Avolio
PhD: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University
Hometown: Croton-on-Hudson, NY
SESYNC Project: Developing new metrics for studying holistic community changes: A necessary new frontier in the Anthropocene
Mentors/Collaborators: Dr. Scott Collins, University of New Mexico, and Dr. Greg Houseman, Wichita State University

How would you describe your primary field of study?

Plant ecology.

What does that mean in terms of the broad questions you’re interested in studying?

I’m really interested in how humans impact plants—both indirectly through climate change and global change and directly through, for example, what we choose to plant in our yards. And I’m interested in these impacts across various scales: from changes in gene expression within individuals to changes in what scientists call ecosystem function. This could include how much carbon plants are sucking out of the atmosphere and how much nitrogen they’re helping cycle through the landscape.

Can you briefly describe your proposed SESYNC postdoctoral project?

One of the many hats I wear is that of community ecologist. And communities are messy: they contain many different species that are doing many different things and interacting in many different ways. That makes communities very difficult to study, so ecologists condense information about them down to single numbers that represent, for example, how many plant species exist in a given area. We call that ‘richness’. But these numbers don’t end up telling us very much: they don’t tell us whether those species have different abundances or whether one species is dominant (and if so, which one). All that information is lost.

At SESYNC, I will develop new methods for using rank abundance curves (RACs) to understand complex community changes in a generalizable way. RACs are useful as visualization tools to understand how communities are structured by capturing information on how common or rare a species is relative to other species in a defined location or community. My goal is to ultimately produce an R package to enable ecologists to rigorously test changes in RACs and detect changes in entire plant communities.

What value does the LTER data you’ll be using bring to your project?

I’m interested in how plant communities change. Because communities change slowly over time, I need long-term data to answer the questions my research asks. I can’t do it without LTERs.

And in fact, I’ve had the great pleasure of doing work at the Konza Prairie LTER for the past nine years. Next year will be my 10-year anniversary. We are going to make t-shirts; I’m very excited!

Why are you making the move from outdoor field research to “indoor” synthesis research?

Well, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. During my SESYNC postdoc I’ll still be going to Konza for three weeks each year, as I’m still involved in several other projects from which I’m continually accumulating new data.

But field work is time-intensive—you spend a lot of time collecting data but don’t necessarily have a lot of time to analyze it. As a synthesis postdoc, I’ll get to analyze data for two years straight. To me, data analysis is a creative and interactive process, and thrilling in its own way.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

Love what you do—and when you stop loving it, stop doing it.

Could you describe a time when the element of ‘surprise’ played a role in your research?

I think I’m surprised by my research every day. As a community ecologist I get to be both naturalist and scientist, and it’s a nice way to experience working in the field. For example, I’ve been going to the Konza LTER every year for nine years. But on my most recent trip in August, the prairie was unrecognizable. It was a high precipitation year, and the grasses had grown so much they were over my head. I couldn’t see five feet in front of me. I was literally swimming in grasses. Maybe that’s less surprising and more just really cool, but then I’m a plant nerd.

What are you reading right now?

I’m re-reading Pride and Prejudice. Did you want something science-y? Even postdocs need a break!

To learn more about Dr. Avolio and her work, click here.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

SESYNC Welcomes Elizabeth Daut

September 6, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is pleased to welcome to our Annapolis center Dr. Elizabeth Daut, a Socio-Environmental Immersion Postdoctoral Fellow. Get to know our newest researcher:

Name: Elizabeth Daut
PhD: Veterinary Pathobiology, Texas A&M University
Hometown: White Plains, New York
SESYNC Project: Mitigating conservation threats associated with global wild and exotic animal pet trade, infectious diseases, and regulatory importation gaps in the United States
Mentor/Collaborator: Dr. Karen Lips, University of Maryland

How would you describe your primary field of study?

That’s complicated, because I have a mixed background. If I have to be succinct, then I would say I’m a conservation medic—but most people don’t understand what that means. So if I can be a little longer winded, then I would say I’m a wildlife veterinarian currently doing research in applied biodiversity science that links animal, human, and environmental health.

Can you briefly describe your proposed SESYNC postdoctoral project?

At SESYNC, I’ll be looking at disease risk associated with the global pet trade. The U.S. exotic pet industry is a billion dollar entity, but the U.S. currently has no specific import regulations to mitigate disease threats facing native wildlife from legally imported or smuggled wild and exotic animals. These imported animals may harbor harmful pathogens, and if they are accidentally or deliberately released into our landscape, they may pass those pathogens to our native wildlife, which in turn has implications for both ecosystem and human health.

A better understanding of the intersection of supply and demand of wild and exotic animal pets, risk of introduced disease, and current gaps in U.S. import regulations will help us develop targeted, cost-effective responses. My project will help provide the necessary scientific, evidence-based recommendations to develop policies and interventions that prioritize the disease threat, regulate the problem, and assure social and economic trade benefits.

Can you point to a recent example of disease spread through the exotic pet industry?

Yes, I can! There is a specific example getting a lot of media attention right now. It has to do with a fungal infection that is spreading among native salamander populations in Europe. This new pathogen, called Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans or Bsal, was first identified in Belgium, and they believe it entered the country via the exotic pet trade, particularly from import of fire-bellied newts from Asia. This newt is a carrier of Bsal, meaning it doesn’t actually develop symptoms of the disease. But it can transmit the pathogen to immunologically naïve populations of native salamanders, causing high mortality rates very quickly.

The risk is that this fungus could make its way into the U.S. That’s a huge concern because the U.S. has the highest diversity of salamander species in the entire world, including many endemic species that are found only here. According to laboratory studies, many of these species are susceptible to this fungus—so if it does get here and into our native salamander populations, they could easily be decimated. So scientists are calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban the import of salamanders to prevent the spread of Bsal into the U.S., at least until better diagnostics and treatment options develop, because eliminating the fungus once it’s here is virtually impossible.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

My passion for wildlife trade issues resulted from my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, where there was a lot of illegal trade of wild-caught animals. I co-founded the first animal welfare organization in southern Ecuador to try to combat the illegal wildlife trade, and worked with the environmental ministry as a wildlife inspector. I quickly realized that the problem was bigger than just improving law enforcement; it’s really about the consumer. The wildlife trade is not unlike the drug trade—it will persist as long as there’s demand.

What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

The KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. I have a tendency to go too deep or make the story too complicated, but if you want your research to have an impact you need to communicate your ideas succinctly.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished “Averting a North American biodiversity crisis” by Tiffany Yap et al. in Science.

What’s your favorite scientific theory?

I really like the theory of island biogeography. I’m not an ecologist, but the concept that you can anticipate how species expansion will progress based upon the geographic metrics of distance and area—it’s pretty cool.

What’s your favorite science word?

Pseudohypoparathyroidism. I just like saying it.

What’s your least favorite science word?

How about ‘bias’? It’s tricky because the term itself can be interpreted in so many different ways, and it can influence your data in so many different ways. 

To learn more about Dr. Daut and her work, click here.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

SESYNC Welcomes Jenny Zambrano

August 26, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) are pleased to welcome Dr. Jenny Zambrano, a SESYNC–LTER Postdoctoral Synthesis Fellow. Get to know our newest researcher:

Name: Jenny Zambrano
PhD: Biology, University of Illinois at Chicago
Hometown: Bogotá, Colombia
SESYNC Project: Effects of Functional Neighborhood, Climate & Geographic Location on Tree Population Dynamics
Mentor/Collaborator: Dr. Nathan Swenson, University of Maryland

How would you describe your primary field of study?

Plant population ecology.

What does that mean in terms of the broad questions you’re interested in studying?

I’m interested in the processes behind forest regeneration in changing environments—especially in places that experience anthropogenic effects—at a population level. As an example, my research as an undergraduate in the Amazon tested the Janzen–Connell hypothesis to determine how illegal hunting affected the recruitment of two tree species dispersed by primates. For my PhD dissertation I conducted a study at the Los Tuxtlas forest in Southern Mexico looking the effects of forest fragmentation on the population dynamics of a late-successional tree.

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

My dad is from the Amazon and my mom is a plant biologist—my passion for nature and my interest in the forest comes from them. And I couldn’t have picked a better place to be born than Colombia: the diversity of ecosystems in one country has always amazed me.

Can you briefly describe your proposed SESYNC postdoctoral project?

The mechanisms that shape the structure and composition of plant communities, and how those mechanisms vary throughout different climates and geographic locations, are not well understood. At SESYNC, I will be synthesizing data from long-term forest plots—including the Harvard Forest LTER program, Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, and Luquillo LTER program—and data from the Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program. I will also be developing spatially-explicit neighborhood models that will help us better understand the interaction between individual plant traits (such as plant height and root depth) and the environment, at both small and large scales. Ultimately, the goal of this project is to help facilitate management-relevant predictions of how global changes may impact plant communities.

Why is SESYNC the right place to undertake this research?

SESYNC provides the computational capacity and support necessary to perform the synthesis of large data sets that I’m interested in. But the center also offers the potential for collaborations, not only with ecologists but with scholars in fields outside my own, such as economics. Those kinds of collaborations can help me do research that translates from the ecology community to policy makers.

What’s your favorite scientific theory?

Evolution by natural selection would have to be my favorite theory that may shed some light on why tropical forests are so diverse. I have always been puzzled by the high levels of diversity found within this type of ecosystem that covers less than 7% of the Earth’s surface, which is what makes them so special.

What’s your favorite science word?

“Statistically significant.” Because when you can describe your results as statistically significant—the feeling is just, yes!

What’s your least favorite science word?

After all the field work I’ve done in the Amazon, I have to say “mosquito.”

What are you reading right now?

One River by Wade Davis. Anytime I find myself missing the Amazon, I just read that book and it takes me back.

To learn more about Dr. Zambrano and her work, click here.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Modeling a Better Commute

August 25, 2015

by LISA PALMER
Fellow for Socio-Environmental Understanding

It’s hot. It’s breezy. It’s an open road. This is the world of a commute by bike. I’ve been trying to improve my commute to the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), where I am a fellow, after working for years from a home office. I prefer biking the 10 miles to the office, most of it on a bike path, to driving any day. Reducing the number of people that drive to work offers a number of benefits beyond my improved quality of life—less pollution, less congestion, less parking real estate—so how have businesses, cities, and policies made it happen?

Last week in The Guardian I wrote about how integrating economics, social behavior, and environmental sustainability trends, such as the desire for companies to move closer to public transit and city centers, can improve policy development to help get people to stop driving.

Here’s how the story begins:

Imagine that, starting tomorrow, half your company’s employees stopped driving to work. The benefits would start accruing almost immediately: less pollution, less real estate needed for parking spaces, improved quality of life, and much more. So how do companies do it and, given all these benefits, why aren’t more jumping onboard?

Google—which this week rebranded itself as Alphabet—may not have been the first company to offer shuttles to its employees, but the size and growth of its shuttle program have made it the most prominent, for better or for worse.

The company started its own bus service in 2004 to shuttle roughly 150 employees from their San Francisco homes to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. Today, 6,400 of Alphabet’s 11,000 Bay Area employees use the corporate fleet of 140 biodiesel-fueled buses to get to work each day. While the buses have been met with protests since 2013 for fuelling gentrification in the form of skyrocketing housing costs, the buses have succeeded in keeping cars off the road.

Private busing is not an option for most companies, but a variety of tools—from social media to long term planning—can reduce the number of single-driver cars employees put on the road, according to Susan Hunt Stevens, the founder and chief executive of WeSpire, a 35-person tech firm in Boston that offers an interactive, web-based platform to help companies motivate employees to change their habits, get onboard with company sustainability goals, and measure outcomes. Commuting programs are among the most sought-after initiatives, she said.

For the article, I talked to Gerrit-Jan Knaap, professor and director the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, who is also a co-principal investigator at SESYNC and has been developing a model for the region covering Baltimore to Washington DC to understand how behavior preferences and state policies will impact the future trends in development, transportation, land use and the environment.

Knaap explained that:

“forecasting sustainable development involves tracking the interplay of large scale phenomena. Factoring in regional development, gas prices, greenhouse gas incentives, preferences for where millennials live, transportation choices and where highways get built are all helpful in deciding where to locate businesses and where future infrastructure development may fall short.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

Lisa Palmer is a fellow for socio-environmental understanding at SESYNC and a journalist.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Data Rescue in Cuba

August 6, 2015

Ancient archives from Trinidad, Cuba. (Copyright Matthew and David LaFevor)

by MATTHEW LAFEVOR
Postdoctoral Fellow

In Cuba, 500 years of socio-environmental data sit decaying in the island’s long-neglected church archives. The archives are difficult to access, but contain rich primary sources of data—not just on the transatlantic slave trade and the emergent identities of Cuban society, populations, births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials—but also on original land grants and territorial divisions; transatlantic agricultural and livestock transfers and their New World adaptations; livelihoods; landraces; and extractive industries. In short, key socio-environmental themes that remain largely unexamined in the Cuban context. Although a few provisional descriptions of these repositories have emerged over the years, most of their content remains unknown. The obscurity of these archives and their advanced state of decay are the product of several socio-environmental factors.

Collaborating with sacristan in Havana on preservation of archives. (Copyright Matthew and David LaFevor)First, the United States has had only limited academic engagement with the island over the last half century. Academic visas were difficult to obtain, and the Cuban government did not approve many research proposals. If approved, state interference often burdened research. Red tape stretched from the airport to the archives. The main repository in Havana was difficult to work with, and only a handful of Cuban researchers with limited resources had ventured outside of the capital to identify or consult primary sources. Amidst a general climate of mistrust, access was often denied for both domestic and international researchers, with the exact reasons not always made clear. Planning a research trip was risky and difficult to coordinate without Internet access. Partly as a result of these factors, the socio-environmental history of Cuba has received far less attention than in other Caribbean or Latin American contexts. This represents a significant gap in our understanding of the origins of today’s socio-environmental systems in the Circum-Caribbean and beyond.

Second, the steward of these data sources—the Catholic Church—has had strained relationships with the Cuban government, having been an institutional competitor since 1959. Many churches were, in effect, under lock and key. With plummeting memberships and resource bases their archival record was often neglected. Tomes of data were crammed away and forgotten in wooden cabinets to marinate in the tropical heat, without the funding for or access to modern methods of preservation.

Building a high-resolution digital registry in Camagüey takes time. (Copyright Matthew and David LaFevor)The natural environment has accelerated processes of decomposition among these tomes. Many are too deteriorated to open without doing irreparable damage to them. Mold provides fodder for book-boring insects, while the general humidity and extreme weather, especially in the coastal towns, present other challenges to preservation. Few domestic or international attempts have been made to duplicate, preserve, or even index most of the sources—some of which extend into the sixteenth century, when the transatlantic transfer of biota and ideas set in motion the socio-ecological transitions and feedbacks still reverberating today. During this time the Church was a much more integral part of society; as such, it served as the primary repository for written data on socio-ecological processes. With respect to the volume, depth, and potential resolution of these primary sources, there is no equivalent.

SESYNC postdoctoral fellow Matthew LaFevor and University of Texas (Arlington) history professor David LaFevor, both paleographers, visited the seven ‘original’ towns of Cuba from July 2–16, 2015, on a research trip funded by the British Libraries Endangered Archives Programme (BLEAP). Their purpose was to establish contacts with the clergy from these towns, to identify archival repositories in need of preservation, and to lay the foundations for larger, longer-term digitization projects in collaboration with local people.

Data decomposition ends here. Image preserved. Holes will be filled by future researchers. (Copyright Matthew and David LaFevor)With funding from the BLEAP and letters of introduction from Church leadership in Havana, the two researchers began collaborations with clergy from six of the seven original towns: Havana, Baracoa, Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey, and Trinidad. (The seventh town, Sancti Spíritus, was omitted due to time constraints.) Major repositories of archival documents numbering in the hundreds of thousands of pages were identified. The team took photographic indices of these collections and documented the different states of deterioration to determine preservation priorities. They made contacts with sacristans, students, and other potential collaborators and laid the groundwork for future preservation efforts.

The LaFevors, as co-directors of the project, are currently writing a report on their preliminary findings to the BLEAP and drafting a larger proposal to expand work on the project. If funded, local groups would receive instruction on archival preservation, cameras, computers, and other equipment for the purpose of preserving their archives for the Church, for the Cuban people, and for researchers. The Cuba digitization project would serve as an extension of the Vanderbilt University Ecclesiastical & Secular Sources for Slave Societies (ESSSS) project, directed by Jane Landers. The project is currently digitizing endangered documents in Brazil, Colombia, and Spanish Florida.

Photos from top to bottom:

  1. Ancient archives from Trinidad, Cuba.
  2. Collaborating with sacristan in Havana on preservation of archives.
  3. Building a high-resolution digital registry in Camagüey takes time.
  4. Data decomposition ends here. Image preserved. Holes will be filled by future researchers.

All photos copyright of Matthew and David LaFevor.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

SESYNC Welcomes Noelle Beckman

August 5, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is pleased to welcome to our Annapolis center Dr. Noelle Beckman, a Socio-Environmental Immersion Postdoctoral Fellow. Get to know our newest researcher:

Name: Noelle Beckman
PhD: Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Hometown: Asheville, NC (Born in Nuremberg, Germany)
SESYNC Project: Developing a general classification scheme for assessing species’ risk under climate change in fragmented landscapes
Mentor/Collaborator: Dr. James Bullock, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK

How would you describe your primary field of study?

Based on my training I think of myself as a community ecologist, but the work I’ll be doing at SESYNC is more population ecology. A strong foundation in theoretical ecology underlies both of these perspectives.

What’s the difference between community ecology and population ecology, in terms of the questions you’re interested in asking?

From a community ecology perspective, I’m interested in what mechanisms can maintain biodiversity and support the many species we see coexisting. For example, my dissertation looked at tropical forests in Panama to better understand how different mechanisms such as seed dispersal, seed predation by insects, or plant diseases influence plant diversity.

From a population ecology perspective, I’m interested in what might explain population growth and population spread of plants, how that might relate to their characteristics, and how that might change with respect to climate change and landscape fragmentation.

Can you briefly describe your proposed SESYNC postdoctoral project?

At SESYNC, I’ll be developing a general classification scheme to easily and quickly assess the extinction risk for a broad range of plant species in fragmented landscapes under climate change. To develop this classification scheme, I will apply novel statistical and mathematical approaches to synthesized dispersal and demography datasets. One of my sources of data will be the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database, co-developed by SESYNC postdoc Judy Che-Castaldo.

Why is this research important?

My hope is that this classification scheme will aid the identification of species most at risk from ongoing climate change. The insights gained can help prioritize conservation strategies and policies for the management of landscapes that can be implemented with limited budgets but that have long-term benefits.

Why is SESYNC the right place to undertake this research?

Most of my previous work has been basic ecological research—and to be honest, I’m not sure how many people outside the field of ecology are interested in reading it. What I like about SESYNC is that it facilitates fundamental research in such a way that it can be usable by a wide range of stakeholders, both within and beyond academia. SESYNC is also ideally located near Washington DC, providing geographic access to many governmental agencies and NGOs that I hope could benefit from my postdoctoral research.

What are you reading right now?

Dispersal Ecology and Evolution, co-authored by my mentor/collaborator James Bullock. And I should probably finish Matrix Population Models by Hal Caswell, too!

What’s your favorite scientific theory?

My favorite is the set of hypotheses proposed to explain the adaptive function of secondary metabolites in ripe fruit. Why are some ripe fruit toxic? What is the role of seed dispersers, seed predators, and pathogens? I also work on the Janzen–Connell hypothesis a lot. It proposes an explanation for how insects, pathogens, and other natural enemies that kill and consume plants help maintain local plant diversity.

If you could attempt a profession other than your own, what would it be?

For a while I wanted to be a rock climbing teacher—but I’ve only ever been rock climbing twice. And I think DJ’ing could be a lot of fun, if I could stay up that late.

Could you describe a time when the element of ‘surprise’ played a role in your research?

You mean like the time I accidentally sat on a cactus doing fieldwork in the desert?

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

SESYNC at ESA

August 1, 2015

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is celebrating its centennial in Baltimore this year! Catch SESYNC staff and researchers at sessions and events during the ESA annual meeting August 9–14, 2015.

(You can also find us at booth #229!)

Sunday, August 9

ESA Welcome Reception
6:30–8 pm
Key Ballroom Lobby, Hilton
Co-sponsored by SESYNC

Monday, August 10

ESA Scientific Plenary & ESA Awards Session
8–11:30 am
Key Ballroom, Hilton
Panelists include Margaret Palmer, SESYNC Director

Symposium: Global Change & Infectious Disease Dynamics
1:30–5 pm
309, Baltimore Convention Center
Organized by Andrew Dobson, SESYNC Principal Investigator, and featuring participants of the SESYNC synthesis team “Land Use Change & Infectious Diseases”

Tuesday, August 11

Symposium: How Can Ecology Learn from the ‘Science of Team Science’?
1:30–5 pm
309, Baltimore Convention Center
Co-sponsored by SESYNC
2 pm: “Ecological synthesis paves the way to transdisciplinary socio-environmental synthesis” by Margaret Palmer, SESYNC Director

Organized Oral Session: Demographic Buffering Beyond the Comfort Zone: Species’ Responses to Anthropogenic Disturbances
1:30–5 pm
316, Baltimore Convention Center
4 pm: "Forest fragmentation alters the population dynamics of a late-successional tropical tree" by Jenny Zambrano, SESYNC–LTER postdoc

Contributed Talk: Biogeography & Macroecology I
1:30–5 pm
319, Baltimore Convention Center
4:20 pm: “Environmental drivers of functional diversity of near-pristine coral reef fish communities at marcoecological scales” by Lauren Yeager, SESYNC postdoc

Organized Oral Session: The Macroecology of Infectious Disease
1:30–5 pm
344, Baltimore Convention Center
4:40 pm: “An equilibrium theory signature in the island distribution of human pathogens” by William Burnside, SESYNC postdoc

Synthesis Center Reception
5:30–7:30 pm
Family Meal, 621 East Pratt Street, Baltimore
Hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and networking for all career levels
Co-sponsored by SESYNC, NIMBioS, NCEAS, and the Powell Center

Wednesday, August 12

Contributed Talk: Conservation Management III
8–11:30 am
325, Baltimore Convention Center
8:20 am: “Solving the mystery of marine protected area performance: Linking governance to ecological outcomes” by Helen Fox, SESYNC Principal Investigator

Thursday, August 13

Contributed Talk: Urban Ecosystems II
8–11:30 am
348, Baltimore Convention Center
10:50 am: "Plant community assembly in cultivated urban ecosystems" by Meghan Avolio, SESYNC–LTER postdoc

Federal Agency Networking Session
11:30 am–1:15 pm
316, Baltimore Convention Center
Featuring Margaret Palmer, SESYNC Director, and Jonathan Kramer, SESYNC Director of Interdisciplinary Science

Contributed Talk: Education: Pedagogy
1:30–5 pm
322, Baltimore Convention Center
2:30 pm: “Using case studies to engage undergraduates in socio-ecological synthesis: Urban biodiversity example” by participants of the SESYNC short course Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies

Contributed Talk: Modeling: Populations I
1:30–5 pm
342, Baltimore Convention Center
4:20 pm: “Testing the use of surrogate demographic information for endangered species management” by Judy Che-Castaldo, SESYNC postdoc

Friday, August 14

Contributed Talk: Urban Ecosystems IV
8–11:30 am
347, Baltimore Convention Center
9:20 am: “Replumbing cities from gray to green: Exploring controls on stormwater infrastructure transitions” by Kristina Hopkins, SESYNC postdoc

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Congratulations to SESYNC’s Outgoing Class of Postdocs

July 13, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) congratulates its outgoing postdoc class on the successful completion of their fellowships! We wish them the best of luck in their future research and teaching endeavors—and look forward to seeing some of them back at SESYNC for synthesis team meetings.

Harish Padmanabha

PhD: Entomology, University of Florida
SESYNC project: Global Change & Health
Moving on to: Universidad del Norte, Colombia
Position: Research scientist, Center for Human Development Research; Lecturer, Departments of Psychology and Public Health
What he’ll be doing there: Synthesizing ecological and psychological approaches to how humans cope with uncertainty, and teaching courses in human adaptation and evolution

Andres Baeza

PhD: Natural Resources, University of Chile
SESYNC project: Cooperation in Semi-Desert Environments
Moving on to: Arizona State University
Position: Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Sustainability
What he’ll be doing there: Modeling human decisions and adaptation to climate change in Mexico City

Lorien Jasny

PhD: Sociology, University of California, Irvine
SESYNC project: Dynamic Belief Networks
Moving on to: University of Exeter, United Kingdom
Position: Lecturer, Q-Step Centre
What she’ll be doing there: Teaching courses in statistics and social network analysis, and pursuing research and grants related to the linkage of social and environmental networks

Mary Collins

PhD: Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara
SESYNC project: System Vulnerability
Moving on to: State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF)
Position: Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Studies
What she’ll be doing there: Teaching courses in environmental health and environmental health management, and pursuing research that examines the social structures that give rise to extreme patterns in the production of pollution and that links pollution to human health impacts

Neil Carter

PhD: Conservation Biology, Michigan State University
SESYNC project: People and Biodiversity
Moving on to: Boise State University
Position: Assistant Professor, Center for Human-Environment Systems, College of Innovation and Design
What he’ll be doing there: Integrating different sciences to examine how people and wildlife interact with the goal of using that knowledge to better inform decisions that both protect wildlife and sustain (or improve) human well-being

Elise Larsen

PhD: Biological Sciences, University of Maryland
SESYNC project: Spatiotemporal Patterns in North American Butterfly Abundance and Phenology Using Citizen Science Monitoring
Moving on to: Georgetown University
Position: Postdoctoral Researcher, Biology Department
What she’ll be doing there: Statistical methods for analysis of citizen science insect monitoring and museum collection data

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

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