Meet Our Postdocs: Bill Burnside

June 13, 2013

Bill in the field looking for antsName: Bill Burnside

Institution: The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)

Hometown: El Paso, TX

Field of Study: Ecology

Postdoctoral Project: Toward a Macroecology of Sustainability: Patterns, Processes, & Principles of Socio-environmental Systems

Photo: Bill looking for ants in New Mexico

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I've been an amateur naturalist since I was a child, but that tendency was nurtured by growing up literally on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. I collected insects, fossils, and minerals I found there and amassed a little library of nature guides and books on wildlife. My great aunt would exclaim in Spanish, “Ay, Dios mio (Oh, my Lord),” upon opening my closet and seeing cigar boxes full of dried bugs. College courses on human-environment interactions expanded my interests to include people as part of ecological systems—an interest nurtured by my stepfather, an archaeologist, and by my graduate mentor and colleagues.

Beyond the compelling nature of ecology as a field, I was inspired by the opportunity to teach (which I really enjoy), to study amazing environments and organisms, and to make a difference. Ecological issues usually take a back seat to other concerns, yet are crucial to our survival and prosperity.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher at SESYNC?

My favorite aspect of being a researcher at SESYNC is having the time and intellectual space to think deeply about interesting and potentially useful ideas, both by myself as well as with a great group of colleagues and visitors.

What are the societal benefits of your research?

I hope my research provides some comparative perspective on sustainability efforts, which are often studied in isolation. I also hope it brings ecologists and economists together to work on basic theory that might contribute to better understanding and management of socio-environmental systems—because ecologists and economists are both studying our “house” (eco – comes from oikos, Greek for "house"), and because both involve the study of how organisms use limited means (e.g., the currency of energy in ecology and that of money in economics) to try to meet unlimited wants.

Have you learned anything in your research that has surprised you?

Among three species of harvester ants that differ in the number of ants in an average colony, species with larger colonies were no more successful at harvesting seeds during timed trials than those with smaller colonies, even though they had more scouts out looking for seeds and a larger workforce to harvest seeds.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

My graduate mentor, ecologist Jim Brown, has had the most influence. His passion for ecology, broad intellectual interests, macroscopic approach, and combination of insight and instinct continue to inspire me.

What’s your favorite theory?

I don’t have a favorite, but the metabolic theory of ecology is compelling and informs some of my work. It is the idea that a few key factors that affect the metabolic rates of individual organisms, such as temperature and body size, will scale up to affect ecological patterns and processes, such as the rates at which species will interact. It’s a powerful idea with broad implications, but it’s still being refined.

What are you reading right now?

Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows
Sustainability Science, by Bert deVries
The Magician of Lublin, by I.B. Singer

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office, what would it be?

I’d grab my backpack, which contains my phone, a snack, and other essentials. My laptop is backed up, but my physical belongings are not. And I never like being too far away from a good snack.

Click here to read more about Bill.


The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is a national research center funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland.

Located in Annapolis, MD, SESYNC is dedicated to solving society’s most challenging and complex environmental problems. We foster collaboration amongst scholars from a diverse array of the natural and social sciences (such as ecology, public health, and political science), as well as stakeholders that include resource managers, policy makers, and community members.

Socio-environmental synthesis is a research approach that accelerates the production of knowledge about the complex interactions between human and natural systems. It may result in new data products—particularly ones
that address questions in new spatial or temporal contexts or scales—but may also involve evaluating textual or oral arguments, interpreting evidence, developing new applications or models, or identifying novel areas of study.

Click here to see a list of projects funded by SESYNC.

SESYNC Welcomes Dr. Mary Collins

Mary CollinsThe National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is pleased to welcome our newest Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Mary B. Collins.

Socio-Ecological Drivers of Dengue Risk & Human Mortality in Dynamic Urban Ecosystems of Colombia

Harish’s research focuses on the vulnerability of human health to social and ecological variation at policy-relevant spatial and temporal scales. He integrates empirical and theoretical approaches to study how human and non-human responses to environmental change impact diseases and life history tradeoffs. Specifically, he has been studying how interactions between human and mosquito adaptation to water scarcity and thermal conditions influence the epidemiology of dengue virus across an altitude gradient in Colombia.

A Citizen Army for Monarch Butterfly Science & Conservation

June 3, 2013

Monarch butterfly

Research Fellow

One of the great things about working with monarch butterflies is that people care so much about them. In fact, people care so much about monarchs that they have become the focus of a vast network of citizen-scientists that collects data to understand their population dynamics, which is very useful for conservation science.

Why are monarchs so beloved? Unlike the target species of other conservation efforts, monarchs aren’t known for providing critical ecosystem services or direct monetary benefits for people. Rather, it is the story of their fantastical migratory journey that captures the attention of scholars and “backyard scientists” alike. Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) overwinter in dense colonies in very specific mountain locations in Mexico, then follow a multi-generational migratory pathway that brings them all the way to southern Canada. At the end of each season, the final generation undertakes a truly phenomenal migration—up to 4,500 kilometers (more than 4,000 miles)—back to those same mountains in central Mexico.

Because monarchs are one of the most common types of butterflies in North America (although their population numbers are likely declining), people see them regularly, depending on where in North America they live. This familiarity has opened the door for citizens to become actively engaged in their protection—that’s where I come in.

At SESYNC, I work on a project that links together various groups that have initiated citizen-science monitoring programs. I am also part of a synthesis group that is integrating data from multiple citizen-science programs to track the monarch’s large-scale dynamics. Citizen-scientist projects, which have been monitoring monarchs intensively for decades, have provided the opportunity for these types of in-depth studies by the scholarly community. Currently, citizen-scientists spend nearly 100,000 hours each year collecting data on this fascinating species.

Butterfly tagging

Monarchs are an exemplar of how citizen-science can transform the way we conduct—and use—environmental research. Citizen-science has recently become a major focus in both social and environmental research. This popularity is due in large part to an increasingly engaged citizenry that is eager to document its interactions with nature, and now has the tools to do so (like smartphone technology enabled with GPS, cameras, and web access). This effort complements the science community’s need for biological data at large spatial and temporal scales. The widespread data collection of citizen-science has also inspired widespread action: thousands of people now plant monarch “way-stations” in their gardens, which replaces some of the habitat lost through large-scale spraying in agricultural fields that has taken place since genetically-modified crops have become the norm.  Here at SESYNC, we’re working on how to maximize both the social and environmental benefits of this transformative enterprise.

You can check out more information about monarch monitoring and how it contributes to our understanding of the species’ biology and conservation by visiting and watching the recent Google Earth Tour on monarch migration. I was contacted by Atlantic Public Media, a group that is working on a new way of using Google Earth to demonstrate the wonders of “species on the move.” The result is a pretty cool video that can be seen below.

Top photograph: Tim Hamilton / Flickr, Creative Commons
Center photograph: Katja Schulz / Flickr, Creative Commons


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