Meet Our Postdocs: Bill Burnside

Bill Burnside
Bill looking for ants in New Mexico

Name: 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

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.

Read more about Bill.