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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.

Predicting Forest Recovery from Human Disturbance

December 11, 2015

How successfully can we restore the world’s degraded lands? A new global meta-analysis seeks to understand what determines forest landscape restoration success and recovery rates.

by Karen D. Holl, Paula Meli, José M. Rey Benayas, and the SESYNC/iDIV Restoration Synthesis Working Group

This blog originally appeared at IUCN.

Over the past five years there have been numerous global, regional, and national targets set for large-scale forest landscape restoration. Most notable among these are the nearly 60 million hectares of restoration commitments to the Bonn Challenge to restore 150 million hectares of degraded and deforested land worldwide by 2020—commitments arriving from nearly a dozen countries and institutions spread across three continents. Restoration ambition is high, but many unknowns still exist. We know that restoration can conserve biodiversity, provide a range of ecosystem services, and support the well-being of human communities. But, we still know very little about what makes restoration successful and, in particular, to what degree ecosystems can recover from disturbance or how long it will take them to do so. Answering these questions will help guide the decision-makers now responsible for implementing large-scale forest landscape restoration, who often have large goals but limited resources.

To this end we are conducting a meta-analysis of restoration studies to determine which factors affect the degree of forest recovery across the world. We are concerned particularly with the recovery of plant and animal populations (looking at both diversity and abundance) and nutrient cycling functions. The factors we are considering include the type of past disturbance to the land (was the area mined, logged, or used for agriculture?), the existing forest type (tropical or temperate, wet or dry), the time since the disturbance has ceased, and whether humans have actively intervened to restore the degraded land.

To be clear, there are plenty of existing scientific studies on forest regeneration, reforestation, and forest recovery rates that offer limited answers to these questions. But the results of these studies are notoriously site-specific, making it difficult to draw from them general and practical conclusions. Our meta-analysis looks across these studies to find conditions that determine restoration recovery rate and success in a way that can inform the current worldwide restoration movement.

We have compiled 166 primary studies from the peer-reviewed published literature with 1,805 ecological response variables (e.g., measurements of abundance, diversity or nutrient cycling functions). These studies include a broad range of examinations from temperate and tropical and wet and dry forests covering 41 different countries. Each study includes measurements of forest quality after degradation and after restoration, as well as measurements from nearby minimally degraded forest (so called “reference” measures). We are comparing each of these measures to determine how deeply each type of disturbance (i.e., mining, logging, or agriculture) degrades a forest’s health and, on the other hand, how well restoration returns that forest to a state similar to nearby reference forests.

Our preliminary results on degradation suggest that agricultural use typically degrades forest ecosystems more than logging. In its destruction of the land mining falls somewhere between agriculture and logging. And logging proves to be the least destructive. Regardless of the kind of disturbance, our findings suggest that all post-disturbance lands prove significantly degraded when compared to reference forests.

After disturbance most logged sites are restored naturally, we have found, and these recover generally without human intervention. In contrast, mined sites are nearly always actively restored, usually by a mixture of interventions including the reconstruction of original land topography and the replanting of vegetation. Former agricultural sites are restored by a mix of approaches, including both the simple removal of the disturbance (e.g., cattle) to allow for natural regeneration and the active planting of trees.

We are in the process of determining the extent to which different kinds of degraded land recover from disturbance and, indeed, if the type of forest and style of restoration determine the rate of recovery. We will present more of our findings in a second post, here at IUCN, when our analyses are complete later this summer. Stay tuned.

This project is part of a larger study synthesizing results of ecosystem recovery and restoration across a range of ecosystem types that is funded by the U.S. National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research. This study on forest recovery is funded by the Know-For-FLR project of IUCN, made possible through support from UK Aid, by the British Government.


Bonner, MTL, S Schmidt & LP Shoo. 2013. A meta-analytical global comparison of aboveground biomass accumulation between tropical secondary forests and monoculture plantations. Forest Ecology and Management 291:73–86.

Rey Benayas, JM, AC Newton, A Diaz & JM Bullock. 2009. Enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem services by ecological restoration: a meta-analysis. Science 325:1121–1124.

Associated Project: 

Featured Fellow: Lisa Palmer

December 9, 2015

What does it take to reconcile the threat of global environmental change with the need to feed a growing population?

Developing countries will be the most vulnerable to changes in climate. A recent government study in India warned that the anticipated rise in global temperatures over the next three decades could reduce wheat yields in the country by as much as 23 percent. Related environmental problems—depleted groundwater, delayed monsoons, and intense rainfall—will also hurt productivity.

What this will mean for India’s food security, and especially the poor who cannot keep up with rising food prices, is the focus of Lisa Palmer’s recent reporting and writing.

Palmer, fellow for socio-environmental understanding at the National Socio-Environment Synthesis Center (SESYNC), was in India thanks to a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. There, she looked at new strategies designed to help small farmers adapt to climate change and visited several of the country’s “climate smart” villages where farmers use technologies, communications tools and renewable energy to improve their livelihoods and resilience to climatic variability.

Palmer Reports from India

“India's climate tech revolution is starting in its villages.” The Guardian, October 12.

“A River Runs Again: Reporting on India’s Natural Crisis.” New Security Beat, November 17.

“Learning from India's 'Smart' Farming Villages.” Yale Climate Connections, November 19.

“I Went to India and Saw the Future of Climate-Smart Farming.” Nautilus, December 4.

Palmer’s work on science, the environment, agriculture, and sustainability has been featured in The Guardian, Nature, Nature Climate Change, Climate Connections, Yale e360, Slate, The New York Times, Scientific American, Nautilus, and many others. She first began to report on agriculture and the food production nexus while a media fellow at the Vermont Law School, and is now working on a book, Hot, Hungry Planet, to be published in 2016. She’s on Twitter @Lisa_Palmer.

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 data-intensive 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): 

What We're Reading

November 17, 2015

From our reading lists to yours: what National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) researchers and staff are reading.

An equilibrium theory signature in the island biogeography of human parasites and pathogens

Authors: Kévin Jean, William R. Burnside, Lynn Carlson, et al.
Source: Global Ecology and Biogeography
Who's reading it: Elizabeth Daut, Postdoctoral Fellow

Aligning restoration science and the law to sustain ecological infrastructure for the future

Authors: Margaret A Palmer and JB Ruhl
Source: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment
Who's reading it: Kelly Hondula, Quantitative Researcher

Time scale interactions and the coevolution of humans and water

Authors: Murugesu Sivapalan and Günter Blöschl
Source: Water Resources Research
Who's reading it: Krissy Hopkins, Postdoctoral Fellow

Equation-free mechanistic ecosystem forecasting using empirical dynamic modeling

Authors: Hao Ye, Richard J. Beamish, Sarah M. Glaser, et al.
Source: PNAS
Who's reading it: Kristal Jones, Food Systems Research Fellow

Collapse, environment, and society

Author: Karl W. Butzer
Source: PNAS
Who's reading it: Matthew LaFevor, Postdoctoral Fellow

50 years of Data Science

Author: David Donoho
Source: Tukey Conference, Princeton University
Who's reading it: Philippe Marchand, Scientific Support Specialist

Capitalism in the Web of Life: an Interview with Jason W. Moore

Authors: Jason W. Moore and Kamil Ahsan
Source: Viewpoint Magazine
Who's reading it: Jessica Marx, Research Program Manager

A River Runs Again: India's Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka

Author: Meera Subramanian
Source: PublicAffairs
Who's reading it: Lisa Palmer, Fellow for Socio-Environmental Understanding, and Mary Shelley, Associate Director of Synthesis

Model averaging and muddled multimodel inferences

Author: Brian S. Cade
Source: Ecology
Who's reading it: Lauren Yeager, Postdoctoral Fellow

Second growth: The promise of tropical forest regeneration in an age of deforestation

Author: Robin Chazdon
Source: University of Chicago Press
Who's reading it: Jenny Zambrano, Postdoctoral Fellow

A Venomous Fight Among Reptile Scientists

Author: Ed Yong
The Atlantic
Who's reading it: Melissa Andreychek, Communications Coordinator

What We're Reading archive:

From Meta-Studies to Modeling: Synthesizing a Changing Landscape

November 11, 2015

Communications Coordinator

Question? Research. Answer!

It may be simple and straightforward, yet it’s rarely how the scientific process actually works. Rather, scientific discovery is wrought with complexities that may lead to more questions than answers—but that’s precisely where things get interesting.

Take land change science, for example. From deforestation and irrigation to urbanization and restoration, humans are transforming the surface of the Earth, and on massive scales. The patchwork of landscapes covering the globe are as numerous as they are diverse. At the same time, they are linked: ecologically, socio-economically, culturally. The land use choices of a farmer, pastoralist, or housing developer both influence and are influenced by local contexts such as per capita income as well as broad-scale pressures such as climate change and economic globalization. As a result, landscapes breathe as much life and undergo as much change and growth as the people, plants, and animals living within them.

Land change scientists endeavor to make sense of it all: the various drivers of land use change, and how those changes feed back into people’s livelihoods and land use decisions. To accomplish this feat, they must overcome several challenges. First, traditional scientific experiments aren’t feasible in land change science. It’s neither ethical nor even logistically possible to manipulate the global food trade market in order to measure its influence on a village’s food security, for example. Second, the layers of complexity are all but endless. How can researchers possibly isolate the effect of a land use decision made in urban Chicago or rural China?

Here, land change scientists may very well agree with philosopher and political theorist Isaiah Berlin: the key to understanding is in the identification of patterns.* Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, an assistant research professor at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), uses synthetic and modeling approaches to find patterns among land uses and changes. As a resource to the wider land change science community, he recently co-published a related series of articles outlining how synthesis, meta-studies, and agent-based modeling can help us understand how humans interact with and change the landscapes in which they live.

Local case studies inform much of what we know about how humans use land and how those practices change over time. But determining whether individual cases are merely anecdotal, or the extent to which they can be scaled up to explain regional or even global land use patterns, is a challenge. The research approach of synthesis is especially useful in this context: it draws upon and distills many sources of data, ideas, explanations, and methods to generate knowledge that is applicable across spatial and temporal scales.

In open-access papers published in Regional Environmental Change and Ambio, Magliocca and co-authors map the landscape of synthesis within land change science and identify tools to integrate diverse data sets from multiple disciplines. The papers aim to help researchers identify which synthesis methods are most appropriate for what they’re trying to do and what types of data they have—and then to actually do them. Specifically, the authors discuss meta-studies, which they define as “specific synthetic methods that distill the findings of many narrowly focused analyses (i.e., ‘cases’) to produce knowledge that is more generally applicable than may be derived from a single case.”

Cases of deforestation, restoration, and other global change phenomena are happening right now all across the world. But whether pasture cover is converting to agricultural land in Laos or Brazil, it has something in common: the conversions can be measured consistently, regardless of where they take place. Accordingly, these place-based changes can be compared to reveal both commonalities and differences in their causes and consequences.

Agent-based models—used as “virtual laboratories,” as Magliocca calls them—are a practical computational tool that help with such syntheses. They offer a powerful means of simulating the land use choices of individuals and groups in order to assess their interactions within a landscape. And although land use change has been studied mostly by researchers creating highly detailed, specialized models that apply to a single location and are highly context-dependent, there’s also much to be learned through comparative research across different sites.

In an open-access paper published in Environmental Modelling & Software, Magliocca and co-authors illustrate where and how meta-studies can inform the modeling process (e.g., when conceptualizing, coding, or implementing a model). And in another open-access paper published in Land, Magliocca puts it all to task by applying a generalized agent-based model to six different agricultural case studies. In this paper, he analyzed the relative importance of local and larger-scale influences on land use changes throughout the six sites. In a nutshell, he found that the more remote a location, the more sensitive land use decisions are to ecological factors such as soil quality; the less remote a location, the more sensitive they are to individual’s perception of risk and economic factors such as crop prices.

More importantly, says Magliocca, the “results demonstrate model-based synthesis as a promising approach to overcome many of the current challenges of synthesis in land change science” because it rigorously embraces complexity.

“And the insights you can gain from the land change perspective are almost always applicable to the larger socio-environmental context, because land change science is already so integrative. Whether you start with a question about fluctuations in land markets or valuation of a restoration project, the lessons to be learned through synthesis and modeling are broadly relevant,” he adds.

* Isaiah Berlin, “Historical Inevitability” (1954).

Above photo: Aerial view of center-fed farms in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Courtesy Doc Searls via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Further reading

Nicholas R. Magliocca, Thomas K. Rudel, Peter H. Verburg, et al. (2015). “Synthesis in land change science: methodological patterns, challenges, and guidelines” in Regional Environmental Change. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10113-014-0626-8

Jasper van Vliet, Nicholas R. Magliocca, Bianka Büchner, et al. (2015). “Meta-studies in land use science: Current coverage and prospects” in Ambio. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s13280-015-0699-8

Nicholas R. Magliocca, Jasper van Vliet, Calum Brown, et al. (2015). “From meta-studies to modeling: Using synthesis knowledge to build broadly applicable process-based land change models” in Environmental Modelling & Software. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envsoft.2015.06.009

Nicholas R. Magliocca. (2015). “Model-Based Synthesis of Locally Contingent Responses to Global Market Signals” in Land. Access online: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/land4030807

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 data-intensive 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): 

From Policy to Practice: Integrating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making

October 22, 2015

Communications Coordinator

Above photo: U.S. federal agencies including the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs conduct a prescribed burn for prairie restoration in the fall of 2011. Prescribed burning is a management technique used to control invasive grasses on refuge lands. Prescribed fires also reduce hazard fuels to prevent wildfires and lower the risk to nearby rural residential homes, agricultural lands, and private woodlands. Courtesy George Gentry/USFWS - Pacific Region via Flickr/Creative Commons.

The Forest Service. The Bureau of Land Management. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Department of Defense. From managing the nation’s forests and rangelands to our military facilities and nuclear plants, these and other U.S. federal agencies take actions that change the physical landscape as well as the environment’s capacity to contribute to human society—and on a large scale.

Clean air and drinking water, erosion and flood control, and outdoor recreation are just a few examples of “ecosystem services,” or benefits that people receive from natural systems. And while it can be difficult to pin a specific dollar value on such services, new data, methods, and expertise are making it increasingly possible to do just that.

Yet, federal agencies have not consistently incorporated measures of ecosystem services into their decision making processes.

Which is why new policy guidance released earlier this month by the White House is welcome (and exciting!) news. The guidance directs federal agencies to begin incorporating ecosystem services into their planning and decision making. Specifically, it:

“… directs agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investment, and regulatory contexts. It also establishes a process for the federal government to develop a more detailed guidance on integrating ecosystem service assessments into relevant programs and projects to help maintain ecosystem and community resilience, sustainable use of natural resources, and the recreational value of the Nation’s unique landscapes.”

The new guidance isn’t a win just for the environment—it’s decisive progress for human health and economic well-being, too.

“An ecosystem services approach to decision making can help agencies link natural resource management choices to the things people care about in an understandable and analytically robust manner,” said Jim Boyd, Director of Social Science & Policy at SESYNC and Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth at Resources for the Future.

For agency staff left wondering exactly how to make this happen, the National Ecosystem Services Partnership (NESP) has worked for three years with agencies, academics, and practitioners to develop the Federal Resource Management and Ecosystem Services Guidebook, an online resource that provides a framework for incorporating ecosystem services into decision making and highlighting relevant efforts under way by federal agencies. NESP also produced a companion Best Practices for Integrating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making report, released earlier this year.

The resources provide much-needed clarity for how to design ecosystem services assessments that meet minimum standards of scientifically-rigorous assessments even when time, resources, or capacity are limiting.

The NESP guidebook and best practices report were supported in part by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875.

[1] Tamara Dickinson, Timothy Male, and Ali Zaidi: “Incorporating Natural Infrastructure and Ecosystem Services in Federal Decision-Making.” The White House Blog.

Recommended Reading

Ecosystem services and resource management: Institutional issues, challenges, and opportunities in the public sector
A 2015 study published in the journal Ecological Economics by Lynn Scarlett, The Nature Conservancy, and Jim Boyd, SESYNC and Resources for the Future.

Principles to Guide Assessments of Ecosystem Service Values
A 2013 document arising from the Ecosystem Services Valuation Workshop held July 8–9, 2013, at Portland State University, an event sponsored by Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, the Cascadia Ecosystem Services Partnership, and Defenders of Wildlife.

Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy
A 2011 Report to the President from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Working Group on Biodiversity Preservation and Ecosystem Sustainability.

U.S. Federal Government Sends Agencies to Bat — For Nature and People
A 2015 blog published in Cool Green Science by Heather Tallis, The Nature Conservancy, and Lydia Olander, Duke University.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center 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.

SESYNC Welcomes Joe Maher

October 20, 2015

Communications Coordinator

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

Name: Joe Maher
PhD: Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Maryland
SESYNC Project: Valuing Forest Benefits & Policies across Multiple Spatial Scales: From Urban Shade Trees to Amazon Protected Areas

How would you describe your primary field of study?

Environmental economics.

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

I use data to understand how policies shape people’s incentives to behave differently, and I apply that to issues that have environmental significance—such as, for example, energy use and conservation.

Can you briefly describe your proposed SESYNC postdoctoral project?

Mine is a two-part project: the first investigates the potential energy savings from shade trees. In warm climates, trees provide natural air conditioning by shading homes, which at least anecdotally decreases energy generation. But do shade trees provide measurable and verifiable benefits that are comparable to engineering-based policy solutions? I will be working to address quantitatively whether energy savings vary across tree species, shade intensity, and house characteristics to determine whether urban forestry is a cost-effective policy tool for managing energy demand.

The second part of my project investigates the makings of effective protected areas. In an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation and degradation and enhance forest carbon stocks, governments in tropical regions are establishing vast networks of protected forest areas. However, the link between protected area designation and avoided deforestation is widely debated. My project will investigate tropical forest conservation policies and how protecting a piece of land that has forest on it augments the deforestation rate from what would have occurred otherwise without the protections. I’ll also investigate whether the incentives of various government agencies influence protected area effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions.

Is there anything about your work that the general public might find surprising?

To a lot of people, “environmental economics” sounds made-up or contradictory. I’m not an environmentalist advocating for any particular economic policies—rather, I evaluate whether environmental policies are effective or efficient, and how the benefits measure up to the costs of implementation.

To learn more about Dr. Maher 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 Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Reporting on Climate-Smart Villages in India

September 28, 2015

Fellow for Socio-Environmental Understanding

In India, groundwater is at risk from over-pumping. Soils are deteriorating. Heat is stressing crops. Rain has become more erratic. Warming is contributing to immense climatic variation, affecting agriculture across a variety of states. Agriculture is primed for sustainable solutions, in India and elsewhere. What will this mean for India’s food security, especially the poor who cannot keep up with rising food prices?

Earlier this month, I met with the farmers, policy advisors, business leaders, and researchers attempting to answer this question and more, thanks to a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. In the coming weeks, look for my reports on farmers and researchers in India, and elsewhere in the developing world, attempting to reconcile how to feed a growing global population amid sweeping environmental changes at the food, water, and energy nexus.

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): 

Natural Resource, Environmental & Ecological Economics Postdoctoral Fellowships


December 1, 2015, at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST)

Please note: Late applications will not be accepted.


The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), located in Annapolis, Maryland, invites applications for two-year postdoctoral fellowships to begin between May 1 and October 1, 2016.

The SESYNC Postdoctoral Fellowship Program brings early-career scholars to SESYNC to:

SESYNC Welcomes Christopher Trisos

September 14, 2015

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

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.

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