grad school

Scanning the Horizon of Ecological Research: A graduate student initiative

by Luke Lamb

Once again I find myself looking to the horizon for answers and guidance through the convoluted world of research. 

Graduate school, at its fundamental core, is about building up a skillset, with breadth and depth, that will guarantee you success in the future. That’s right, grad school is really all about your future. Of course, we must be present-minded but it’s always an interesting endeavor to consider future scenarios (a point I’ve tried to make in a prior Rapid Ecology post), whether they be about your own career trajectory or the world in general. Take this recent publication by Hansen et al., for example, who synthesized student perspectives on the problems, challenges, and solutions to ensuring a vibrant and diverse field of ecology in the 21st century.

I find the Hansen et al. paper a much more accurate/telling/relevant indicator of where the field of ecology is going than if the paper had been written by folks of more senior career status (i.e. professors). The reason for this is simple: Hansen et al. are graduate students and it is the current generation of graduate students who will become the leaders of their respective fields in the years that come. It’s the ideas and perspectives of us graduate students (myself being one of them), and early career scientists, that will truly dictate when true change within the field comes to fruition in the decades to come.

Hansen et al. got me thinking: what new, ground-breaking research advancements do graduate students think will occur in ecology during the 21st century? While I don’t have the answer to this question yet, this is the central theme of an initiative I will present to grad students at the Long-Term Ecological Research network (LTER) and to the Ecological Society of America’s Student Section. I believe that these two networks of grad students are perfectly poised to answer this question because not only do these two networks encompass the full range of ecological sub-disciplines, but we also represent a diversity of backgrounds. But something so broad an endeavor begs the question: where do we begin?

Well, I think a good place to start is by looking to the LTER program. The Long-Term Ecological Research program was initiated in 1980 by the National Science Foundation with five initial core research areas (Franklin et al. 1990):

  1. Pattern and control of primary production
  2. Spatial and temporal distribution of populations selected to represent trophic structure
  3. Pattern and control of organic matter accumulation in surface layers and sediments
  4. Pattern of inorganic inputs and movements of nutrients through soils, groundwater, and surface waters; and
  5. Pattern and frequency of disturbance to the research site.

Since then, two core themes have been added with the addition of urban LTER sites, but the initial five core themes remain essentially unchanged, which is a testament to their importance to the field of ecology, to the sound science that LTER produces, and to the ability of LTER senior scientists to not, “rock the boat”, so to speak (the boat being the National Science Foundation). Six sites were initially funded in 1980: HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, Coweeta, Konza Prairie, Niwot Ridge, the North Temperate Lakes, and the North Inlet. Almost 40 years later, the LTER Network of sites has grown to 28, including two in Antarctica, one in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and two focused on urban ecology. A global version, the International LTER, also grew out of the LTER Network and now exists as a stand-alone entity spanning dozens of regions around the world.

A number of papers have been published discussing the contributions and strong-points of LTER, with two papers I particularly like coming from a 1990 BioScience publication featuring three LTER focused articles. Two of these three articles describe LTER as revealing the “invisible present” and the “invisible place”. The authors of these articles eloquently describe how LTER illuminates patterns and processes that would otherwise be “invisible” in time and space, only to be exposed because of repetitive data collection over time and across broad spatial extents.

Research within the LTER core themes have already led to a wealth of innovative, compelling, and breakthrough research. This 2003 BioScience special issue contains a number of articles detailing specific instances where the long-term approach has made breakthroughs in fields such as biosphere-atmosphere interactions, disturbance ecology, ecological modeling, and conservation ecology, to name a few  (see Hobbie et al. 2003 for summary of these advancements). While a recent paper by John Kominoski and colleagues actually advances a theoretical framework, Eugene Odum’s “strategy of ecosystem development”, by looking at it through the lens of long-term research.

Given what has already come out of the LTER Network, I find it intriguing to think about what new and unforeseen surprises lengthened datasets will reveal in coming years. Kratz et al. 2003 discuss examples from the LTER Network where long-term data afforded answers to questions that would not have been otherwise possible. Since this paper was published, four sites have been added and datasets have, in some cases, lengthened by 15 years. Imagine how much more we may know because of long-term approaches in 10, 20, 35 years? What ecological surprises will come from datasets that could, in many cases, span 50-60+ years?

So, what does the future look like and why entrust graduate students to envision it? I understand that advances in science are rarely planned and that if we try to envision the future, there’s a high likelihood of being wrong. But, by banding together and doing so anyways, we may be able to develop innovative ideas that lay the foundation for new research collaborations. To grad students reading this: I task you with this question. Where do you see the discussion on biodiversity in 15 years? Will climate change still be a widely researched theme, or will we curb emissions and see a shift in research priorities? What are the priority needs to improve global models and continental-scale ecology and how can long-term approaches help? Was Chapron et al. right in their “Final Warming to Planet Earth”? These are just a few of the multitude of questions and avenues to pursue. Also check this recent Dynamic Ecology post for a more detailed list on potential advancements in the next 50 years. And yes it is pure coincidence this post is coming out on the heels of the discussion being renewed over at DE :-).

Comments are open for this post and I’d love what people think about an initiative where graduate students “scan the horizon of our ecological future”. I’ll also be workshopping this idea at the upcoming LTER ASM for anyone reading who might be in attendance. Stay tuned for a post summarizing what we come up with!

Author Biography: Luke Lamb is pursuing his Masters in Science in Biology at Florida International University in the Wetland Ecosystems Research Lab where he focuses on the response of coastal marshes in the Florida Coastal Everglades to sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion. He is also currently serving as Managing Editor for Rapid Ecology. Catch him tweeting from @Luke_LambWotton.

Image Credit: Luke Lamb. All rights reserved.