Evolutionary Ecology & Ecosystem Ecology 101: PhD student perspectives on Duke’s required course for ecology PhDs

Authors: Nicholas Bruns (River Ecology); Rebecca Cook (Human Paleontology); David De La Mater (Conservation Ecology); Joseph Fader (Behavioral Ecology); Rhyne Gulley (Yes) (Masters of Teaching); Karn Imwattana (Moss yes); Christopher Kilner (Global Change); Amanda Lohmann (Community Ecology); Anna Nordseth (Tropical Ecology); Brandie Quarles (Plant Evolutionary Ecology); Hannah Salomons (Animal Cognition); Lane Scher (Community Ecology); Audrey Thellman (Biogeochemistry); Jillian Wisse (Behavioral Ecology)

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Graduate students excitedly co-authoring this blog post about our Duke Ecology core course. In just an hour and a half, we condensed many hours of discussion into one blog post. Is this post an example of rapid idea evolution? (photo credit: Emily Bernhardt)

As graduates students completing the last day of class for Duke University Program in Ecology’s required core course, we wanted to take the time to synthesize and share our thoughts from the course. This course was ostensibly designed to expose us to the fields of evolutionary and ecosystem ecology. This may seem like a strange combination, but see the accompanying blog post from the faculty leads for why it works. Today, we sat together in the classroom and thought critically about our experience over the course of the semester. We learned (and are still learning) how to be effective ecologists by acknowledging naivete, practicing communication skills, integrating ideas across subdisciplines, and cultivating a network of colleagues.

  1. There is value in recognizing naivete.

Historically, there has been a rift between ecosystem ecology and evolutionary ecology, which makes interface between fields difficult. Each discipline has its own dogma, vocabulary, and pre-existing prejudices about other fields, which can potentially foster groupthink and hinder innovation. As green PhD students, we are accustomed to recognizing the limitations of our own knowledge. Furthermore, we are still learning about the historical undercurrents of ecology and its subdisciplines. This naivete encourages openness in the face of novel ideas, thereby opening up new frontiers for conversation.

A specific barrier for many established ecologists in these subdisciplines is language itself, which may muddy the waters of communication or even stall the advancement of knowledge. Words and concepts may have different meanings in each subdiscipline. As relatively new ecologists, we are less entrenched in one meaning and are more open to alternative interpretations. Saying some “trigger words” (e.g. system, evolution, adaptation, group selection, emergence, superorganism, etc.) can elicit negative responses from scientists who have a strong background in one discipline or another. For example, many evolutionary ecologists cringe at the idea of a “superorganism”. With this explicit bias, research into putative superorganisms and their evolution is limited. The full potential of this idea is not realized, despite groundbreaking research into superorganism evolution in human immigrants and their microbiome and coral reefs and climate change. By virtue of not yet being fully established in one subdiscipline, we have the opportunity to learn these concepts in a way that will facilitate cross-disciplinary communication.

  1. Learning to communicate is a skill that all ecologists need to practice.

Even a branch of science with a name as specific as “ecology” contains numerous specialized fields. Often, those of us in science interact almost exclusively with people in our own specialized subdiscipline. We are not often asked to communicate complicated scientific ideas to people without a high level of knowledge in our area of expertise. We rely on complicated terminology and often assume others know all the core concepts of our specialized field. This can prevent effective communication across fields, which in turn prevents exchange of knowledge and potential collaborations.

This class brought together a diverse mix of ecologists from a variety of subdisciplines. Since we were surrounded by colleagues with expertise in different fields, we had to practice communicating complex ideas from our own field without jargon and complicated terminology. Similarly, we had the opportunity to learn from our peers in other fields as they described ideas unfamiliar to us. At the start of the course, we discussed how to foster a respectful and productive class atmosphere. First, we took the time to get to know one another as scientists and as people. We also emphasized that knowledge gaps are normal, and that asking for clarification on unfamiliar topics is acceptable and encouraged. At the end of each class, we “discussed the discussion” as a way to maintain open communication and to talk about how we can more effectively learn from each other in class.

  1. Integrating ideas at the interface of ecosystem and evolutionary ecology will unlock new research frontiers.

While the course was divided into ecosystem and evolutionary ecology segments, there was constant cross-communication between them: i.e. the ecosystem scientists brought new perspectives to the discussion on evolution, and vice versa. These conversations helped identify frontiers at the interface of these two seemingly disparate fields. For example, the effects of anthropogenic change on evolutionary dynamics and ecosystem properties were a recurring thread throughout our discussions over the course of the semester. These are obvious frameworks within which to consider human impacts on environments.Humans have influenced evolutionary dynamics of many species in many ways (e.g., invasions, extinctions, population bottlenecks, different adaptive pressures, etc). Similarly, ecosystem science is an essential component for understanding human impacts on the planet as we have fundamentally altered energy and nutrient flows and even the geomorphology of the planet so much that the term anthropocene has entered common usage.

Yet how each of these fields relate to the other in the context of environmental change is not always clear. This course forced us to consider these aspects which should enrich an understanding of the overall effects of change and provide exciting frontiers to pursue. For example, when considering the impacts on population changes of a species that influence evolutionary dynamics, it may be important to tie in ecosystem properties. And vice versa, when considering large scale ecosystem frameworks of how human have altered systems, it is difficult, but important, to consider how the evolutionary trajectories of the disparate species in that system may ultimately be affected by that change. There may be important feedbacks between each of these processes that affect the other.

  1. Creating a network of colleges with expertise in different sub-disciplines will lead to collaboration and cross communication.

At the beginning of this class, we were asked how we would build an ecosystem. Some of us started with megafauna, while others wanted to begin with the substrate. As ecologists, we exist along a spectrum of beliefs, and instead of alienating each other’s perspectives, it is more useful to embrace the differences and learn something you don’t already know. This useful exercise helps us understand that even within ecology we are thinking at different scales both in time and space.

So, what do you get when you cross an ecosystem ecologist and an evolutionary ecologist? A mutual respect for the unfamiliar field and the tools to enter uncharted conversations. This class has given us the ability to recognize that we don’t know everything, nor do we need to. We have become comfortable enough to step into the conversation and ask questions. The networks we have developed in this class will push us towards future frontiers. In a way this course was similar to a “science cocktail party”; we are collecting tibits of intel that we can use at future networking events, conferences, and even job interviews. In lieu of the awkward silence when asked about one of these topics, we will remember this class and say, “Oh! I know someone who studies that, here’s what they’re working on and here’s why it’s cool!”.

Even though we may not all co-author papers in the future, the connections we have woven will continue to inform each other’s work. We will reach out to one another and continue to bridge the gap between evolution and ecosystem science far into the future.

Author Biography: The author list consists of students who took this course in Fall of 2018. This blog post was prepared during our final two meetings in a whirlwind of collaborative writing.