Research Directions and Background

My broad research interests are to understand long-term change in complex social-ecological systems. In particular, I am interested in understanding how human modification of the environment affects the sustainability of keystone species and functional groups. Changes in these species and groups can often be subtle and hard to detect over short time scales, and systems can reach “tipping points” suddenly, with unexpected losses in ecosystem function and biodiversity. My focus is on methodologies for modeling and understanding the temporal dynamics of these systems, especially using pre-existing or “found” data.

I have experience in a variety of academic disciplines.  I have worked explicitly on learning and studying interdisciplinary processes in environmental science, as well as working at the interface between statistical modeling and ecology. I also have experience in seismology and condensed matter physics.  I currently work on complex social-ecological systems.

Reflections on Disciplinary Perspectives

I find that physics gives me both an excellent background in mathematics and computation as well as an appreciation for fundamental underlying processes.  My background in geology gives me a sense of “deep time” (time scales much longer than human lifespans or observation periods) and the ability to infer process from pattern (that is, guessing at the forces that shaped a landscape from looking at the results). In statistics, I found the explicit treatment of variation both helps to model non-identical objects (individual lions or trees have differences which may be important in understanding them, as opposed to carbon atoms or electrons), and also helps to model our observation or measurement processes, improving our calculations about the process of interest.  And sometimes the variation is the interesting part in a system! Ecology is about interactions between organisms of the same and different species and their interactions with their environment, and gives me a way to view interconnected systems.  And finally, interdisciplinarity has given me the ability to think through how we know what we know through statistics and how to use data to create knowledge as well as guidance on how to act on it. I have a better perspective on how to work with the social aspects of ecosystems as well as the biological aspects. All these abilities come together in the study of complex social-ecological systems, which requires sophisticated statistics, understanding of underlying mechanisms, appreciation of long-term changes, and accounting of human influences.