America Trip: Princeton

After the chaos of New York I cant even begin to describe how relieved I was to be in Princeton. It felt like Stars Hollow (from Gilmore Girls… which I totally dont watch) except that everyone was rich and well educated. Trees lined the streets, squirrels and birds abounded and it was a critical 5 degrees cooler than New York which had felt like being inside an oven. I imagine the Princeton is a little less idyllic when it isn’t holidays, what with drunken students stumbling around everywhere but I’d still go back.

When I got into town I dropped my bags off at the AirBnB place I was staying at (which was completely lovely and reasonably priced) and headed in to Princeton University to meet Matthieu Barbier who had graciously organised a schedule of meetings for me during my stay. I’ll briefly describe each of the people I met.

Matthieu Barbier

Matthieu is a bit of an enigma, he works in the Levin Lab which focuses broadly in ecology and evolution but his expertise is in linguistics and physics. He was my point of contact at Princeton (because of his cross disciplinary expertise and the possibility that he could advise me on linguistic grounds). He is interested in introducing more qualitative methods to hard sciences and more quantitative methods to fields like linguistics. The main project he is working on at the moment is to do with bringing a qualitative emphasis to ecology by studying generalisable rules about how people make ecological choices.

Simon Levin

Simon Levin has been one of my research heroes for a long time so it was fantastic to get some career advice from him. He says that for your first post-doc you should look for a job where you can

  • Do something new
  • Take ownership over a project
  • Diversify your skills and expertise
  • Work in large labs where you can benefit from collaboration

Some funding schemes that he suggested for me and might be relevant for other QAECOlogists and allies are:

SESYNC: The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Centre, where they use science to inform conservation policy. They have lots of post-doc opportunities but usually you dont work in a large groups so it might be a bit isolating

NatureNet Fellowships: These are run by The Nature Conservancy and you apply at one of their partner universities: Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, Stanford, the University of

Pennsylvania, and Yale.  According to the NatureNet site they are looking for outstanding early-career scientists who seek to improve and expand their research skills while directing their efforts toward problems at the interface of conservation, business and technology.

Henry Horn

Henry is a Renaissance Man who is a naturalist, statistician, historian, artist and musician. He had some really interesting stories about debates and conflicts in ecology and has been involved in some himself. His insights on these conflicts were interesting. He observed that in a lot of cases, debating ecological concepts seems to cause people to abandon their original moderate views and become polarised such that both sides end up unreasonable. Listening to his stories I resolved not to fall into this trap whenever I take part in an ecological debate. During our conversation he also showed me a song he has composed about statistics called ‘The Kuhn and Popper Knee-jerk Philosophy of Science Blues’ which features memorable lines such as “If you publish random papers, with your students working in teams, 5% of what you say will be statistical truth or so it seems. And if anyone says you’re a Fisherian liar, you can rescue yourself with a Bayesian Prior”.

Aneike Van Leeuwen

Aneike studies size structured population dynamic models which take into account energy flows in the system. We bonded over terminological difficulties. I told her about my woodland bird problem and she told me about how people tend to generalise between age structured population dynamic models and size structured ones. Both terms are used to refer to models will a vast range of complexity only some of which take into account feedback loops between size, resource availability, population size and growth. Apparently this often leads to miscommunication between researchers. We talked about how these misunderstandings could be ameliorated but didn’t come to any good conclusions.

Lyndon Estes

Lyndon has a wide range of interests but it seemed that his passion lies in examining land use change in Africa. We talked primarily about my work on ecological terms and how that related to stuff he’s come across over the years. He spoke about:

  • taxonomic change in birds where sometimes the divisions between species are based on the most minor characteristics.
  • The species concept: he studied Mountain Bongo antelope which is a subspecies with extremely limited distribution where the other subspecies is widespread – depending on whether you are interested in species or subspecies level protection these animals may or may not get protection
  • A recent article by Holly Gibbs found some surprising results about land degradation, particularly in tropical forests which has prompted a review of how consistently tropical forest is being classified, particularly how it is distinguished from tropical savannah.

David Wilcove

David is the head of his own lab at Princeton which focuses on protecting biodiversity particularly in Asia and the Americas (and often with a focus on birds). He’s an extremely engaging guy and he had some interesting insights into my current work.

At the moment I’m working with Martine Maron, Alex Kutt, Jeremy Simmonds, and my supervisors to try and get Australia’s woodland bird community listed as a Threatened Ecological Community under the EPBC Act. David suggested that I should identify which species are threatened and declining and the processes that are threatening them as a way of prioritising which species should be protected. This is definitely something that I will consider as we approach this problem in the coming months. David was also kind enough to set me up to meet a number of his lab members who I will describe next.

Fangyuan Hua

Fangyuan is studying how the current reforestation efforts in China are affecting regional economies and biodiversity (with an emphasis on birds). She’s using a whole swathe of indices to measure biodiversity including species richness, community composition, changes in abundance and beta diversity. As part of her research she studies forest dependent and open dependent species because it’s a necessary simplification but believes that studying resource/habitat preference on continuous scales (creating a n-dimensional hyper-volume resource niche) would be a more rigorous approach in many cases.

Janice Ser Huay Lee

Janice studies agricultural intensification in Sumatra and how (and why) various farmers make decisions about how to use their land. She simulates these changes across the landscapes and looks at the social, economic and environmental consequences these decisions and (perhaps) how to influence them. She was interested in my topic and suggested that I write a review article about the influence of ecological terms to broaden the emphasis of my current research which is fairly firmly grounded in one example. I think this is something I will pursue… once I’ve written my thesis.

Umesh Srinivasan

Umesh studies the effect of landuse change on bird demography and how species turnover on an elevation gradient relates to community level metrics. One of the metrics he is particularly interested in at the moment is body size. I don’t know much about this but it appears that there is a trend towards larger species having smaller population sizes. Therefore the population size of these larger species can be used as a measure of how well a community is doing.

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1 Response to America Trip: Princeton

  1. Pingback: My Epic Trip to America | Hannah Fraser Research

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