Welcome to
SESYNC
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision-making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. We convene science teams to work on broad issues of national and international relevance, such as water resources management, land management, agriculture, species protection, among other areas of study. By supporting interdisciplinary science teams and researchers with diverse skills, data, and perspectives, SESYNC seeks to lead in-depth research and scholarship that will inform decisions and accelerate scientific discovery. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

SESYNC Welcomes Noelle Beckman

August 5, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

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

Name: Noelle Beckman
PhD: Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Hometown: Asheville, NC (Born in Nuremberg, Germany)
SESYNC Project: Developing a general classification scheme for assessing species’ risk under climate change in fragmented landscapes
Mentor/Collaborator: Dr. James Bullock, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK

How would you describe your primary field of study?

Based on my training I think of myself as a community ecologist, but the work I’ll be doing at SESYNC is more population ecology. A strong foundation in theoretical ecology underlies both of these perspectives.

What’s the difference between community ecology and population ecology, in terms of the questions you’re interested in asking?

From a community ecology perspective, I’m interested in what mechanisms can maintain biodiversity and support the many species we see coexisting. For example, my dissertation looked at tropical forests in Panama to better understand how different mechanisms such as seed dispersal, seed predation by insects, or plant diseases influence plant diversity.

From a population ecology perspective, I’m interested in what might explain population growth and population spread of plants, how that might relate to their characteristics, and how that might change with respect to climate change and landscape fragmentation.

Can you briefly describe your proposed SESYNC postdoctoral project?

At SESYNC, I’ll be developing a general classification scheme to easily and quickly assess the extinction risk for a broad range of plant species in fragmented landscapes under climate change. To develop this classification scheme, I will apply novel statistical and mathematical approaches to synthesized dispersal and demography datasets. One of my sources of data will be the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database, co-developed by SESYNC postdoc Judy Che-Castaldo.

Why is this research important?

My hope is that this classification scheme will aid the identification of species most at risk from ongoing climate change. The insights gained can help prioritize conservation strategies and policies for the management of landscapes that can be implemented with limited budgets but that have long-term benefits.

Why is SESYNC the right place to undertake this research?

Most of my previous work has been basic ecological research—and to be honest, I’m not sure how many people outside the field of ecology are interested in reading it. What I like about SESYNC is that it facilitates fundamental research in such a way that it can be usable by a wide range of stakeholders, both within and beyond academia. SESYNC is also ideally located near Washington DC, providing geographic access to many governmental agencies and NGOs that I hope could benefit from my postdoctoral research.

What are you reading right now?

Dispersal Ecology and Evolution, co-authored by my mentor/collaborator James Bullock. And I should probably finish Matrix Population Models by Hal Caswell, too!

What’s your favorite scientific theory?

My favorite is the set of hypotheses proposed to explain the adaptive function of secondary metabolites in ripe fruit. Why are some ripe fruit toxic? What is the role of seed dispersers, seed predators, and pathogens? I also work on the Janzen–Connell hypothesis a lot. It proposes an explanation for how insects, pathogens, and other natural enemies that kill and consume plants help maintain local plant diversity.

If you could attempt a profession other than your own, what would it be?

For a while I wanted to be a rock climbing teacher—but I’ve only ever been rock climbing twice. And I think DJ’ing could be a lot of fun, if I could stay up that late.

Could you describe a time when the element of ‘surprise’ played a role in your research?

You mean like the time I accidentally sat on a cactus doing fieldwork in the desert?

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): 

SESYNC at ESA

August 1, 2015

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is celebrating its centennial in Baltimore this year! Catch SESYNC staff and researchers at sessions and events during the ESA annual meeting August 9–14, 2015.

(You can also find us at booth #229!)

Sunday, August 9

ESA Welcome Reception
6:30–8 pm
Key Ballroom Lobby, Hilton
Co-sponsored by SESYNC

Monday, August 10

ESA Scientific Plenary & ESA Awards Session
8–11:30 am
Key Ballroom, Hilton
Panelists include Margaret Palmer, SESYNC Director

Symposium: Global Change & Infectious Disease Dynamics
1:30–5 pm
309, Baltimore Convention Center
Organized by Andrew Dobson, SESYNC Principal Investigator, and featuring participants of the SESYNC synthesis team “Land Use Change & Infectious Diseases”

Tuesday, August 11

Symposium: How Can Ecology Learn from the ‘Science of Team Science’?
1:30–5 pm
309, Baltimore Convention Center
Co-sponsored by SESYNC
2 pm: “Ecological synthesis paves the way to transdisciplinary socio-environmental synthesis” by Margaret Palmer, SESYNC Director

Organized Oral Session: Demographic Buffering Beyond the Comfort Zone: Species’ Responses to Anthropogenic Disturbances
1:30–5 pm
316, Baltimore Convention Center
4 pm: "Forest fragmentation alters the population dynamics of a late-successional tropical tree" by Jenny Zambrano, SESYNC–LTER postdoc

Contributed Talk: Biogeography & Macroecology I
1:30–5 pm
319, Baltimore Convention Center
4:20 pm: “Environmental drivers of functional diversity of near-pristine coral reef fish communities at marcoecological scales” by Lauren Yeager, SESYNC postdoc

Organized Oral Session: The Macroecology of Infectious Disease
1:30–5 pm
344, Baltimore Convention Center
4:40 pm: “An equilibrium theory signature in the island distribution of human pathogens” by William Burnside, SESYNC postdoc

Synthesis Center Reception
5:30–7:30 pm
Family Meal, 621 East Pratt Street, Baltimore
Hors d’oeuvres, drinks, and networking for all career levels
Co-sponsored by SESYNC, NIMBioS, NCEAS, and the Powell Center

Wednesday, August 12

Contributed Talk: Conservation Management III
8–11:30 am
325, Baltimore Convention Center
8:20 am: “Solving the mystery of marine protected area performance: Linking governance to ecological outcomes” by Helen Fox, SESYNC Principal Investigator

Thursday, August 13

Contributed Talk: Urban Ecosystems II
8–11:30 am
348, Baltimore Convention Center
10:50 am: "Plant community assembly in cultivated urban ecosystems" by Meghan Avolio, SESYNC–LTER postdoc

Federal Agency Networking Session
11:30 am–1:15 pm
316, Baltimore Convention Center
Featuring Margaret Palmer, SESYNC Director, and Jonathan Kramer, SESYNC Director of Interdisciplinary Science

Contributed Talk: Education: Pedagogy
1:30–5 pm
322, Baltimore Convention Center
2:30 pm: “Using case studies to engage undergraduates in socio-ecological synthesis: Urban biodiversity example” by participants of the SESYNC short course Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies

Contributed Talk: Modeling: Populations I
1:30–5 pm
342, Baltimore Convention Center
4:20 pm: “Testing the use of surrogate demographic information for endangered species management” by Judy Che-Castaldo, SESYNC postdoc

Friday, August 14

Contributed Talk: Urban Ecosystems IV
8–11:30 am
347, Baltimore Convention Center
9:20 am: “Replumbing cities from gray to green: Exploring controls on stormwater infrastructure transitions” by Kristina Hopkins, SESYNC postdoc

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.

Congratulations to SESYNC’s Outgoing Class of Postdocs

July 13, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) congratulates its outgoing postdoc class on the successful completion of their fellowships! We wish them the best of luck in their future research and teaching endeavors—and look forward to seeing some of them back at SESYNC for synthesis team meetings.

Harish Padmanabha

PhD: Entomology, University of Florida
SESYNC project: Global Change & Health
Moving on to: Universidad del Norte, Colombia
Position: Research scientist, Center for Human Development Research; Lecturer, Departments of Psychology and Public Health
What he’ll be doing there: Synthesizing ecological and psychological approaches to how humans cope with uncertainty, and teaching courses in human adaptation and evolution

Andres Baeza

PhD: Natural Resources, University of Chile
SESYNC project: Cooperation in Semi-Desert Environments
Moving on to: Arizona State University
Position: Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Sustainability
What he’ll be doing there: Modeling human decisions and adaptation to climate change in Mexico City

Lorien Jasny

PhD: Sociology, University of California, Irvine
SESYNC project: Dynamic Belief Networks
Moving on to: University of Exeter, United Kingdom
Position: Lecturer, Q-Step Centre
What she’ll be doing there: Teaching courses in statistics and social network analysis, and pursuing research and grants related to the linkage of social and environmental networks

Mary Collins

PhD: Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara
SESYNC project: System Vulnerability
Moving on to: State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF)
Position: Assistant Professor, Department of Environmental Studies
What she’ll be doing there: Teaching courses in environmental health and environmental health management, and pursuing research that examines the social structures that give rise to extreme patterns in the production of pollution and that links pollution to human health impacts

Neil Carter

PhD: Conservation Biology, Michigan State University
SESYNC project: People and Biodiversity
Moving on to: Boise State University
Position: Assistant Professor, Center for Human-Environment Systems, College of Innovation and Design
What he’ll be doing there: Integrating different sciences to examine how people and wildlife interact with the goal of using that knowledge to better inform decisions that both protect wildlife and sustain (or improve) human well-being

Elise Larsen

PhD: Biological Sciences, University of Maryland
SESYNC project: Spatiotemporal Patterns in North American Butterfly Abundance and Phenology Using Citizen Science Monitoring
Moving on to: Georgetown University
Position: Postdoctoral Researcher, Biology Department
What she’ll be doing there: Statistical methods for analysis of citizen science insect monitoring and museum collection data

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): 

Using Agent-Based Models to Design Better Conservation Policies

July 9, 2015

A tiger caught on a motion-detecting camera trap in Nepal, courtesy Neil Carter.

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

In a technical paper recently published in Ecological Modelling, conservation scientist Neil Carter and coauthors introduce a new spatially-explicit agent-based model of tiger population dynamics shaped by different territorial behaviors of males and females.

The devil is in the details. To Neil Carter, that means more effective conservation policies can be designed by zooming in and looking closely at how tigers, on an individual scale, interact with the landscape and with each other.

Dr. Carter, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), is interested in conservation forecasts. He wants to know how different human activities—such as forest degradation and fragmentation, poaching, and road building—may in the future affect the globally endangered Panthera tigris so that we may know how best to protect them (and the people who live alongside them).

“Human–tiger interactions are characterized by complex feedbacks that begin with overlapping use of land and, in their deadliest iterations, can lead to tiger attacks on people and livestock and retaliatory killings of tigers,” says Carter. “In these interactions, people and tigers are making decisions with respect to one another. Policies that both improve human well-being and advance conservation therefore require a deep understanding of human and animal decision making integrated together.”

Agent-based models (ABMs) can help facilitate such understanding. ABMs are sophisticated computational tools useful for exploring how these decision making processes play off one another without having to actually manipulate them in the real world. And insights gleaned from these models can help researchers make data-supported predictions about outcomes from different management scenarios, Carter says.

But making predictions from computational models that are useful to policy makers benefits tremendously by looking tiger-to-tiger.

"We might have numbers-based expectations for how a tiger population will respond to urban development or protection of natural habitat: a certain amount of land and a certain number of animals should elicit a certain response. But sometimes populations don’t respond how we expect, because there are one-on-one interactions within populations that influence responses to changes in the landscape," explains Carter.

The one-on-one interactions Carter refers to are territorial behaviors. Territoriality impacts the size and age composition of tiger populations in an important way—for example, as natural habitat shrinks from human development and tigers are pushed closer and closer together, rates of infanticide (male tigers killing cubs sired by another) may rise. Infanticide leads to fluctuations in the number of tiger young, potentially making the tiger population more susceptible to human-caused threats.

Infanticide and other territorial behaviors are normal interactions among tigers in a spatially heterogeneous environment, yet they are interactions previous models were unable to capture. So Carter set out to build an ABM that could capture these complex dynamics at high resolution. It was no small feat: it took him and his collaborators one year to build, verify, and validate the model. Carter and his coauthors applied the model to Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, a biodiversity hotspot for which there exists a wealth of site-specific data. But because the ABM is based on basic principles of territoriality (e.g., resource requirements and dominance relationships), it can be applied to any site for which habitat-specific empirical data such as territory sizes and tiger and prey densities are available.

The utility of the model is in applying what we already know about tiger behaviors to possible future scenarios, providing data-supported “if, then” predictions.

“The paper is our introduction of the ABM to the modelling community in all its gory detail. So, hack away—and we can then begin to build on it to explore policy relevant questions in hotspots for human–carnivore conflict,” says Carter.

The paper, “Modeling tiger population and territory dynamics using an agent-based approach,” Neil Carter, Simon Levin, Adam Barlow, and Volker Grimm, was published online June 24, 2015, in the journal Ecological Modelling.

The model will be accessible via OpenABM, and code for the model can be downloaded via the paper’s supplementary data.

Visualization of a model scenario showing changes in female (orange) and male (blue) tiger territories, courtesy Neil Carter.

Above graphic: Visualization of a model scenario showing changes in female (orange) and male (blue) tiger territories, courtesy Neil Carter.

Top photo: A tiger caught on a motion-detecting camera trap in Nepal, courtesy Neil Carter.

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): 

Advancing the Role of Psychology in Environmental Sustainability

June 25, 2015

Figure: Mechanisms of climate change impact on human well-being. Reproduced with permission from ref. 98, © 2014 APA and ecoAmerica.

Figure: Mechanisms of climate change impact on human well-being. Reproduced with permission from ref. 98, © 2014 APA and ecoAmerica. doi:10.1038/nclimate2622

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

Scientists, management agencies, and a broad spectrum of leaders across many aspects of society caution that global changes in climate—such as increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns—can no longer be ignored. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions; safeguarding our agricultural economy and food supply; building stronger, safer water infrastructure; and preparing for climate-related public health crises are at the forefront of discussions and debates worldwide.

But the fields traditionally associated with climate change research—such as geophysics, oceanography, and paleoclimatology—only reveal part of the picture. The natural sciences can’t answer questions about how cognitive processes and social relationships influence the public’s understanding of and engagement with climate change science.

In a new paper published in Nature Climate Change, a team of researchers makes the strong case for the role of psychology in responding and adapting to climate change. Individual behavior ultimately drives social change, the researchers explain, including the adoption of new technologies and support for policies. But research focused on factors that influence decisions and behavior at the individual level hasn’t received the attention it deserves in the debates on climate change.

Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster and lead author of the paper, says that psychology is critical to understanding cognitive and emotional tendencies and how they affect human behavior. Integrating psychological research into climate change discussions can help decision makers avoid misunderstandings about human behavior that can lead to ineffective or misguided policies.

“Public perceptions of climate change are affected more strongly by social identities, belief systems, and motivational biases than by scientific knowledge about the topic,” she said. “The psychological perspective is uniquely placed to understand individual factors of human interactions with a changing climate.”

Clayton points out that we’re at a transformative moment for thinking about how human values influence responses to climate change. It’s an important opportunity for psychologists to “lean in” to the climate change dialogue.

“Psychology has more to contribute to the conversation about climate change than has been fully realized,” she says. “Our team encourages psychologists to expand their engagement with important environmental issues through multiple research approaches in order to further their understanding of human behavior, contributions to human well-being, and relevance to other disciplines and to society.”

This work was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875.

The paper, “Psychological research and global climate change,” Susan Clayton, Patrick Devine-Wright, Paul C. Stern, et al., was published online June 24, 2015, in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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.

Linking Changes in Stream Flow to Urban History

June 11, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

Ask any long-term resident of Baltimore, Boston, or Pittsburgh: a lot has changed over the past 60 years. Streets have spread and buildings have blossomed, covering each city with more and more of the hard, impervious surfaces that lead to surges in rain and snowmelt runoff.

Past research has shown that urbanization of a landscape significantly changes the streams that flow through developed and developing areas. But studies that look at how urbanization has impacted a stream over time are rare. After all, long-term datasets on stream flow can be hard to come by.

New research published by SESYNC postdoctoral fellow Krissy Hopkins and co-authors takes a temporal approach to understanding the urban stream syndrome in six study sites throughout Baltimore, Boston, and Pittsburgh. The researchers found that the timing and magnitude of hydrologic changes are driven by the timing and intensity of urban development. In other words, the timing of a city's peak growth sets the stage for high-flow events and floods for decades to come.

“Cities, and the streams affected by urban development, are in a constant state of change. But our research pinpoints periods of time that are critical to understanding the health of an urban stream, because the data show that the most intense period of historical growth is the primary driver of the timing of stream flow changes we observed,” Hopkins said.

The authors explain that this is most likely because the time at which peak development took place determined the dominant type of stormwater infrastructure built. For example, developments built in Maryland prior to 1985 were not required to install management practices that reduce polluted runoff. In these older developments, stormwater is piped directly to local streams without treatment. With the passing of Maryland’s first Stormwater Management law in 1982, developments constructed after 1985 are required to install practices that treat the “first flush”—i.e., the first half inch of runoff from impervious surfaces.

The researchers' results underscore the importance of understanding the dynamic development patterns of individual cities to improve predictions of future impacts on stream ecosystems. Context is king—and knowing the unique history of a city can help explain major hydrologic events such as high flows and floods.

Hopkins points out that these insights are only possible with the kind of long-term data studies her team used, and she stresses the value of retrospective research to understand the drivers of change to urban streams. So what’s the next step? Hopkins says the six watersheds have different development patterns, stormwater infrastructure, and even natural landscape features that make direct cross-comparisons difficult. But a closer look at how these areas stack up against one another could help city planners develop effective water management strategies as urban areas continue to expand.

This work was supported by the Long-Term Ecological Research program’s Network Office (NSF #0832652 and #0936498) via an Urban Aquatics Working Group; the Central Arizona–Phoenix (NSF #1026865), Baltimore Ecosystem Study (NSF #1027188), and Plum Island Ecosystems (NSF #1058747) LTERs; and the University of Pittsburgh.

Above image (click to enlarge): Time lapse of development in the Gwynns Falls watershed, Maryland, courtesy Kristina Hopkins/SESYNC.

The research paper, “Type and timing of stream flow changes in urbanizing watersheds in the Eastern U.S.,” Kristina G. Hopkins, Nathaniel B. Morse, Daniel J. Bain, et al., was published online June 11, 2015, in the journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.

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.

Follow SESYNC on Twitter at @SESYNC and Dr. Hopkins at @kghopkin.

Top photo: An aerial view of Baltimore, Maryland, courtesy David Wilson via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Welcome, Summer 2015 Interns!

June 3, 2015

Above photo: Taste testing honey at the University of Maryland's Honey Bee Lab during the intern lab tour day, summer 2014.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) looks forward to the start of the 2015 SESYNC Undergraduate Internship Program on Monday, June 8!

This summer, 19 undergraduate students will join us for a unique experiential internship. Our program provides interns with opportunities to develop professional skills, meet people working on environmental problems, and deepen their understanding of socio-environmental issues. More specifically, interns will:

  • Obtain an authentic research experience and contribute to their mentor’s research program.
  • Enhance their understanding of the complex nature of socially-relevant environmental problems and the research approaches used to address them.
  • Enhance their understanding of how scientific evidence may be used to inform decision-making and policy with regard to environmental problems.

We will provide updates on the 2015 SESYNC Undergraduate Internship Program at the SESYNC blog and on our Twitter and Facebook channels. Stay tuned!

Our 2015 Interns and Mentors are:

Aaron Aber

  • Major: Environmental Science and Policy: Concentration in Politics and Policy
  • Mentor: Sacoby Wilson, Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, University of Maryland

Alisha Chan

  • Major: Civil and Environmental Engineering/Project Management
  • Mentor: Kristina Hopkins, SESYNC

Annibel Rice

  • Major: Environmental Science and Policy: Concentration in Politics and Policy
  • Mentor: Melissa Kenney, Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) and Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites Maryland (CICS-MD), University of Maryland

Audrey Vogel

  • Major: Environmental Science and Policy
  • Mentor: Kim Ross, National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, University of Maryland

Elisheva Mittleman

  • Major: Environmental Science and Policy
  • Mentor: Ariana Sutton-Grier, Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC), University of Maryland and National Ocean Service (NOS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Erica Brown

  • Major: Bioengineering/Sustainability
  • Mentor: Jon Froehlich, Computer Science and Information Studies, University of Maryland

Frederick Bergen

  • Major: Biochemistry
  • Mentor: Brian Needelman, Environmental Science and Technology, University of Maryland

Gabe Almario

  • Major: Environmental Science and Policy/Microbiology
  • Mentor: Karen Lips, Biology, University of Maryland

Heetaek Lim

  • Major: Chemistry/Sustainability
  • Mentor: Donald Milton, Maryland Institute for Applied Environment Health, School of Public Health, University of Maryland

Jonathan Coplin

  • Major: Environmental Science
  • Mentor: Cerruti Hooks, Entomology, University of Maryland

Lindsey Wright

  • Major: Environmental Science and Technology/Government and Politics
  • Mentor: David Hawthorne, SESYNC and Entomology, University of Maryland

Miracle Okoro

  • Major: Biological Science
  • Mentor: Mintesnot Jiru, Natural Sciences, Coppin State University

Moli Karsali

  • Major: Biology/Global Poverty
  • Mentor: Kate Tully, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, University of Maryland

Morgan Folger

  • Major: English/Environmental Science and Policy
  • Mentor: Lea Johnson, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, University of Maryland

Nikia Brown

  • Major: Biology
  • Mentor: Mintesnot Jiru, Natural Sciences, Coppin State University

Samantha Leap

  • Major: Economics: Minor in Sustainable Studies
  • Mentor: Mike Smorul, SESYNC

Sarah Turner

Sydney Han

  • Major: Elementary Education
  • Mentor: Paul Leisnham, Environmental Science and Technology, University of Maryland

William Boudhraa

  • Major: Biology
  • Mentor: Kelly Hamby, Entomology, University of Maryland
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Understanding Place: A Multidisciplinary Symposium

June 1, 2015

by MELISSA ANDREYCHEK
Communications Coordinator

The human experience of and within a landscape guides our sense of place. “Place” can be the political or social boundaries shaped by geography; the activities and livelihoods framed by the environment; the cultural values or affective bond that link a community to a physical setting.

Within a scholarly context, place “informs and structures the ways we teach, undertake, research, and communicate about environmental problems,” explain Brandn Green, Director of the Place Studies Program of the Bucknell Center for Sustainability & the Environment, and Kristal Jones, Food Systems Research Fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), in the introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (JESS).

The special issue—“Understanding Place: A Multidisciplinary Symposium”—was born of a semester-long lecture series at Bucknell University and two sessions at the 2014 Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) conference. Lecture and session participants were recruited to contribute to the special issue, a diverse collection of essays on place as a descriptive and analytical concept.

One of the essays, “Hot and dry: stability and simplicity in dormancy and austerity” authored by Jones, explores how the human experience of heat can provide insight into the persistence of human systems as temperatures rise. The essay reflects on the characteristics of hot, dry places that help to illuminate unique elements of human–environment interactions within them. Jones writes with a particular focus on dormancy—which, she says, characterizes “the rhythm of life in hot, dry places.”

Jones says the goal of the special issue was to investigate how place functions in different disciplinary traditions or in different research programs.

“We were interested in exploring how using ‘place’ as a conceptual or analytical framework moves forward someone’s research agenda within environmental studies and sciences,” she says. “For example, hot is a scientific characteristic of the climate or physical environment. But hot places are what people make of them—a combination of the physical environment and human interactions with that environment.”

The print edition of Understanding Place: A Multidisciplinary Symposium will be available in September 2015. Online access to essays is available through the journal website.

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.

Top image: Arid soils in Mauritania, West Africa, courtesy Pablo Tosco/Oxfam via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 
Audience: 

The Writer’s Job is to Make the Reader’s Job Easy

May 27, 2015

by PAUL LAGASSE
Guest Contributor

Dr. Josh Schimel is a Professor of Ecosystem Ecology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded (Oxford University Press, 2011). Recently, Josh led a two-day writing workshop at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) for the center’s postdoctoral fellows. I sat down with Josh after the workshop to discuss what scientists, particularly those who work in interdisciplinary fields, need to know about writing well.

Paul Lagasse: At the beginning of your book, you have a quote: “As a scientist, you are a professional writer.” You then go on to say that being a professional writer is not enough; you also need to write something that’s “sticky,” that grabs people. Can you say more about what you mean by that?

Josh Schimel: Part of being a professional writer is thinking about your writing as more than just filling in the boxes of an IMRAD structure. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader’s job easy. You need to think about the reader and how they’re going to respond to your work. Scientists are not trying to be literary when we write for our peers, but I argue that we should be using literary tools to do a better job of writing science.

PL: Do scientists who conduct interdisciplinary research face unique challenges in terms of their writing compared with those who write for someone in a single discipline?

JS: In science, we often borrow words from other fields and assign different meanings to them. Take the term “resilience,” for example. To an engineer, it means the ability to return to a stable state following a single perturbation, whereas ecologists use it to mean the ability to absorb constant disturbances without changing fundamental processes.

But nature doesn’t do disciplines; humans create them to simplify how we think about and address questions and problems. We need to recognize that scientists in different disciplines may both be working on the same issue, although they may have defined it differently. The writer’s role is to craft language so that whoever’s reading it can see that and recognize both sides.

PL: Do you see self-publishing as the future of science scholarship, and if so, what would that mean for peer review? When you’re dealing with an interdisciplinary topic, I imagine that finding a suitable journal might be more of a challenge.

JS: Some people in the sciences have been arguing about why we even need journals anymore. But I think that writers need someone to help with editing and quality control, and to put an imprimatur on what’s worth paying attention to. Many people tend to think that the purpose of peer review is just to filter out the garbage, but it also polishes the not-garbage. It provides critical outside input that really helps make the science better.

PL: The role of peer review, in that sense, becomes analogous to the role of the editor in fiction. But a lot of fiction authors have a reluctant relationship with their editors; is it the same in the sciences?

JS: Absolutely! It’s a love–hate relationship, and a negotiation.

PL: In your book, you mention the distinction between rules and principles. Can you tell me about how you perceive the difference?

JS: I argue that principles are fundamental concepts that, if you violate them, your writing will suffer. The most important principle is to write with clarity and energy. Now, there are many rules of grammar that can be applied to modulate clarity and energy, some of which are useful and some of which are kind of marginal—such as never starting a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “however.”

That said, no rule in the English language was created just to be evil. They all have their uses, and sometimes, breaking those rules have their uses, too. If you break a rule well, people won’t notice that you did the very thing that they said not to. Writing well is its own kind of science, because it takes practice and effort. It’s also its own kind of art, because your reader should never be aware of the effort behind it—only the message that it carries.

Note: parts of this interview have been edited for readability and clarity.

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.

Top image courtesy Eric Heupel via Flickr/Creative Commons.

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