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National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

NCEAS Postdocs

For the current cohort of postdoctoral researchers at NCEAS, a theme of the past year has been that of widening perspectives. They credit this growth in part to the unique nature of being postdocs at NCEAS.

Whereas the typical postdoc experience entails working predominantly independently in a single lab, often honing one’s own disciplinary niche, NCEAS postdocs work as part of interdisciplinary teams with researchers from all over the country or globe. This exposes NCEAS postdocs to methods and ideas they may not have otherwise encountered at such an early stage in their careers and helps them build collaboration skills at a more accelerated pace.

To close out 2021, we asked the current NCEAS postdocs, a batch of five, to each share a research highlight of the year and how they feel they’ve grown as researchers. Here are their year-end reflections in no particular order.

Whitney Friedman was particularly excited about a paper she co-authored that was published in the journal Nature and claims policymakers, practitioners, scientists, and funders are underutilizing a little-known conservation policy tool called other effective area-based conservation measures, or OECMs. The designation of an OECM recognizes landscapes and seascapes that people manage for hunting, fishing, and other cultural practices in ways that sustain biodiversity, making them complementary to protected areas, the better-known designation for unmanaged ecosystems.

The research team argues more study and use of OECMs in preserving ecosystems could increase the chances of achieving the global 30-by-30 goal to conserve 30% of the planet by 2030.

"Global biodiversity conservation requires a multitude of actors and solutions. OECM classification allows for the recognition of the important contributions of indigenous and local communities to biodiversity conservation and can help sustain their rights and practices into the future," said Friedman.  

Friedman says the past year and the pandemic have secured her professional focus on how she can contribute to marine sustainability and human well-being. While she thinks connecting to people and nature in person will always be paramount, she has been inspired by the virtual connections she has forged with a diversity of peers and collaborators.

“As a synthesis center, NCEAS has been the perfect host for this journey. I think we tend to think of 'synthesis' from a 'big data' perspective – which it often is – but synthesis is also, importantly, about connecting across perspectives and knowledge systems,” said Friedman.

Marcus Thomson is proud of a co-authored paper with findings that could be revolutionary for carbon markets and climate change mitigation. Published in the journal Nature, the research showed that charging major emitters for the carbon dioxide they release into the atmosphere would not only curb emissions significantly but also save future generations from paying off trillions of dollars of debt associated with dealing with the excess carbon.

“The economics works for the general case of a non-renewable resource that the free market fails to evaluate equitably across generations,” said Thomson.

His research at NCEAS generally involves thinking about societal transformations for a more sustainable future, and he credits NCEAS’ culture of cross-cutting research for expanding his own lens. For example, he’s been able to fulfill one of his objectives in coming to NCEAS: to understand how to integrate marine food systems into his regular research on terrestrial food systems and land-use modeling.

While Thomson says the past year (plus) has been hard for a collaboration-minded researcher like himself, it has been a time of unexpected research directions – e.g., diving into popular science books has expanded his understanding of how people envision the future – and a time of tremendous growth for his hard skills in data science and programming.

“[These skills] are verging on becoming more than mere tools to do my regular work, but part of my regular work itself – that is, thinking deeply about how the world ought to be represented in computer models,” said Thomson.

Kaitlyn Gaynor has been working with a large team of scientists from across the United States to understand how the increased visitation to the country’s national parks as of late is influencing wildlife behavior and movement. The park shutdowns in 2020, driven by the pandemic, afforded them an opportunity to do a natural experiment. They are synthesizing GPS collar data from over 500 animals across 13 species to see what they did when the parks were empty of humans. 

“Our hope is to shed light on how our protected areas can best navigate the dual mandate of conserving biodiversity and providing recreation opportunities,” said Gaynor, who has extended this work as a capstone-project advisor to a group of Master of Environmental Data Science students focused on equitable access to recreation opportunities on US federal land.

Gaynor is preparing to move into a faculty position next year, and among her takeaways from her experience at NCEAS are skills in team building, especially virtually, and a perspective enriched by the diversity of people she has worked with, whose expertise and skill sets have ranged from data science to communication and inclusive science. 

“Their willingness to share their knowledge through training and example has strengthened my own ability and confidence to lead team-based research,” said Gaynor.

Jacob Eurich co-led a paper newly published in the journal Fish and Fisheries that represents the first synthesis of the attributes of climate resilience for fisheries across their social, ecological, and governance dimensions. Calling it a one-of-a-kind paper, Eurich says the research, conducted by a 23-strong international team of fisheries experts, is first and foremost a framework for other researchers, managers, and stakeholders to use to mitigate climate impacts to local fisheries.

“We wanted to empower actors to implement policies and strategies that will be more effective,” said Eurich. “This research represents a starting point for deeper and more holistic analyses of resilience attributes in fisheries as pathways to building climate resilience.”

Eurich says this paper is an example of how he has learned to wear new hats, particularly those of a social scientist and fisheries manager. While his background is in marine ecology, he wants to continue broadening his expertise with knowledge about the interactions between marine and human systems to increase the impact of his research.

“NCEAS specifically has helped me get to this point. The interdisciplinary nature of the community fosters collaboration across fields,” said Eurich. “It is quite easy to jump between research projects, groups, and even systems.”

Caitlin Fong is part of a team that is drafting an action plan for aquaculture in the state of California, an effort she says has involved synthesizing research on food production systems, trade, and policy. They have found that California consumes more than triple what it produces in seafood, and both aquaculture and wild-caught fishing are declining, spelling a decline for the state’s seafood industry and an increased reliance on imports.

“This matters because California is currently re-examining its seafood sector, and the state has the capacity to be proactive rather than reactive as it charts a path forward,” said Fong. “California has a choice along a spectrum of increased state production via aquaculture or increased dependence on aquaculture imports, both foreign and domestic.” 

Until this point, Fong’s research had been more theoretical than applied. But her experience at NCEAS has steeped her in the interface between the science and policy of a contentious socio-ecological issue, which she says has been both challenging and rewarding.

“Without NCEAS, I would not be in a position to engage in this type of actionable research. The team I work with has equipped me with the tools to carry out this research and empowered me to engage with community members and policymakers, something I have never done before,” said Fong.

Category: Feature

Tags: Early Career Researchers, Biodiversity, Learning Hub, Aquaculture, Fisheries, Conservation & Management