Friday, June 23, 2017

Ecological Forecasting: Reevaluating Ecology in the Face of Climate Change

By: Elias Kastritis

Mathematics and Philosophy double major

The Science of Ecological Forecasting
The field of ecology is approaching new horizons through the work and innovation done at the Dietze research group here at Boston University. The development of computational and statistical models, built with analyzing vast amounts of ecological data in mind, has recast the ecological sciences as a predictive, informative endeavor, particularly in the face of climate change and its dynamic effects on ecosystems and biological systems.

The Internship
This summer internship dives right into the process of developing and implementing ecological models through computer programming languages. I joined this internship on the basis of my experience in mathematics, computing, and the biological sciences. I enrolled in BI 303: Evolutionary Ecology as well as MA 226: Differential Equations this past Spring semester, and the interdisciplinary connections between the two classes were obvious and manifold. Dynamical mathematical models are abundantly used in ecological and biological contexts to make predictions and establish theories about ecological systems. Last Fall semester I enrolled in CS 111: Introduction to Computer Science I, where I was introduced to the Python coding language. All of these experiences have inadvertently helped prepare me for the work in the internship. In the development of computational ecological models, the Dietze lab uses the statistical computing language of R, in addition to many others. Seeking to broaden my knowledge of coding languages, and given my classroom experience, this opportunity seemed a natural fit.

As you would expect, a typical day in the lab is dedicated to coding, using the software version control platform of GitHub. Many other software components are used in developing the various ecological analyzers. One such project has been PEcAn.

Picture 1. Associate Professor Mike Dietze of the Earth and Environment Department delivers a seminar on the "emerging imperative" of ecological forecasting, which seeks to synthesize vast amounts of existing ecological data into coherent, analytical, statistical forms that can then be used to make predictions (21 June 2017).

The PEcAn Project

A large project of the Dietze lab has been PEcAn, which stands for the "Predictive Ecosystem Analyzer".

It's goals, as established by the lab, includes:

"Climate change science has witnessed an explosion in the amount and types of data that can be brought to bear on the potential responses of the terrestrial carbon cycle and biodiversity to global change. Many of the most pressing questions about global change are not necessarily limited by the need to collect new data as much as by our ability to synthesize existing data. This project specifically seeks to improve this ability. Because no one measurement provides a complete picture, multiple data sources must be integrated in a sensible manner. Process-based models represent an ideal framework for integrating these data streams because they represent multiple processes at different spatial and temporal scales in ways that capture our current understanding of the causal connections across scales and among data types. Three components are required to bridge this gap between the available data and the required level of understanding: 1) a state-of-the-art ecosystem model, 2) a workflow management system to handle the numerous streams of data, and 3) a data assimilation statistical framework in order to synthesize the data with the model."

Screenshot 1. A workflow log of various model runs on the PEcAn web interface.

Screenshot 2. A typical R Studio working environment within the PEcAn development process.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Antarctica and Mars

Hi! My name is Noah Conley and I am a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) double majoring in Astrophysics and Geophysics & Planetary Science. Unlike my coworkers in BURECS who work with ancient ash, crystals, or the workings of Earth, I research Mars. My goals for this summer are to expand on the surface feature inventory for Mars, to hone my GIS skills, and to learn more about Martian topography, as that may be helpful considering my majors.

Monday, June 19, 2017

BUARG Intern: Olivia Williams

Examining volcanic crystals in the SEM

My name is Olivia Williams, and I’m interning in the BU Antarctic Research lab this summer. I’m a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. My majors are English and Earth & Environmental Sciences, with a focus in Earth & Climate.
This wasn’t always the path of study I had in mind for myself; when I first came to BU, I intended to study journalism. I thought that the BURECS program would be the perfect opportunity to hone my communication skills while learning more about the climate--an issue about which I have always been passionate. However, in the course of my first two semesters, I realized that I enjoy creative writing and literature much more than journalism. Meanwhile, BURECS connected me with my previously-undiscovered second love: scientific research.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

One Year Later: Reflections on my time in Antarctica

One Year Later:
Reflections on my time in Antarctica

Winter has finally arrived in Boston. People are bundled up in parkas, winter hats, thick gloves, heavy boots, and scarves, as if they were in Antarctica, not Massachusetts. They complain about Boston’s cold and windy winter months, and I can’t help but laugh.
It has now been over a year since I went on my research expedition to Antarctica. And, while I am definitely enjoying a relaxing, mundane winter break at home, the anniversary of my extraordinary trip and the onset of winter in Boston have brought to mind memories, good and bad, of my time at the bottom of the world. I have finally had a chance to reflect on those unique experiences— experiences that have changed my life in ways both subtle and profound.

There are some things about Antarctica that I don’t miss. Some experiences are so uncomfortable that, despite being part of such a remarkable adventure, they can’t be remembered with even the slightest fondness. First of all, I sacrificed most comforts that the developed world takes for granted: shower, fresh food, running water, telephone, internet, toilet, and much more. Without these amenities, my weeks in the Dry Valleys were among the harshest that I have ever experienced. (On our first day back, although I was sad to be leaving our campsite, the relief of having access to a hot shower, a hot meal, plumbing, and a mattress was ineffable.)
And of course the Antarctic temperature was brutally frigid. Our struggle to stay warm never really ended, with temperatures ranging from unbearable to just sufferable. Life in general, and geological field work in particular, is very hard when you can’t feel your face, feet, or hands. I actually got a very minor case of frostbite on my right hand. The cold wasn’t just uncomfortable, but it actually posed a health risk.
Along with the obvious physical struggle of living in Antarctica came the less expected psychological struggle. It was the first year of my life that I wasn’t home for winter break. I missed Christmas, New Year's Day, birthdays, and a wedding. Some days, a powerful feeling of homesickness set in. I missed my family, friends, and neighbors, most of whom I hadn't seen for a year. Away from cell phone towers and internet access, I couldn’t even contact them remotely. After an extremely stressful semester, it would have been great to at least hear their voices. Missing them was one of the biggest sacrifices I had to make. And now that I am home, I can appreciate just how valuable my time with loved ones really is.