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Harvard fellowship for Lincoln lecturers

Harvard fellowship for Lincoln lecturers

A Lincoln husband-and-wife team have just returned from a nine-month research sabbatical at Harvard University in the United States.

Lecturers Brad Case and Hannah Buckley each gained a prestigious, Harvard-funded fellowship to work on a joint research project based at Harvard’s Forest Ecology department.

The programme, called the Charles Bullard Fellowship, is highly competitive and accepts only five-to-seven recipients a year from a large applicant pool.

One of Dr Case’s primary areas of expertise involves using IT tools to understand ecological patterns, while Dr Buckley’s research aims to understand biological diversity.

Together, they worked on a new method for analysing forest ecosystems, with the aim of helping predict the future dynamics of plant communities in order to manage environmental changes.

“The method we used, called co-dispersion analysis, has been introduced in statistics literature, but what we have done is apply it to ecology,” Dr Case says.

“It involves looking at how ecological data – such as tree diameters, soil characteristics and species abundances – are linked, what causes them to be structured the way that they are, and how environmental factors change things.

“The method is different from others because it reveals detailed information about how these patterns change in different places and directions. This is really useful in ecology because many of the patterns we see in nature, and the relationships that exist among organisms and between organisms and their environment, change from place to place.

“Something else we explored was how these factors change as you move from temperate latitudes, like in north-eastern USA where we were, to tropical latitudes.”

The project also involved using computer modelling to predict how a forest will change over time, particularly in the face of issues such as climate change or disturbance from pests and disease.

“The computer model we were using operates at the scale of individual organisms,” says Dr Case. “It tracks the fate of each tree in a forest through time by modelling its growth, mortality and interactions with other trees and the environment.

“In the case of Harvard Forest, one of its main species, the eastern hemlock, is dying out due to an insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid. So we were trying to model what the future forest will look like when all the hemlock die in the next 10 to 20 years.”

Dr Case and Dr Buckley are now in the process of publishing their new method, along with the results of their forest analyses.

“The work shows that our new method is helpful for visualising ecological data, and we think it will be useful for our future research at Lincoln University,” Dr Case says.

The research project was carried out in collaboration with Harvard Forest Senior Ecologist, Professor Aaron Ellison.

“The experience has been very fulfilling and enriching, but we are now excited to be home in New Zealand, where we can apply what we have learned to local research problems,” Dr Case says.


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