by: Aditi Risbud

Ethan White, Ph.D., is an investigator in the foundation’s Data-Driven Discovery initiative and directs the Quantitative Macroecology Lab at the University of Florida.

His group studies biodiversity, population dynamics and ecosystem processes, and makes predictions about ecological systems. The group also develops software that  simplifies working with large heterogeneous datasets. Ethan is actively involved in open science, the effort to make scientific data and publications available to everyone.

In our first installment of Beyond the Lab, Ethan discusses his work in bringing ecology to the data-intensive era, and how going “batty” inspired him to become a scientist.

What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
I love building new tools, discovering new data and just figuring out a bit more about how the world is working. I also love getting to talk with the folks in my group, finding out what they've been up to, and helping them figure out how to take the next steps. 

What inspired you to become a scientist?
In eighth grade I participated in a Junior Naturalist program at Fontenelle Forest. One month our activity was going bat netting and I was immediately hooked on the excitement of staying up late and catching bats. The graduate student running the program invited me to help out at some other bat nettings and eventually took me along to do fieldwork with his advisor at Carlsbad Caverns (a bat mecca). By the end of that year I knew I wanted to be an ecologist.

I owe my interest in the computing side of science to my mom who was a computer science professor. Some of my earliest memories are playing with computers and I even made a computer costume out of cardboard boxes for Halloween one year. I also remember building robots with my mom out of individual components from Radio Shack. This inspiration lead to me taking a number of computer science courses in college, which meant that when I decided to focus on the more computational side of ecology I was well prepared.

What areas in science are you most interested in understanding?
I’m really interested in forecasting right now because I think it's a hard problem and one that we aren't doing a very good job of grappling with in ecology. It’s also fundamental to understanding how ecological systems will respond to global change. I’m also excited about helping to bring ecology into the data-intensive era. This means training more scientists in the tools for computational research and building software to help make working with diverse datasets quicker and easier so that scientists can focus on doing science.

How do your colleagues help you achieve your goals?
The folks I work with are crucial to helping me accomplish both my scientific and educational goals. Our research is interdisciplinary, often requiring expertise in computing, statistics, and mathematics in addition to ecology. It's difficult for one person to master all of these different areas, so I regularly collaborate with folks who have more expertise in ecology or statistics or mathematics or computing than I do. This includes my students and postdocs, and I often look for folks with some expertise I don't have when deciding who to invite to join the lab.

One example of this approach to science is that I co-lead an interdisciplinary research group called Weecology with another faculty member, Dr. Morgan Ernest, who has expertise in both long-term field research and mammalogy. We co-train our students and postdocs with the goal of producing field biologists who understand and appreciate computation and theory, and computational/mathematical ecologists who appreciate field work and domain expertise. Our hope is that this results in interdisciplinary scientists who understand how to interact with researchers with different backgrounds and expertise to conduct cutting-edge research.

What are your greatest limitations/challenges as a researcher?
Time. One of the awesome things about my job is that I get to do a lot of different things. I work on a diverse array of scientific projects, develop software, teach, give talks, build and maintain websites, mentor and manage a great group of undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs and engineers and serve on a handful of advisory boards and boards of directors. It's part of what I love about being a scientist, but it also makes it hard to have enough time to do each of these things as well as I would like.

To learn more about Ethan’s work, read his blog and follow him on Twitter.


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