I am an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology graduate student at Stony Brook University interested in the structural properties of ecological networks. Specifically, I want to know how the structure of a network, such as a food web, changes over time or as it grows/develops using a dynamic modeling approach.
My interests in ecology and evolutionary biology have taken a long and winding path. My undergraduate work focused on determining the effect of predation on assimilation rates of freshwater amphipods. This research was focused on an over-arching research program investigating the differences in metabolic scaling slopes between populations of amphipods that experience fish predation versus those that do not. My background in metabolic scaling was a primary reason for my acceptance and choice of going to Stony Brook. Upon my arrival at Stony Brook however, my advisor and I talked about the various topics he was currently interested in, including metabolic scaling and qualitative stability of communities. He suggested that I read several papers on the various topics and then we could talk about what interested me.
Reading papers by Robert May on the stability of communities got me interested in the substantial amount of literature on the stability/complexity debate. For those who are unfamiliar with this debate it began when Robert May, in 1972, built a number of random community matrices with varying number of species, interaction strengths, and connectance. He found that contrary to the ideas of prominent ecologists such as MacArthur and Elton, as the complexity of the community (measured as number of species, interaction strength, or connectance) increases, the stability decreases. This finding, showing that the apparently complex communities observed by ecologists should not be stable, kicked off a wave of research over the past 50 years that has attempted to find the so-called “deviant strategies” that confer stability upon complex systems. I read much of this literature on the “deviant strategies” leading me to papers that looked at topological properties of food webs, and those that used modeling approaches to find mechanisms that confer stability.
These papers on topology, such as those by Kondoh, Neutel, and Bascompte looked at the structure of food webs (and in the case of Bascompte, mutualistic networks) and how different structures, or topologies can lead to stable webs by mediating mean interaction strengths and connectance. Other researchers used models of food webs to determine what types of properties lead to stable systems. Theories arising from these approaches involve the cascade, niche, and nested heirarchy models that used simple rules to build realistic food webs. Additionally, researchers such a Brose, and Petchey discovered that adding body size structure and adaptive foraging to dynamic food web models can lead to large stable systems.
Of particular note among these researchers is Bascompte, who has written extensively on the structural properties of mutualistic and trophic networks such as the degree of nestedness. His papers, as well as others on dynamics of food webs (e.g. Olesen et al 2008, Albrecht et al. 2010, various papers by Drossel, and others) have had significant impact on the development of my research ideas, as you will no doubt see throughout this blog. This path of research interests took me through my first year at Stony Brook. During my first summer (2012) I was encouraged by my advisor to attend the Gordon Research Conference on the Metabolic Basis of Ecology. At that conference I was able to meet with, and talk to many wonderful scientists at various places in their scientific careers, as well as listen to some truly fascinating talks and poster presentations. It was through these talks, posters, and conversations that my thoughts on research ideas really matured.
That has been my journey for the past year. Now that I have at least in part developed an idea and direction for my dissertation research I decided to start a blog to catalog its further development. Thus it is my intention that this blog become a sort of open lab notebook to document my research and thoughts on various topics. My first few posts come from a paper I wrote for a course on evolutionary ecology as I was really getting interested in network structural properties. It is mostly about the importance of network research to evolutionary ecology, and how network structure can be influenced by, and influence in turn, coevolutionary processes.