Joanne S. Tornow was selected as assistant director for the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) in February 2019, following almost two decades with the foundation. Her duties ranged from program management to high-level leadership and strategic development, and she previously served as the head of BIO in an interim capacity. Prior to her time at the NSF, Tornow served on the faculty at Portland State University and the University of Southern Mississippi. She joins us on BioScience Talks to discuss the directorate's current operations and future plans. A written version of this conversation is available online and will be published in an upcoming issue of BioScience. Both versions have been edited for clarity.
Invasive species are a hot topic, both in scientific circles and among the public at large. Still, the mechanics of invasions are often opaque, and a broader understanding will be required in order to prevent—and respond to—future species introductions. In a world with ever-increasing trade and changing climate that often renders native species vulnerable, the need for this expanded understanding is acute.
Writing in BioScience, Dr. Mitch Cruzan, of Portland State University, in Oregon, describes the history of a particular invasive species, the slender false brome. Originally introduced in Oregon as part of a US Department of Agriculture program, the grass has undergone a hybridization process that enabled it to take hold in much of the state. By understanding the rapid adaptation of the false brome to Oregon's landscapes, it may be possible to unravel the mechanics of future invasions, before they endanger native species.
The concept of resilience is an important one in conservation science and resource management. However, the term itself is often poorly understood, or understood differently by different parties, with potentially troublesome effects for land managers, researchers, and others.
Writing in BioScience, Dr. Phillip Higuera (University of Montana), Dr. Alex Metcalf (University of Montana), and their colleagues suggest that a more holistic framework would consider the crucial human element of social-ecological systems. By doing so, managers could work toward outcomes that best fit the ecological needs and human priorities inherent in the system. The work they describe here is focused on fire-prone landscapes, but the approach is broadly applicable across a range of systems.
At the beginning of November 2018, through the collaboration of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR), BioScience Talks once again hit the road to attend ASGSR's Annual Meeting. This year's event was held in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. Once again, we had the opportunity to speak with numerous eminent presenters and participants at the meeting, who discussed numerous topics on the cutting edge of space-related research. The topics ranged from the epigenetics of plants in space to zero-gravity plumbing—and just about everything in between.
Natural history specimens housed in museums, herbaria, and other research collections are revolutionizing science—largely as a result of growing efforts to digitize samples and share data among many users.
To meet the robust promise of digital collections, the Biodiversity Collections Network (BCoN) has developed a national agenda that leverages new techniques and capabilities to create what they call the Extended Specimen Network. Members of BCoN join us on this episode of BioScience Talks to describe the newly conceived network and to talk about its potential to change the way science is performed—both now and in the future. Pictured above are our guests at a National Press Club briefing where they formally released their report (from left to right: David Jennings, Andrew Bentley, Linda Ford, Anna Monfils, Jennifer Zaspel, John Bates, Barbara Thiers, and Robert Gropp). Photograph: Samuel Hurd.
The importance of human access to adequate food could not be more clear; however, many questions surround the provision of food among and within countries. What obligations do nations have to provide food for their citizens? Is inequality in food availability a problem that requires political action, or is it simply an unfortunate side effect of food distribution systems and landscapes' ability to produce calories for those who live on them?
Writing in BioScience, Dr. Paolo D'Odorico of the University of California, Berkley, and his colleagues present these questions through the framework of human rights, delving into the various ways in which food availability and inequality are affected by trade. Drawing from a wealth of data, the authors find that, broadly speaking, trade tends to reduce food inequality. But joining us in this episode of BioScience Talks, Dr. D'Odorico cautions that more complex phenomena may lie beneath the surface, confounding simplistic explanations.
In recent years, calls to preserve greater swaths of the Earth's land- and seascapes have grown. In particular, numerous conservationists have called for the protection of half of the planet's surface, a bold initiative that would preserve much of the world's existing biodiversity and ecosystem function. However, the path to such a "half-Earth" preservation model lies largely in uncharted territory, with many potential pitfalls along the way.
Writing in BioScience, Dr. Thomas Campagnaro of the University of Padova, in Italy, and his colleagues elucidate one possible route to better landscape preservation. In their article, the authors describe Natura 2000, the world's largest conservation network. Based in the European Union, the network relies on strong governance, flexible designations, and scientific expertise to produce reliable conservation outcomes.
In this episode of BioScience Talks, Dr. Campagnaro is joined by coauthors Tommaso Sitzia, also of the University of Padova, and Erle Ellis, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to discuss the network and the prospects for scaling it up to a planetary scale.
New tools are making it easier to understand not only our genetic code but also the ways that the code's three-dimensional structure contributes to gene expression. This understanding will be vital in the search for cures to diseases with multiple and complex causes, such as lupus. On this episode of BioScience Talks, we discuss one such tool. It's the product of a collaboration among data scientists, medical scientists, and software engineers, and the new "xapp" allows researchers to view the 3D, looped structure of chromatin and examine the ways in which those loops affect our genes' expression.
Richard Pelikan, a bioinformatician at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, and Austin Schwinn, a data scientist at Exaptive, joined us on this episode to discuss the collaboration, epigenetics, chromatin looping, and the future of understanding human disease. Images discussed in the podcast can be found below the links.
To conserve species, managers need reliable estimates of their population trends. Samples are gathered over time, but the length of the sampling period is often established using crude rules of thumb rather than good statistical methods. Writing in BioScience, Dr. Easton R. White of the Center for Population Biology at the University of California, Davis, presents an analysis of 820 vertebrate species populations and demonstrates substantial problems with current sampling approaches. He argues that properly statistically powered methods will offer a truer representation of population health—leading to saved money and effort, better knowledge of species health, and ultimately, improved conservation outcomes.
Dr. White joins us on this episode of BioScience Talks to discuss statistical power, his own analyses, and his recommendations for future conservation efforts.
An appreciation of the crucial role of microbiomes, from those aboard the International Space Station to those living in the human gut, is quickly gaining traction among both scientists and members of the general public. Now, a similar appreciation of microbial communities' importance is growing among those who study and restore grasslands and other ecosystems.
Writing in BioScience, Dr. Liz Koziol, of Kansas University, and her colleagues describe the current state of knowledge about plant microbiomes, and specifically, the mutualistic relationship between plant species and the fungi that live in and among their roots—mycorrhizal fungi. The authors argue that "reintroduction of the native microbiome and native mycorrhizal fungi improves plant diversity, accelerates succession, and increases the establishment of plants that are often missing from restored communities."
In this episode of BioScience Talks, Koziol joins us to discuss her article and to describe the potential ecological benefits of grassland restoration efforts that include the reintroduction of native plant microbiome species.
Mosquito-borne diseases have plagued humanity for centuries, and a prolific offender has been Aedes aegypti, commonly known as the "yellow fever mosquito." Despite the yellow-fever moniker, it is also a potent carrier of dengue, chikungunya, and Zika viruses.
Writing in BioScience, Dr. Jeffrey Powell and his colleagues describe recent work in tracking the spread of this important vector. Using newly available genomic techniques, they cross-referenced the historical divergence of A. aegypti populations with known records of ship movements and disease spread. The results paint a picture of a species that traversed slave and other trade routes to the New World and beyond.
In this episode of BioScience Talks, Powell joins us to discuss his work and to elaborate on the evolution and movements of this deadly "domesticated" mosquito species.
Amidst increased tensions over the US–Mexico border, a multinational group of over 2500 scientists have endorsed an article cautioning that a hardened barrier may produce devastating ecological effects while hampering binational conservation. In the BioScience Viewpoint, a group organized by Defenders of Wildlife and others called attention to ecological disturbances that could affect hundreds of terrestrial and aquatic species, notably including the Mexican gray wolf and Sonoran pronghorn. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we were joined by Rob Peters, Senior Representative with the Southwest Regional Office of Defenders of Wildlife; Rurik List, Head of the Laboratory of Conservation Biology at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Lerma Campus; and Sergio Avila, Wildlife Biologist and a Program Manager with Sierra Club, based in Tucson, Arizona. They discussed the article, the potential effects of a border wall, and some of the other challenges of conducting science in the borderlands.
For some time, "big data" has loomed large as a source of challenges and opportunities for science, but as yet, guidance on how to manage the data deluge has been wanting. Joining us on this episode of BioScience Talks, Kendra Spence Cheruvelil and Patricia A. Soranno, both with Michigan State University, describe a synergistic approach to data-intensive science that hinges on open and collaborative research efforts. By harnessing the strengths of interdisciplinary collaboration and open science, they say, researchers will be better able to use big data to solve global environmental problems.
As synthetic biology emerges into the public sphere, so too does a discussion about the ethical and regulatory questions posed by the field. Because synthetic biology researchers will themselves have broad influence in both the field and the conversations surrounding it, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Wisconsin–Madison sought to shed light on their views. The group first identified a unique sample of synthetic biologists and researchers who focus on ethical, legal, and social issues, then polled them regarding their attitudes and values related to synbio.
For this episode of BioScience Talks, we are joined by Dr. Dietram Scheufele, who discusses the poll's results and also the ways in which synthetic biologists might best engage the public—as experts and as listeners—during and after the field's entrance onto the public and regulatory stage.
Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy, Annenberg School for Communication.
Improving training in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields is a major priority, crucial to the nation's economy and international competitiveness. However, to date, research evaluating the effectiveness of STEM training programs and initiatives has often been lacking.
Writing in BioScience, Alan Wilson of Auburn University, Eric Nagy of the Mountain Lake Biological Station at the University of Virginia, and their colleagues present an assessment of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site programs. They compared the scientific outcomes of demographically matched participants and non-participants and found substantial differences between the two groups. For instance, participants in the REU Site programs were more likely to obtain a STEM PhD and to receive awards, make scientific presentations, and publish the results of their research.
In this episode of BioScience Talks, Wilson and Nagy join us to explain their assessment approach and describe the research opportunities at the REU Site programs at their institutions.
Ticks pose numerous threats to human health and well-being, ranging from the familiar Lyme threat to spotted fever rickettsiosis and even mammalian meat allergies. For this special bonus episode of BioScience Talks, we chatted with Brian Allan of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who works with ticks hands on and leads important research on the ecology of infectious disease. He discussed tick species, their life stages and threats to human health, and the ways that people can avoid exposure to ticks during their most active periods. He also delved into recent research into the techniques and tactics that land managers are using to abate tick overabundance in the face of expanding ranges and growing numbers of many arthropod disease vectors.
To date, the conservation of global biodiversity has relied on a patchwork of international goals and national- and regional-level plans. Hampered by poor planning, competing interests, and an incomplete view of large-scale ecosystem function, these efforts are failing. Effective biodiversity conservation will instead require a broad-based approach that relies on the empirical evaluation of ecosystem dynamics and conservation actions.
Writing in BioScience, William Arlidge, E. J. Milner-Gulland, and colleagues present a unified framework to address these challenges: global mitigation hierarchies. These mitigation hierarchies encompass a four-step process of harm avoidance, minimization, remediation, and offsetting. The authors argue that by implementing such processes, global conservation priorities can be established in a way that bridges gaps in current regulatory regimes and enables more effective conservation. In this episode of BioScience Talks, Arlidge and Milner-Gulland join us to explain the approach in more detail and describe the possible paths to implementation.
The linkages between environmental health and human well-being are complex and dynamic, and researchers have developed numerous models for describing them. The models include attempts to bridge traditional academic boundaries, uniting fields of study under rubrics such as social–ecological frameworks, coupled human and natural systems, ecosystem services, and resilience theory. However, these efforts have been constrained by varying practices and a failure among practitioners to agree on consistent practices.
Writing in BioScience, Jiangxiao Qiu of the University of Florida and his colleagues describe this state of affairs and propose an alternative approach to understanding the interplay of social and ecological spheres: causal chains. The authors describe these chains as an "approach to identifying logical and ordered sequences of effects on how a system responds to interventions, actions, or perturbations." The idea was originally formed as result of a workshop funded by the Packard Foundation, and Dr. Qiu joins us in this episode to discuss causal chains and their implications for the future of policy and management.
In October 2017, through the collaboration of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR), BioScience Talks hit the road. We attended ASGSR's annual meeting in Seattle, Washington, where we had the chance to speak with numerous presenters and participants about a diversity of space-related topics, ranging from the International Space Station (ISS) and zero-gravity plant growth to human health at high altitudes and space-based pharmaceutical development.
This special episode brings together the foremost thought leaders in space-related biology and physical science, highlighting the broad spectrum of research being conducted at unique venues such as and the ISS.
The positive mental health effects of nature exposure in urban environments are well known, and the literature on the subject is growing fast. However, many previous studies have relied only on cross-sectional data that offer coarse measurements of the phenomenon. Writing in BioScience, Dr. Andrea Mechelli of King's College London and his colleagues describe a new approach: the Urban Mind smartphone app. By collecting data several times daily, the app provides real-time information on both the environment and the subjective well-being of its users. Through this approach, Mechelli and his colleagues were able to quantify nature's effects on human well-being with previously unseen accuracy and timeliness. Dr. Mechelli joins us in this episode of BioScience Talks to discuss these findings and to explain the next steps for Urban Mind.
The benefits of specimen collection are well known. Natural-history archives are increasingly used by researchers to investigate evolutionary processes, examine the effects of climate and environmental change, explore the ecology of emerging diseases, and so on. However, the effects of specimen removal on the wild populations and communities is a question that has rarely been addressed. Writing in BioScience, Dr. Andrew Hope and his colleagues draw on historical data from a Long-Term Ecological Research site to examine the effects of one such specimen collection program. In this episode of the podcast, we discuss those results in particular, as well as broader the research opportunities afforded by natural-history collections.
Although the aims of environmental legislation are well known, measuring the effects of regulation is often a difficult task. Inadequate data for baseline conditions and the recovery period can hamper efforts to quantify the effects of a regulation. In a rare exceptional case, Dr. Daniel Gibson-Reinemer and his colleagues describe in BioScience the successful recovery of the Illinois Waterway following the implementation of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Using a robust, multi-decadal data set, the authors demonstrate a tight linkage between water quality and the rebound of numerous fish populations. Dr. Gibson-Reinemer joins us in this episode of BioScience Talks to discuss the article's findings and to explain their possible application in future recovery efforts.
The illicit wildlife trade is a multi-billion-dollar business that spans the globe. Unfortunately, efforts to control it have often fallen short, and massive numbers of organisms are regularly removed from ecosystems and sold as pets, food, and traditional medicines. Writing in BioScience, Dr. Mary Blair, Dr. Minh Le, and their colleagues describe an integrative framework to help characterize and mitigate the wildlife trade. Based on Elinor Ostrom's social–ecological systems thinking, the framework incorporates biological, anthropological, socioeconomic, and other types of data to paint a holistic picture of the problem. Drs. Blair and Le join us on this episode of BioScience Talks to describe the ways in which this holistic view will help practitioners and stakeholders untangle the complex dynamics underlying the wildlife trade.
With the rapid expansion of the urban landscape, successfully managing ecosystems in built areas has never been more important. However, our understanding of urban ecology is far from complete, and the data at hand are often patchy, leaving stakeholders without the tools they need to successfully manage human-affected ecosystems. Recent BioScience author Chris Lepczyk, a biologist working at Auburn University, joins us for this episode of BioScience Talks to discuss the future of urban biodiversity, highlighting trends and raising questions whose answers will be crucial for successful "green" management and healthy urban ecosystems.
Fish that migrate between freshwater and sea ecosystems play a multitude of ecological roles. In the centuries since Europeans first colonized the Americas, damming and other disruptions to river connectivity have greatly decreased the migration opportunities of these species. Recent BioScience author Steven Mattocks of the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst, joins us on this episode of BioScience Talks to discuss the effects of lost habitat and river connectivity for these crucial fish. In particular, he explains that because of a dearth of information on pre-1950 conditions, past estimates of lost biomass may drastically underestimate the ecological harm of damming.