NAU researchers win $3 million NSF grant to train teams of data detectives with ecological expertise

NSF research group

When it comes to how climate change is impacting ecosystems, there’s no shortage of data out there. But finding enough people who know both ecology and how to interpret that data can be a different story. A team at Northern Arizona University is wagering that more skilled interpreters can help make sense of this data deluge, and their idea just won a five-year, nearly $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to train graduate students in tackling big ecological questions through informatics, collaboration and better communication.

Led by principal investigator Kiona Ogle, a professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems (SICCS) and the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society (Ecoss), with co-PIs Jay Barber (SICCS), Andrew Richardson (SICCS, ECOSS), Benjamin Ruddell (SICCS) and Temuulen “Teki” Sankey (SICCS), the NAU team is one of 17 across the nation to nab an NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) award. They will use the grant to recruit and train more than 50 doctoral students in team-based approaches that apply data science to some of the biggest ecological questions the world is facing.

“We can’t expect any one person to be an expert in computer science, statistics, big data, ecology and ecosystem theory,” Ogle said. “So the idea is that you build teams of people in those areas with foundational knowledge, and they can work together on big questions, like how is global climate change affecting terrestrial ecosystems?”

Ogle hopes to recruit students from a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds. No matter what training they bring to NAU, students will gain foundational knowledge in computing, statistics, terrestrial ecology, communication and collaboration.

“I think the students we want to recruit are ones interested in applying quantitative, computational tools to ecological questions, whether they bring a background in informatics and coding, or come in with a degree in ecology or environmental sciences,” she said.

The grant, part of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas initiative, will benefit the wider campus community, too. Along with training graduate students with skills transferable beyond the academic realm and setting up internship partnerships, Ogle’s team will offer hands-on workshops to train members of the wider campus community in these team-based science approaches.

Members of the NRT team know firsthand how important and rewarding collaborative research can be. Much of Ogle’s enthusiasm about research and teaching has grown out of one-on-one or small group interactions with her students and lab members, where they learn from one another.

“These collaborative skills are essential for succeeding in today’s workforce, within academics or not,” she said. “Seeing people get excited about learning new tools that they can apply to their own data—that’s one of the most rewarding parts for me.”

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Kate Petersen | Center for Ecosystem Science and Society
(928) 523-2982 |

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