Kenyon Macroecology Laboratory

Biodiversity and functional ecology, mostly plants

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Biological Science is Data Science

To address the major environmental issues of the Anthropocene, like global change, sustainability, and biodiversity loss, we have massive amounts of data made available by recent technological advances, including increased computational power, sensor technologies, publicly available software and data, and Internet connectivity. But to weave that jumbled yarn-ball of data into a coherent tapestry of knowledge and wisdom, current (and especially future) scientists need to learn to deal with data on a completely different scale. Moreover, making such data intensive approaches transparent and verifiable requires a revised notion of what it means to make science reproducible.

This sort of data is a different proposition, and it requires that we outfit our students with different skills, computational skills. Not surprisingly, all of the core competencies highlighted in the recent Vision and Change reports from the AAAS are directly related to core computational data science skills (see the figure below). But getting these skills into already crowded biology curricula is really challenging.

DataScienceCompTogether with my colleagues Sarah Supp (from Denison U.), Matt Aiello-Lammens (from Pace U.), and Susy Echeverria-Londoño (here in my lab at Kenyon), we have been thinking about how to best get these skills to undergraduate students in the life and environmental sciences, and what the main barriers might be for instructors. We think Hampton et al. (2017) summarize the problem really well:

Essentially, we are attempting to fit more material into already-full courses and curricula, which are taught by people who do not feel prepared to address topics relevant to big data and data-intensive research.

To try to help, we have secured a grant from the National Science Foundation Research Coordination Networks in Undergraduate Biology Education (RCN-UBE) program, to bring together researchers and educators interested in solving this important problem. We call our group the Biological and Environmental Data Education Network (BEDE-Network). Bede is also a word for a pickaxe, as in mining data. Sarah even designed a slick logo.


Our hypothesis is that one of the keys is to train the teachers in the basic skills of reproducible computational data science, so that they feel empowered to add these approaches to their courses as they see fit. Over the next year, we will be reaching out to try to better define the key barriers and to convene a group of people interested in developing portable and scalable instructor training workshops along the lines of those offered by The Carpentries. We have applied to offer our pilot instructor training workshop at the 2019 ESA Meeting next August. Comment here or email me if you want more information or if you want to join us!

To give you the flavor of the sort of skills and practices we are talking about, check out this short series of posts by Sonali Roy and Mary Williams over at the Plantae Blog.

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Spring Beauties: A KerkhoffLab News Rundown

The spring beauties (Claytonia virginiana) popping up all over Kenyon’s campus made me realize that a lot of good news has been blossoming in the KerkhoffLab as well! As on most college campuses, springtime in the KerkhoffLab is a time of great activity, a time for moving on and moving in, a time for polishing new results and gearing up for new projects, a time for awards to recognize potential and plans for taking the next step.

img_0819.jpgHere are some of the beautiful spring things happening around here:

  • We are super excited to welcome Dr. Susy Echeverria-Londoño to the lab group! She will be joining us as a postdoc on the Macroecology of Land Plant Biodiversity project, in collaboration with folks at the University of Arizona, Wesleyan University, and the Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN). We can’t wait to get started!
  • After graduation in May, Toby SantaMaria is heading to Norway this summer to work as part of the research team of Dr. Vigdis Vandvik from Universetet I Bergen. She will be studying C and N cycling as part of the HiddenCosts project examining plantations-for-climate schemes in Norway. Gratulerer, Toby!
  • Our other senior lab member, Caitlin Redak, is heading to Alabama to begin her PhD program at Auburn University, working with Dr. Scott Santos. She plans to study physiological and phylogenetic approaches to marine biology. I wish there was enough room on the boat for us all to go along!
  • Cecina Babich Morrow and Erin Keleske are staying in the KerkhoffLab as part of the Kenyon Summer Science Scholars program. Their work is also part of the Macroecology of Land Plant Biodiversity project, and we’re going to make a research trip to Colorado to meet with our collaborators at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab.
  • Cecina was also recently awarded a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship! Way to go, Cecina!
  • Hannah Wedig is going to be studying abroad in New Zealand next semester!
  • A terrific group of students from Kenyon Biology’s IntroLab have also been doing work in the KerkhoffLab. Greg Holste (who joined the lab this spring) and his partner Rhys Pinder are examining geographic patterns of diversity of crop wild relatives. Carter Powell and Billy Hartman who have been looking at bryophyte diversity patterns. In the field, two groups, Cameron Peters and Jennie Van Meter,  and Julia Unangst and Sophia Kuvan, have been measuring the phenology of soil respiration in the KerkhoffLab forest plots. More to come on all of these projects soon! Hopefully, at least some of them will continue their work in the fall!

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Postdoctoral Opportunity – Biodiversity Ecoinformatics

Come work in the Kerkhoff Lab! We have an NSF-funded, two year postdoctoral position in biodiversity ecoinformatics. The goal of the project, which is being conducted in collaboration with Brian Enquist at the University of Arizona, Dana Royer at Wesleyan University, and researchers affiliated with the Botanical Information and Ecology Network (BIEN) (, is focused on the evolutionary, ecological, and biogeographic processes underlying continental scale patterns of plant biodiversity. The BIEN database is the largebien_logo_notext-1st extant botanical data resource, detailing the distributions, functional traits, and phylogenetic relationships of over 90,000 embryophyte (land plant) species. We have tons of data, and lots of important questions to answer, and we could really use your help!

In addition to research, the postdoc will have opportunities to teach and mentor smart motivated undergraduates and to help develop open-source educational materials that integrate ecoinformatic approaches into the undergraduate biology curriculum. The ppl-d386-kenyon_4-28-10_0032position is centered at Kenyon College, a highly selective liberal arts college on the glaciated Allegheny Plateau, with a population of about 1,700 undergraduates. However, the postdoc will also have opportunities to travel to the University of Arizona and other institutions for research collaborations.

We are looking for someone with experience in one or more of the following: plant ecology/botany (including either field or herbarium work), phylogenetic approaches, geographic information science, biostatistics, database management.

To Apply

See the linked page for the full ad and job description. If you are interested in applying or have any questions, please email Drew Kerkhoff ( Application review will begin March 1 and continue until the position is filled.

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KerkhoffLab rocks IBS in Tucson

The International Biogeography Society (IBS) held its semi-annual meeting in Tucson, AZ, US from January 8-13. Two students from the Kenyon Macroecology Lab, Toby SantaMaria and Cecina Babich Morrow, presented posters, attended workshops and talks, and got to hang out with hundreds of scientists from around the world.

Cecina presented research done in collaboration with Ben Blonder , Brian Maitner, Brian Enquist, Christine Lamanna, Cyrille Violle, and me. Cecina analyzed data from the BIEN database to evaluate the effectiveness of new methods that Ben developed for quantifying n-dimensional hypervolumes – multidimensional geometric objects (“blobs” really!) that describe how species or ecological communities “fill” environmental space. It sounds abstract, but these methods are incredibly useful for describing the environmental niches of species as well as the functional diversity of whole plant communities or biomes. Since the conference, we’ve submitted a paper to Methods in Ecology and Evolution, and the new methods will be part of the 2.0 version of Ben’s hypervolume R package. The proud moment for this advisor came when I heard one of the scientists talking to Cecina ask her when she was going to “finish her PhD.”

Toby and I presented a poster together, describing a project that we did with the students in Kenyon’s Ecology Lab class last fall. To gain skills in climate change research, we modeled the responses of species using species distribution models. Each student in the class selected one species of plant or animal from our region (Ohio), then used data resources from the GBIF and Worldclim (including climate change scenarios from the IPCC) to model the potential changes in the distribution of their species habitat. To practice communication about the science of climate change, we then held a poster session for students and faculty. Tag teaming the poster really worked well. I was able to give some of the pedagogical rationale for the project and fill in some of the modeling details, while Toby gave insight into the challenges the students faced and how she was able to help them work through the project – even as she was just learning the modeling techniques herself! I am super excited to repeat (and maybe expand!) the project next year.

Both Toby and Cecina are from Arizona, so the locale was not as exotic for them as it would have been for some. Still, it was great to get out of Ohio in January, to see the Sonoran Desert again, to catch up with old friends and meet new colleagues, and to share some of the science we’ve been doing with the larger community.