Barnacles and maths – Allison Barner joins Real Scientists!

barner_blogpostWe’re excited to welcome Allison Barner (@algaebarnacle) as curator this week! Allison is a community ecologist whose work sits squarely between the worlds of experimentation and theory. During her scientific career she has gone from fieldwork in the coastal rocky intertidal system of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, studying the ecology of reproduction in seaweeds, to using complementary experimental and statistical approaches to understand how diverse communities of species are formed, persist, and change in the ocean. The inability to integrate realistic interactions into theory remains a limiting frontier in our understanding of ecosystems and their response to change, and is the focus of Allison’s postdoctoral work at the University of California Berkeley. Allison uses existing data from ecosystems around the world to inform mathematical models of ecological networks, in search of ways that universal tools can improve our understanding of the natural world. We asked Allison our usual set of questions and you can read her responses below:

I ended up in science because I want to know the “why” and the “how”. I have always asked a lot of questions – I particularly remember annoying my father as a child by asking too many questions during sports games. Spending a lot of time outdoors growing up, especially at the beach near where we lived, I asked a lot of “why” and “how” about nature. I think ultimately, despite interests in literature, sociology, and anthropology that drove much of my coursework even through college, it was that interest in nature that slowly led me along the path to ecology. But it’s not just my own interest that allowed me to become a scientist, but also my privilege. Many people who might have the same interests or motivations as I do are denied access to education, opportunities, and jobs in science. I think it’s important to acknowledge this and work towards a world where everyone who wants to pursue science, can.

I am interested in the relationships and interactions among organisms, rather than any one organism or ecosystem. Many biologists have a focal organism they study, but I’m interested in questions that you can answer anywhere on the planet, questions that matter for all species. What effect does this organism have on that organism? Who is the predator? Who is the pollinator? What makes this species live here and that one live there? There are no easy answers, but that’s what I like about it.

I study how species interact with each other. Just like the way we think about the human “social network”, species also have friends and enemies and frenemies: they compete with each other, they help each other out, they eat each other. These interactions are the fabric that weaves nature together. I study these interactions in a variety of ecosystems, but primarily in coastal ecosystems known as the rocky intertidal. Right where the land meets the sea, there is a coastal zone teeming with a rich diversity of seaweeds, sea stars, mussels, barnacles, and snails. These ocean ecosystems are like small natural laboratories where we can do simple experiments to examine species interactions. For example, while it is difficult to conduct an experiment to remove bird herbivores from a forest, it is much simpler to remove small snails from a few centimeters of rock in this system. The relationships among organisms matter! Think about your life and your personal relationships. Your friends, your enemies, the people you see on the train, your neighbors, the people you never meet who still influence your life. All of these people, all of these relationships matter greatly for us. This is the same for species in nature. Nature as we know it exists because of relationships among species. But these relationships are particularly understudied, which might have big consequences as we study how the world is changing. In particular, if one species is particularly important to the ecosystem because of these relationships, maybe that species should be prioritized for conservation. Put another way, if one species is declining or threatened, the loss of that species to the ecosystem may have much larger effects than we realized because it is, say, the most important prey of an abundant predator. These interactions are all the more important when we consider how they affect humans, from the pollination of the food we eat, to the ocean food webs we fish.

In my spare time I dabble in many hobbies but have a short attention span! I particularly like to rock climb. I also like to sew and mend clothes, and I worked on designing and sewing a clothing line in college with a friend. My ideal day off includes waking up with no alarm, having a slow cup of coffee, and still having plenty of time to get into the outdoors to be in the sun with friends, rock climbing, hiking, swimming. Or it might be to just go to a favorite coffee shop and read a book, write a letter to a friend, or people-watch. Either way, my ideal day always involves coffee.

Please welcome Allison to Real Scientists!

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