The long temporal and large spatial scales of ecological systems make controlled experimentation difficult and the amassing of informative data challenging and expensive. The resulting sparsity and noise are major impediments to scientific progress in ecology, which therefore depends on efficient use of data. In this context, it has in recent years been recognized that the onetime playthings of theoretical ecologists, mathematical models of ecological processes, are no longer exclusively the stuff of thought experiments, but have great utility in the context of causal inference. Specifically, because they embody scientific questions about ecological processes in sharpest form—making precise, quantitative, testable predictions—the rigorous confrontation of process-based models with data accelerates the development of ecological understanding. This is the central premise of my research program and the common thread of the work that goes on in my laboratory.
Professor Hines’ research focuses on the analysis of the donative behavior of Americans, and how it affects the intergenerational and interpersonal transmission of economic well-being. To what extent do parents leave property to their children and others, and how is this behavior affected by legal institutions, taxes, social norms, and other considerations? While there are no comprehensive sources of data on wills, trusts, lifetime gifts, and other forms of property transmission, there is ample available information from legal documents that with the help of natural language processing can hopefully be coded and analyzed in a systematic way.
The Schloss lab is broadly interested in beneficial and pathogenic host-microbiome interactions with the goal of improving our understanding of how the microbiome can be used to reach translational outcomes in the prevention, detection, and treatment of colorectal cancer, Crohn’s disease, and Clostridium difficile infection. To address these questions, we test traditional ecological theory in the microbial context using a systems biology approach. Specifically, the laboratory specializes in using studies involving human subjects and animal models to understand how biological diversity affects community function using a variety of culture-independent genomics techniques including sequencing 16S rRNA gene fragments, metagenomics, and metatranscriptomics. In addition, they use metabolomics to understand the functional role of the gut microbiota in states of health and disease. To support these efforts, they develop and apply bioinformatic tools to facilitate their analysis. Most notable is the development of the mothur software package (https://www.mothur.org), which is one of the most widely used tools for analyzing microbiome data and has been cited more than 7,300 times since it was initially published in 2009. The Schloss lab deftly merges the ability to collect data to answer important biological questions using cutting edge wet-lab techniques and computational tools to synthesize these data to answer their biological questions.
Given the explosion in microbiome research over the past 15 years, the Schloss lab has also stood at the center of a major effort to train interdisciplinary scientists in applying computational tools to study complex biological systems. These efforts have centered around developing reproducible research skills and applying modern data visualization techniques. An outgrowth of these efforts at the University of Michigan has been the institutionalization of The Carpentries organization on campus (https://carpentries.org), which specializes in peer-to-peer instruction of programming tools and techniques to foster better reproducibility and build a community of practitioners.
Kathleen M Bergen, PhD, is Associate Research Scientist in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Dr. Bergen currently has interim administrative oversight of the SEAS Environmental Spatial Analysis Laboratory (ESALab) and is interim Director of the campus-wide Graduate Certificate Program in Spatial Analysis.
Prof. Bergen works in the areas of human dimensions of environmental change; remote sensing, GIS and biodiversity informatics; and environmental health and informatics. Her focus is on combining field and geospatial data and methods to study the pattern and process of ecological systems, biodiversity and health. She also strives to build bridges between science and social science to understand the implications of human actions on the social and natural systems of which we are a part. She teaches courses in Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems. Formerly she served as a founding member of the UM LIbrary’s MIRLYN implementation team, directed the University Map Collection, and set up the M-Link reference information network.
Bill Currie studies how physical, chemical, and ecological processes work together in the functioning of ecosystems such as forests and wetlands. He studies how human impacts and management alter key ecosystem responses including nutrient retention, carbon storage, plant species interactions, and plant productivity. Dr. Currie uses computer models of ecosystems, including models in which he leads the development team, to explore ecosystem function across the spectrum from wildland to heavily human-impacted systems. He often works in collaborative groups where a model is used to provide synthesis.
He is committed to the idea that researchers must work together across traditional fields to address the complex environmental and sustainability issues of the 21st century. He collaborates with field ecologists, geographers, remote sensing scientists, hydrologists, and land management professionals.