Invited Commentary: The Education Dimension of Biodiversity Science

Fletcher Halliday, a Biology PhD student at the University of North Carolina just returned from ScienceOnline Together 2014 where he networked BioDiverse Perspectives, a graduate student run science blog featuring what the next generation thinks is foundational and edgy in biodiversity science. In fact, BioDiverse Perspectives debuted at last year’s ScienceOnline conference, with nice shout outs by Jeremy Fox (Dynamic Ecology) and Marc Cadotte (EEB&Flow). Is this science? Shouldn’t Fletcher be spending his grad school time working on peer-reviewed publications? Turns out he’s doing that too, having just co-authored a paper in Ecography evaluating the stress-dominance hypothesis, along with a suite of UNC students and faculty member Alan Hurlbert. Fletcher’s experience, and that of his graduate co-authors is part of an experimental integration of research and education funded by the National Science Foundation Dimensions of Biodiversity program – how far can we scale up a distributed graduate seminar and still produce original innovative work?

Distributed graduate seminars (DGS) have been around for a while. A blend of networking, meta-analysis, synthetic problem-solving, and team and leadership skill development; DGSs have a practical goal of student-led peer-reviewed publication, and a larger goal of revamping graduate education to more closely match the way we do science – in fluid teams composed of experts who can collectively tackle the problems science faces today. The basic DGS structure includes multiple teams – each from a different university – composed of 3-15 graduate students drawn from several departments, and 1-3 facilitating faculty.

The heart of a DGS is when representatives – students and faculty – from all teams come together in synthesis meetings to share knowledge and skill sets, and allow cross-team projects to emerge from these interactions. In this model, students lead. Faculty take a supporting role – in our DGS faculty made themselves available for an informal session on Bayesian analysis or Rao’s Q, they were ready to pitch in as a writing workshop lead, or on track to review the conceptual model of a newly formed cross-team. Participating faculty are socially adept graduate student mentors naturally able to teach without lecturing. They are also available for synthesis meetings, collectively well-versed in the knowledge and skill sets students need to leap forward, and honestly, just plain fun.

Invented at NCEAS, this model of graduate education has branched into several approaches, from a more traditional (albeit online) reading and discussion group, to the relative chaos of allowing students to explore their own approach to synthesizing biodiversity science – welcome to the Dimensions of Biodiversity Distributed Graduate Seminar (DBDGS).

Imagine a single project with 117 graduate students and postdocs, 24 faculty, and 3 staff tasked with bounding and baselining the genetic, functional and taxonomic/phylogenetic dimensions of biodiversity. A project stretching across 13 universities, spread across four continents and five languages. Throw in the microbe-macrobe divide, a field through theory focus, and a “healthy difference” of approach from basic (biodiversity as driver) to applied (biodiversity as response variable) science. Top that off with PIs coming from an academic and a non-governmental organization, respectively, and you have a recipe for truly creative synthesis.

In the two and a half years since we started, we’ve held 6 synthesis meetings collectively attended by more than 200 people, held 6 writing and blogging workshops, and sponsored more than 40 graduate student papers at Ecological Society of America, American Association for Advancement of Science, Ssociety for Conservation Biology, and Evolution meetings. Here are the good – in fact, amazing – things that result from a DGS:

  • Graduate students really can take charge and plan-execute-publish synthetic meta-analyses. We’ve already had 6 papers published, and there are at least 10 in press, in review, or in (serious) prep.
  • Along the way of realizing this academic production, students have created a cross-university and interdisciplinary network, literally the future of biodiversity science. University of North Carolina students work with University of Connecticut, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil), and Católica University (Chile) students on synthetic approaches to trait space conceptualization. Fisheries students from Oregon State University (Oregon) and marine ecology students from University of California Santa Barbara figure out how to work together to create the next generation of meaningful biodiversity indicators of fishery sustainability, even if our generation of academics are still duking it out. UCSB “terrestrial” students collaborated virtually with scientists from the Tropical Ecology, Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network in the Republic of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Ecuador, Italy, the Netherlands and Costa Rica to analyze data from 11 tropical forests spread across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The list of intersections and interactions is long.
  • Truly synthetic products will emerge from the efforts of the group, even if it’s impossible to predict what all of them will be, or who will be involved in producing them. BioDiverse Perspectives is a case in point. Faculty imagined this product as a “Foundations and Frontiers of Biodiversity” book. Students allowed as how books conveyed academic gravitas, but were also an increasingly out-of-date medium in a world of fast electronic communication. But a blog, that’s a different story – 130 posts, 53,400 page views, and a year later, our graduate student designed and delivered blog is helping define the edge of science communication within biodiversity. And it’s recruiting nonDBDGS students to contribute regularly: 35 bloggers from 5 countries and 14 academic institutions have posted so far on everything from what drives rodent diversity at the Portal site to Peter Kareiva’s thoughts on the future of biodiversity science.

Of course, not everything we tried worked, and not every synthesis project came to such rich fruition. Here’s what’s difficult to downright hard about running a DGS:

  • Giving graduate students the reins to a team-based project is not as easy as it could be. Turns out that true teamwork takes both time and work. Students need to learn to be leaders, and the realization that leadership doesn’t mean telling people what to do can be startling, even off-putting. What we hear now on the backside of successful publication is that the opportunity to really engage in team-based synthesis was one of the best opportunities of their graduate experience. But that’s not necessarily what they, or their advisors, said at the time…
  • Confronting the cultural barriers in the conduct of science was a major challenge. Not surprisingly, how we practice our craft in the U.S., China, Brazil, Chile and Kenya is different. We approached nearly 10 universities in China before we found a faculty leader excited about collaborating. Most found our model too contrary to their model of student research work very strongly directed by senior scientists.
  • The most difficult aspect of our model was the funding disparity between national and international teams. National teams had the benefit of NSF funding for an RA. International teams didn’t have this advantage; yet these are exactly the students who could really benefit from more financial support as central resources in some participating countries was lacking. Whereas some international students soared, many were unable to accomplish group tasks in addition to their own, often much more structured, research work.

Putting a DGS together isn’t for everyone. It takes a huge time commitment – like any large project – but without the a priori reward of multiple authorship in the peer-reviewed literature. Being PIs is somewhere between über Moms, motivational speakers, and crazy people. Definitely not for the early career scientist or those whose principal motivation is a focus on excellent primary science. On the other hand, as Chief Scientist of an international conservation NGO, DBDGS enabled me to engage with some of the brightest young conservationists worldwide, and especially provided a mechanism to connect developing country scientists working in remote tropical forests with an international science network. And as an Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Diversity, it’s been a fabulous chance to have a hand in shaping one direction of graduate education. The era of the single PI creating and publishing solo work is largely over. We work in groups, both inside and outside of academe. Why not make that experience de rigueur, if not central, to graduate education?

Julia K. Parrish
Associate Dean, College of the Environment
University of Washington

Sandy Andelman
Chief Scientist
Conservation International

PIs – Dimensions of Biodiversity Distributed Graduate Seminar (DBDGS)


One thought on “Invited Commentary: The Education Dimension of Biodiversity Science

  1. Thank you so much for highlighting BioDiverse Perspectives! The dimensions of biodiversity distributed graduate seminar has been a truly rewarding program, and I have been very lucky to be able to participate as a part of the University of North Carolina team.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s