Scaling Up: Concurrent Workshops on Continental-scale Population and Community Ecology and the Future of Environmental Decisions: An ESA Workshop Report


I. Introduction

Over the past decade, opportunities to address new scientific questions at the continental scale have grown immensely. The demand for professionals and research scientists trained to analyze large volumes of data in the context of increasing pressures on environmental and social systems is increasing, as is the demand for scientists with training on how large data sets can inform environmental decision-making. Some ecologists, such as those working in population and community ecology, and students may have limited experience working at this spatial scale. In response to these trends, and as part of the Ecological Society of America's (ESA) efforts to promote the continued development of ecological science, ESA hosted two concurrent Scaling Up workshops in early June, 2013, both funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Scaling Up: Population and Community Ecology, A Workshop for Early-Career Scientists” was held 3–7 June 2013 in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, at the Maritime Institute's Conference Center. The workshop included three and a half days of presentations, discussions, working group sessions, and joint meetings with the concurrent student workshop on the Future of Environmental Decisions. “Scaling Up: Future of Environmental Decisions, A Workshop for Students” was held on 2–7 June 2013 at the same location. The student workshop included four and a half days of lectures, group work, joint sessions with the early-career workshop, and a field trip to the Chesapeake Bay and Jefferson Patterson Park in Solomon, Maryland. The concurrent workshops provided valuable opportunities for early-career scientists and students to interact and provide feedback on each other's research ideas and presentations.

II. Structure and objectives of the concurrent workshops

The Early-Career Workshop on Population and Community Ecology reflects a broad movement in ecology towards the use of networks, global knowledge bases, and public data. The workshop brought together young scientists so they could consider how to address the scope and scale of today's ecological and environmental challenges. The primary objectives of the early-career workshop were to:

  • Identify key questions in population and community ecology that can or should be addressed at continental scales;

  • Assess the status of existing analytical, physical, and software tools needed to address these questions; and

  • Identify needs and capabilities for developing new tools to address continental-scale questions.

The early-career workshop included a series of “tool talks” given by members of the organizing committee. These helped provide participants with some common background information on resources and tools for continental-scale ecology that reached across the many disciplines represented by the participants.

  • “The New Vast Machine: Map of Life and challenges and solutions to documenting global biodiversity and its change” (Robert Guralnick)

  • “Geospatial data for large-area ecology: lessons learned” (Janet Franklin)

  • “Interactions and traits: trying to scale up from community assembly” (Katharine Suding)

  • “What do we do with all these data? Modeling strategies for continental-scale ecology” (Matthew Fitzpatrick)

In large and small group discussions, participants identified a number of important questions to be addressed at the continental scale and identified existing or new analytical, physical, and software tools needed to address these questions. By the second full day of the workshop, participants and the organizing committee worked together to refine this list to five key questions. Participants self-selected into working groups around these questions, and spent much of the remainder of the workshop developing research plans, including identifying data sets and available or needed analytical tools that address their selected question, and presenting those ideas to participants in the Student Workshop on the Future of Environmental Decisions.

The Scaling Up: Future of Environmental Decisions (FED) student workshop was a continuation of a program which began in 2008 to promote the future of continental-scale science and education to primarily undergraduate institutions and underrepresented audiences in ecology. The student Scaling Up workshop is the second FED workshop that ESA has organized. During this workshop student participants learned about the role of continental-scale science in helping citizens and decision-makers better understand the interaction of local and regional issues and the complexity of environmental decision-making, using a case study of the Chesapeake Bay.

This FED workshop introduced undergraduate and graduate students from diverse backgrounds to the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) infrastructure and provided opportunities for students to:

  • Develop insights into environmental decision-making using environmental and social science data;

  • Gain 21st century skills in working with large-scale data, mapping, and public communications technologies;

  • Build skills to communicate science to land and resource managers and the general public; and

  • Explore potential ecology and environmental science careers.

To achieve these goals, participants worked in small groups to address environmental challenges within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. At the beginning of the workshop the participants were introduced to some of the major concepts they would be addressing throughout the week: ecology, social-economic dimensions, spatial analysis, QGIS, and science communication. Talks and activities on these subjects were led by a multidisciplinary faculty.

At the beginning of the workshop, students presented mini-posters using the Integration and Application Network (IAN) Conceptual Diagramming Tool developed by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES).

Participants engaged in a large-scale participatory simulation called The UVA Bay Game, a simulation based on the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The game allowed participants to take on the roles of stakeholders, such as farmers, developers, watermen, and local policy-makers; make decisions about their livelihoods or regulatory authority; and see the impacts of their decisions on their own personal finances, the regional economy, and watershed health.

Workshop participants were then organized into small groups to identify and research a topic of their choice related to environmental issues within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. To provide additional context about the watershed and spatial analysis, a field trip was organized by UMCES to the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory and Jefferson Patterson Park. During the field trip, participants explored chemical and biological indicators of the Bay's health aboard the Research Vessel Rachel Carson, out on the Chesapeake Bay. UMCES faculty also led exercises in understanding error in spatial analysis data. A rich discussion about how data is used for local policy implementation was hosted by Greg Sandi from the Maryland Department of the Environment and Alex Reed, Division of Environmental Management Watershed Specialist for Washington County, Maryland.

Student workshop participants worked tirelessly to present 5-minute preliminary presentations midweek to the early career workshop participants, and then final 20-minute presentations on Friday to a panel of invited guests.

III. Outcomes from the Early Career Workshop on Population and Community Ecology

The early career workshop's relatively unstructured approach encouraged participants to work together to develop new ideas and research teams. The workshop organizing committee deliberately assembled an interdisciplinary group of scientists with diverse experience and backgrounds. A selection of the varied disciplines represented at the workshop (beyond community and population ecology) include: theoretical ecology, landscape ecology, urban ecology, ecological modeling, macroecology, biogeography, remote sensing, ecoinformatics, entomology, botany, quantitative ecology, computational ecology, molecular and microbial ecology, and conservation ecology.

Five key questions to be addressed at the continental scale in population and community ecology.

On the first full day of the workshop, participants focused on identifying key questions in population and community ecology that can or should be addressed at continental scales. Participants were encouraged to consider questions that involved integrating across scales (incorporating local-scale ecological processes such as species interactions into continental scale patterns, and vice-versa), integrating observational data and mechanistic experiments, and relating static (such as occurrence data) and dynamic data (such as demography) over space. The final list of the most important key questions identified by workshop participants is as follows:

  • What is the relative importance of different processes for population/community responses at different scales? How do the role and magnitude of dispersal change as a function of scale, and at what scales do biotic interactions matter to distributions of species in time and space?

  • What is the role of intraspecific variation (local adaptations, traits, function, etc.) on continental-scale patterns? Do models need to account for this variation or are species-level attributes sufficient for prediction?

  • When and how can experiments (and observations) at a small extent (but potentially fine grain) be used to extrapolate to larger extents or predict trends? In other words, how do we integrate small-scale observations/experiments into macro-scale assessments or trends over space and time?

  • How do models of species–environment relationships and macroecological models that ignore species differences differ in predictions of community attributes? Do differences in predictions change from local to global scales, and for different community attributes?

  • Does environmental heterogeneity or functional diversity influence ecosystem resilience, and are these relationships similar across systems?

A paper summarizing these questions and many others that arose during the workshop is in progress.

On the final day of the workshop, participants took time to reflect on some of the broader questions they were not able to address or discuss. Some of these issues and questions include:

  • How are we actually going to incorporate biotic interactions into community ecology, and how do biotic interactions change across space?

  • If we do see different patterns, what tools can help us classify these patterns?

  • What mechanisms exist for spatially explicit biotic feedback?

  • Many questions and issues concerning data arose, including:

    • Do we need data sets that scale?

    • Do we need a framework for how data sets should fit together in terms of scaling, or a standard protocol for how to scale data?

    • What are the missing components we need to stitch existing data together at different scales?

  • How do we progress from scaling up populations and begin to assess aspects like ecosystem function?

  • How does human impact affect the inferences we make in our research, and how do continental-scale data help with decision making?

  • It appears we may need some additional analytical tools to answer these questions; what are they, and what would they look like?

Since the workshop, participants have been in touch with their working groups frequently, and many groups are working on research publications and review papers that they hope to publish in the near future. In post-workshop surveys, participants felt they gained the most from the small group breakout and brainstorming time, and felt they gained a lot of knowledge and furthered their understanding of how to use continental-scale data by interacting with a diverse and interdisciplinary group of peers.

IV. Outcomes from the Student Workshop on the Future of Environmental Decisions

The final output from the student workshop was a 20-minute presentation given by each working group. ESA members in the Baltimore area were invited to attend the presentation and meet with students. Three ESA members and ESA Executive Director, Katherine McCarter attended. A brief description of each presentation is provided below:

  • Group 1: Threat of urbanization on water quality.

    Utilizing data on brook trout populations, water quality, and human population density, the group did an analysis to determine if changes in water quality and human population density were correlated with changes in brook trout populations.

  • Group 2: A comparison of socioeconomic and Bay health trajectories in two Chesapeake sub-watersheds.

    Utilizing data about population density, median household income, and water quality, this group compared different watersheds to create a framework for understanding water quality and human population dynamics as a model for the Chesapeake Bay.

  • Group 3: Health and wealth in Maryland: Do economic indicators correlate spatially with water quality?

    Utilizing the Social Vulnerability Index and water quality data, four counties in Maryland were compared to determine if there is a correlation between areas with low socio-economic indicators and poor ambient water quality.

  • Group 4: Constructing Artificial Wetlands in the Patuxent River Watershed.

    This group utilized QGIS technology to identify key locations for wetlands within the Patuxent River Watershed as a means to improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. Their criteria for suggested locations for additional wetlands included the percentage of impervious surface, current land use, and proximity to streams.

  • Group 5: Suburbia's Influence on Water Quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

    This group addressed questions regarding the relationships between suburban areas and water quality, and which related environmental issues should be addressed with policy.

The student workshop participants responded very positively to the workshop. More than 80% felt that it helped increase or reinforce their interest in learning about how data informs decision-making and the principles of science communication to a great extent. Further, 85% or more indicated the workshop helped them gain a better understanding of how social, economic, and political dimensions affect environmental decision-making.

Both faculty and participants greatly appreciated the diversity of workshop participants in terms of their perspectives, disciplines, cultures, skills, and experience. Participants welcomed the opportunity to collaborate on a multidisciplinary team and recognized that this will be increasingly important in their careers.

Strikingly, nearly 96% of all participants indicated they learned how NEON data will be able to help address environmental management solutions. This is encouraging, as a principal motivation for this workshop is to help the field understand ways to utilize NEON data once available, and to help NEON gain insight on data products that will be useful for education and to society.

V. Next Steps

ESA's Office of Science Programs hopes to replicate the Scaling Up workshop for early-career scientists while focusing on a different sub-discipline within ecology. Ideas and suggestions for a future workshop of this type focused on continental-scale data are welcome. Please contact Cliff Duke, Director of Science Programs, at with recommendations.

The ESA Education and Diversity Office plans to continue the FED program with similar workshops that take place in other regions of the United States. Workshop faculty from minority-serving institutions recruited for this workshop are assuming leadership for subsequent opportunities. The office also has plans to convert some of the workshop activities into teaching modules for classroom use. When ready, these teaching modules will be cataloged in ESA's EcoEd Digital Library. Please contact Director of Education and Diversity Programs, Teresa Mourad at for further information.

VI. Appendix A: Participants in the Early Career Workshop on Population and Community Ecology

  • Margaret Andrew, Murdoch University, School of Veterinary and Life Sciences

  • Christie Bahlai, Michigan State University, Entomology

  • Benjamin Baiser, Harvard University, Harvard Forest

  • Lydia Beaudrot, University of California, Davis, Graduate Group in Ecology

  • David Bell, University of Wyoming, Department of Botany

  • Jonathan (Yoni) Belmaker, Tel Aviv University, Zoology

  • Bethany Bradley, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Environmental Conservation

  • Brad Butterfield, Northern Arizona University, Department of Biological Sciences

  • Sarah Elmendorf, National Ecological Observatory Network, Plant Ecology

  • Florian Hartig, University of Freiburg, Biometry and Environmental System Analysis

  • Shawn Leroux, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Biology

  • Sean Maher, University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

  • Stephen Mayor, University of Alberta, Biological Sciences

  • Daniel McGlinn, Utah State University, Biology

  • David Miller, Pennsylvania State University, Ecosystem Science and Management

  • Emily Minor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Biological Sciences

  • Emily Moran, ETH Zurich, Biology

  • James O’Dwyer, University of Illinois, Plant Biology

  • Ian Pearse, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Population Studies

  • Kabir Peay, Stanford University, Biology

  • Sydne Record, Michigan State University, Departments of Forestry and Geography

  • Seeta Sistla, University of California, Santa Barbara, Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology

  • Marko Spasojevic, University of California, Davis, Environmental Science and Policy

  • Angela Strecker, Portland State University, Environmental Science and Management

  • Katherine Thibault, National Ecological Observatory Network, Terrestrial Ecology Group

  • Morgan Tingley, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School

  • Mao-Ning Tuanmu, Yale University, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

  • Ruscena Wiederholt, University of Arizona, School of Natural Resources and the Environment

  • John Withey, Florida International University, Biological Sciences

  • Phoebe Zarnetske, Yale University, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

ESA Staff and Workshop Organizing Committee:

  • Clifford S. Duke, ESA Director of Science Programs

  • Matthew Fitzpatrick, University of Maryland, Center for Environmental Science

  • Janet Franklin, Arizona State University, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning

  • Deborah Goldberg, Organizing Committee Chair, University of Michigan

  • Robert Guralnick, University of Colorado at Boulder, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

  • Jill Petraglia Parsons, ESA Science Programs Manager

  • Katharine Suding, University of California, Berkeley, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management

VII. Appendix B: Participants in the Student Workshop on the Future of Environmental Decisions

  • Laura Bartock, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Major(s): Environmental Science, Media and Communication Studies

  • Juan Botero, The City College of New York, Major(s): Economics

  • Wanda Briscoe, University of the District of Columbia, Major(s): Architecture

  • John Brito, University of Missouri- Columbia, Major(s): Civil/ Environmental Engineering

  • Rory Carroll, SUNY Plattsburgh, Major(s): Biology

  • Brenda Castro-Voltaggio, University of Puerto Rico–Medical Sciences Campus, Major(s): Demography

  • Yvan Delgado de la Flor, Humboldt State University, Major(s): Wildlife Conservation and Management

  • Jessica Flondro, Augustana College, Major(s): Geography and Environmental Studies

  • James Haggar, West Virginia University, Major(s): Landscape Architecture

  • Aubrie James, Iowa State University, Major(s): Animal Ecology

  • Tiona Johnson, Virginia Commonwealth University, Major(s): Urban and Regional Planning with a concentration in Regional Analysis and Development; Environmental Studies

  • Rugiyatu Kane, Spelman College, Major(s): Environmental Science and Studies

  • Bonnie Keeler, The University of Minnesota, Major(s): Natural Resources Science and Management

  • Laina Lockett, University of Pittsburgh, Major(s): Ecology and Evolution

  • Maria Cristina Martinez, Chapman University, Major(s): Environmental Science and Policy

  • Greg Patton, Augustana College, Major(s): Accounting and Political Science

  • Mariana Quiñones Rosado, University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus, Major(s): Environmental Science

  • Mark Rogers, Virginia Tech, Major(s): Biological Systems Engineering

  • Daniel Schall, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Major(s): Geography and Environmental Systems

  • Joy Semien, Dillard University, Major(s): Biology

  • Sumnima Sharma, ESA Education Intern, Christ University, Bangalore, India. Major: Business Management

  • Kelsey Stockert, Augustana College - Rock Island, Illinois, Major(s): Biology, Environmental Studies, Spanish for Professional Use

  • Tracy Wendt, University of Montana, Major(s): Resource Conservation - Aquatic Ecology emphasis

  • Becky Wood, University of Oklahoma, Major(s): B.A. Environmental Sustainability (Planning and Management); B.A. Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Environment (Natural Resource Policy)

  • Stephanie Wilson, The University of Pennsylvania, Major(s): Biology (The College of William and Mary)

ESA Staff and Workshop Organizing Committee:

  • Fred Abbott, Ecological Society of America

  • Alan Collins, West Virginia University

  • Bill Dennison, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

  • Andrew Elmore, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

  • Steve Guinn, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

  • Andrea McMillen, Ecological Society of America

  • Teresa Mourad, Ecological Society of America

  • Carla Restrepo, University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras

  • Allen Roberts, Tennessee State University

  • Jane Thomas, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

  • Leah Wasser, National Ecological Observatory Network

  • Brian Wee, National Ecological Observatory Network