ESA Interviews: Jean Burns

I interviewed awesome ecologists at the 2011 Ecological Society of America meeting in exchange for reader donations, which paid for my conference attendance. This is one in a series of posts about those interviews.

Jean Burns is an ecologist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. She’s interested in community assembly and using invasive species to answer community assembly questions. She’s trying to figure out some big unknowns in ecology; we still don’t know exactly what factors influence why some species are rare and others are common, for example. Gaps like that mean we can’t predict what ecological communities will look like. What predictions we can make are context dependent, which is a very big problem when we’re trying to figure out what might happen in new situations – like with climate change.

One thing she’s excited about is understanding the how the evolutionary relationships between species influences species assembly.

If ecologists find lots of closely related species together, they might conclude that the closely related species all have similar traits (from their shared evolutionary history) that allow them to survive in that environment (shortened to ‘habitat filtering’ in ecology-speak). But if ecologists find mostly distantly related species all in the same place, they might conclude that closely related species are too similar to coexist (ecological theory says species that live together must occupy different niches). But wait a second! There’s an assumption in here we haven’t dealt with – how ecologically similar are closely related species really?

This is what Jean Burns and her coauthor Sharon Strauss tried to figure out in a really cool study recently. They looked at whether germination and early survival niches for some related plant species from Bodega Bay are evolutionarily conserved – that is, whether those niche aspects are really similar or not for related species. And they were! For the plants and environment in this experiment, that means that habitat filtering is a good explanation for at least some of the patterns of community assembly at Bodega Bay.

One of the cool things about her experiment is that instead of looking at a specific trait associated with germination (like days from planting to sprouting), they really were able to consider the whole germination niche in the field. If they’d measured just one or two traits, it would be really hard to be sure they were actually measuring traits important to the germination niche.

By Dinesh Valke

Commelina benghalensis by Flickr user dinesh_valke

She also spends a lot of time thinking about invasive species and what makes them so good at, well, being invasive.

One of the species she’s studied is the Benghal dayflower. Now, most people have nothing good to say about this plant, and to be fair, it’s a huge problem in agricultural fields many places. But it’s also a very, very cool plant.

It is so good at getting around. Plants know just as well as people do that putting all your eggs in one basket is a bad idea and often have a couple different ways to reproduce. Most plants can reproduce a couple different ways. But the Benghal dayflower has eight. In addition to spreading with rhizomes, pretty much any bit of the stem tossed onto soil can start a while new plant. And then it makes seeds 3 different ways on 3 different kinds of branches. It’s so complicated, I had to make a chart to figure it out.

Benghal dayflower flower types

No wonder it’s invasive!

So that’s a little bit about what Jean Burns has worked on, but how did she get where she is now?

She didn’t always know that she wanted to be an ecologist, but she’s always loved plants. She has fond memories of planting irises as a child and thought she might be a landscape designer someday. (Just like me! Except my fond memories are of zinnias.)

After having a fantastic time hiking around finding cool plants in a field botany course during her undergrad, she took an ecology job with the state where she could continue hiking around finding cool plants, but this time in the desert!

Even though Burns started out in botany, she’s got very good math skills – which is very important in ecology. A lot of students starting ecology degrees don’t learn as much math as they should, but since Burns’ mother, a CPA, always stressed the utility of math, she didn’t skimp on the math courses. This really paid off once she started doing ecology. She also has some really good advice about math for students: being good at math isn’t really about some sort of innate talent – it’s about persistence! If it seems hard, that’s because it is and you’ve just got to keep working at it.

Other skills she thinks ecologists don’t necessarily get training in that pay off big time are managing and working with people and being a good mentor. Based on my own experiences as a student of good mentors and then as a not-so-good mentor of good students, I can assure you that it’s not as easy it looks!

This interview is a little shorter than the rest because Jean Burns is the kind of person who makes good mentoring look easy. In our short lunch together, she managed to sneak in more questions than I did – and her questions helped me figure out more about what I wanted from grad school!