A global test of ecoregions: Behind the paper

I believe that, by and large, we can break research projects into two main groups.

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Nov 05, 2018
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I believe that, by and large, we can break research projects into two main groups. The first are the result of careful planning, meticulous execution, and diligent – often independent – data analysis and writing. The second are the result of serendipity, sarcastic comments, snacks, beer, and friends. As a PhD student I spend most of my time focusing on formulating projects through the first pathway. Perhaps that’s what has made this project, the archetype of the second pathway, such a pleasure to work on.

We first came up with this project one day after work while eating nachos and drinking beer at the Treehouse – our go to for on-campus happy hours. Andrew, Po-Ju, and I were discussing how some of the most influential recent papers are those that make use of growing global datasets, emerging statistical techniques, and increased computing power to test foundational questions in ecology. We joked that these were the types of paper that after reading you would remark to yourself, “well of course that’s true”. As we made our way back to lab we somehow started discussing the idea of ecoregions, specifically asking whether or not anyone had ever tried to use data to test the biogeographic maps derived principally on ‘expert opinion’. When we got back to lab Andrew and I independently drew the two graphs that are now Figure 1c and Figure 1e on the lab white board. Our immediate reaction was that Figure 1c looks an awful lot like the back of a stegosaurus and for the earliest drafts of the paper our title was just ‘The stegosaurus paper’. To this day the folder with all the data, code, and drafts is titled ‘Stegosaurus’.

As time went on we started running this idea by other graduate students and post-docs in the department. In what feels like no time we had formed a regular group that would meet Thursdays at 5 pm, always with beer and snacks. Thankfully, the collaboration has proved to be as scientifically rewarding as it was fun in the moment. In total students from 5 labs in our department and 2 other universities had contributed ideas on how to refine the statistics, interpret the results biologically, or present the implications. As our side project was quickly becoming much more than that we began to reach out to faculty in our department, to get their input. They brought an immense amount of insight and perspective to our motley group of graduate students and in no time at all (speaking on academic time scales here so probably more like 9 months) we had something we felt worth sharing with the community! We’re still working together and hope that more awesome science will follow on this topic. Feel free to reach out if you have thoughts, ideas, or would like to collaborate!

The paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution is here: go.nature.com/2QjvjVn

Transitions between coastal habitat types in Costa Rica. Photo credit - Jeffrey R. Smith
Aerial image of a tree line in the Amazon. Photo credit - Christopher B. Anderson
Go to the profile of Jeffrey Smith

Jeffrey Smith

PhD student, Stanford University

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