Ecologist recognized for his cutting-edge work on major environmental issues | Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine

CU Boulder Assistant Professor Laura E. Dee has been named an Ecological Society of America Early Career Fellow, reflecting her contributions so far and to come


An interdisciplinary ecologist with a degree in economics has received high honor for her collaborative efforts to help solve big environmental problems.

Laura E. Dee, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EBIO) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was recently elected as an Early Career Fellow of the Ecological Society of America (ESA).

The society is a non-profit, non-partisan organization of professional environmentalists. He reserves the Early Career Award as a special recognition for ESA members “who have advanced ecological knowledge and applications and who promise to continue to make outstanding contributions to the wide range of fields served by ESA”.

Dee earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2015. She recently answered questions about her work, its implications, and more. Parts of this exchange follow:

Question: You are an ecologist with a master’s degree in economics and you collaborate with other specialists in various disciplines; why is it important in your research to collaborate with other disciplines?

Answer: I think the biggest challenges facing society, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, require a multidisciplinary perspective. We cannot be siloed in our disciplines because the problems we face are not just a problem of biology, or not just a problem of sociology. They require a wide range of skills.

I think the biggest challenges facing society, like climate change and biodiversity loss, require a multidisciplinary perspective.

Much of my work involves collaborating across disciplines and working with different stakeholders and government agencies, as well as other scientists.

Q: Can you share an example of how this interdisciplinary collaboration happens?

A: I have worked with US Fish and Wildlife, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and the Nature Conservancy to understand and improve grassland conservation in the Upper Midwest. This group is a multi-agency collaboration that monitors and manages remnant grasslands across Minnesota and South Dakota. These are areas where native grasslands have declined significantly from their historic extent, but they are valuable habitats from a biodiversity perspective.

These areas have lost disturbances that were once part of the system, such as fire and grazing by large ungulates (like elk or bison), which are essential for these systems to maintain some of these native species, as invasive species take over otherwise. However, we don’t know much about how these ecosystems will respond to factors such as climate and management. Despite the uncertainty, conservation cannot wait for better information given the rate of climate change and the high potential for extinctions.

With this group, we are undergoing what is called “adaptive management”, or “learn-as-you-go” management to reduce uncertainty about how the prairies respond to things like climate and management. Through an iterative process of implementing grazing and prescribed burns, the group monitors the system to see what is happening, and we use this information to update our understanding and models to improve future management decisions. management.

My research group developed models for this team to better inform management decisions on their lands and to use data science to maximize what we can learn from over 10 years of monitoring data. As a group, we work with over 60 individual land managers through this partnership. Our lab group develops partnerships, so we can help with the science needed to inform management decisions, and then work with partners like these who connect with the people on the ground who are implementing measures like burning and grazing to maintain native grasslands.

At the top of the page: Bluestem, Minnesota tallgrass prairie plants (Justin Meissen/Flickr). Above: Laura Dee was recently elected ESA Early Career Fellow.

More locally, I work with the City of Boulder’s Climate Initiatives to collaboratively examine the potential effects of climate adaptation on the benefits people receive from nature.

For example, we (largely EBIO students Meghan Hayden and Rebecca McHugh) measure how vegetation, such as trees and pollinator corridors, impact Boulder’s urban heat island effect and how temperatures in the city differ according to the demography of the neighborhood, from the point of view of thermal inequality in the city.

We have air temperature sensors in parks, RV areas, and various neighborhoods in Boulder. We are also working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, as they want to validate some of their satellite data with ground data in urban areas.

Q: Among other things, your lab aims to understand how ecosystems provide benefits to people, how global change alters these relationships, and how best to adapt conservation and response; it looks like we have a lot to learn in this area. Is this your view?

A: Yes. Let’s take fire as an example. Along with students and postdoctoral fellows in my group (Dr. Katherine Siegel and PhD student Anna LoPresti), I begin to work with fire scientists studying how climate change is altering fire regimes in the West. We are interested in how different management strategies, such as prescribed burning, can alter the severity of wildfires and minimize impacts on the benefits that people depend on forests.

Ultimately, what interests us is how fire and forest management alters the benefits people derive from a forest ecosystem. With our interdisciplinary approach, we can ask ourselves: what are the downstream consequences on the quality and quantity of water, and on the carbon stored? How might the cultural benefits we derive from forests change?

Q: Are there particular difficulties in working in several disciplines?

A: It’s a huge investment in building relationships and establishing a common language because people use different terms for the same thing or the same terms for different things.

Interdisciplinary work should be viewed as collaboration and an investment in relationships. There are a lot of pushes and pulls where you have to identify common interests, and a common problem that gives equal respect to what each discipline can bring to the table. To make these collaborations work, it’s not enough to approach someone and say, “Hey, I want you to like this challenge we’re working on.” You really want to work together to see a problem from different angles, so that everyone gets something out of it. Building that foundation takes time, but the product is often more innovative and transformative, and ultimately more useful outside of academia.

I am truly delighted to receive this award from ESA, as it signals to me that the standards of our field, and what can be defined as ecology, are changing to recognize the importance of interdisciplinary science.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

A: From an early age: I grew up on the East Coast and would go down to the beach and count the snails on the various piers. I had a failed snail relocation project where I thought the tides would kill the snails before I knew anything about their biology and moved them to the upper title area on the beach. Then they all died, so that was a big signal that I needed to learn a bit more about science. But from an early age, my mother introduced me to the natural history of coastal ecosystems. Although I am now in Colorado, I got my start in marine biology.

I am truly delighted to receive this award from ESA, as it signals to me that the standards of our field, and what can be defined as ecology, are changing to recognize the importance of interdisciplinary science.

Going back to some of the work we do in Boulder, I think the role of ecology in urban environments and cities could potentially create more connections to science for a broader set of people.

Q: What else are you working on?

A: Although I am based in Colorado, I also continue to do coastal research and have a grant from the National Science Foundation on the impacts of climate change and species loss in the Gulf of Maine. Specifically, blue mussels are in decline in the Gulf of Maine, but were once very abundant. The loss of the blue mussel could result in the loss of other species, as it serves as food and habitat for other species. The theory even predicts food web collapse and loss of critical ecosystem functions is possible. We test these predictions.

For this project, we combine hands-on field experience with tools from complex systems and network science to understand species losses in food webs. Food webs describe who eats whom in an ecosystem. With this approach, we want to understand the broader consequences of species extinctions due to climate change for rocky shore ecosystems, since species are connected by a complex web of interactions.

This project has been really fun and exciting, especially because it has established a new collaboration between CU Boulder and Colby College in Maine (Dr. Allison Barner) which has allowed us to involve and train many undergraduate students and graduate cycles.

To expand the reach and impact of this research, a PhD candidate in my lab, Aislyn Keyes, and I are developing an online game that will allow students anywhere in the world to learn about potential cascading consequences. species losses in rocky intertidal zones and salt marsh ecosystems for ecosystems and people.

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