(Bio)sphere of influence
Assistant Professor Sarah Supp operates at the intersection of two academic fields. Synthesizing data analytics and biology as a biodiversity researcher, Supp creates surprising new ways to research and solve problems. And she is a crusader in the classroom, supporting biology professors in adding the power of data analytic tools to their curriculum. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding her work in both of these initiatives.
“When you partner biology and data analysis, you gain a stronger understanding of general patterns and cause-and-effect relationships,” she says.
Supp accesses huge data sets to peer deeply into the past or widely across swaths of ocean and terrain, tracking biodiversity changes through time or across latitudes. “My goal is to understand similarities of patterns and trends writ large.”
Supp’s research questions both the macro and the (relatively) micro as she tracks alterations to our planet’s climate and biosphere.
On the macro side, she is part of an international team of researchers examining 50,000 longitudinal land and marine data series across the planet. The group has found trends that correlate changes in species abundance and diversity to changes in air or sea surface temperature. They have also tracked the different rates of changing biodiversity on land versus in the ocean, in relation to forest loss, and identified areas across the planet that are experiencing greater overlapping effects on climate change and human-driven pressures.
And on the micro side, Supp is tapping into citizen science observations to gain insight into how species migrate in parallel over time through a multi-institution collaborative NSF award. Tracking the Eastern Red Cedar, nicknamed “the green glacier” because of its steady encroachment of territory, she is exploring the role of birds in the trees’ westward creep across North America.
The undeniable benefits of this data analytics with biology partnership drive Supp to take on a third line of research: to find ways to help biology professors, especially at the undergraduate level, incorporate data analytics tools into their curriculum.
“It’s broadly understood that we need to update our biology undergraduates with modern problem-solving skills. And data science — quantitative reasoning — is something our graduates need to enter their careers,” she says.
While change is inherently challenging, updating the curriculum — especially intricately planned labs — raises the bar even further. Couple that with learning and putting into action a new field of science… well, let’s just say this is an uphill climb. But Supp is up for it.
Supp and fellow co-principals were awarded an NSF grant to form the Biological and Environmental Data Education (BEDE) Network, a community of biologists and data scientists “dedicated to empowering undergraduate instructors to bring data science into biology and environmental science curricula.”
It can be overwhelming to introduce new knowledge to an established science like biology where there is already an abundance of information to teach and learn.
“We convened a mini-conference in 2019 at Denison and developed a survey to identify six main data skills,” Supp says. “We also identified a number of potential barriers — many of them were perceived barriers about knowledge and comfort. Even professors can have imposter syndrome or label themselves as ‘not a math person’ or ’not a data person’.”
The BEDE Network organized a training network for instructors, is collaboratively developing data literacy modules geared toward biology instructors, and plans to build shareable curriculum maps that suggest accessible incremental steps to including data science tools within undergraduate biology curriculum. These small changes can plant the seed for further growth.
Supp is hopeful. “The field of biology wants to embrace this education. We recognize this is the present and the future of biology, and we are able to do new and exciting things all the time.”
Supp et al. 2021 - This paper is most related to the population movement research as it helps inform others how to do this kind of work and gives some examples using eBird data.
Gotelli et al. 2022 (Supp is one of many coauthors) Supp notes: This is an extension from the international team of researchers looking at biodiversity change. We wanted to know different ways to categorize and track how species persist (or not) through time. In other words, some species are becoming more common (or establishing), some are becoming less common (or becoming locally extirpated), and others exhibit more periodic patterns (recurrent, possibly depending on natural fluctuations in food or weather). We used marine fish as a proof of concept for this new methodology here, and plan to follow up the study with something more general and global in scale.
Emery et al. 2021 (Supp is one of many coauthors from BEDE Network and co-led development of the survey reported in the paper). Supp notes: This reports the results of the survey of biology instructors. Basically, it supports the idea that bio instructors understand the need to include data science skills in the curriculum. Many of them use these skills in their own research, but don’t feel comfortable, able, or supported in placing within undergraduate curriculum. Others feel these skills are also new to them, and need more training to feel confident and increase self efficacy to be able to teach them.
Daskalova et al. 2020, Science (Supp is one of many coauthors) Supp notes: This is another extension from the international team of researchers looking at biodiversity change. It focuses on forest loss as a potential catalyst for population and biodiversity change across the planet. It finds support for forest loss as a major driver of change including increases and decreases in different species abundances, and community turnover (composition change, or changing species identities) and that this change can occur for up to 50 years after forest loss (lots of lagged and long-term effects).
Antao et al. 2020, Nature Ecology and Evolution (Supp is one of many coauthors) Supp notes: This is another extension from the international team of researchers looking at biodiversity change. Here we examine how trends in temperature (e.g. due to climate change) are differently impacting biodiversity on land and in the sea. In short, the ocean appears to respond more rapidly to the warming temperatures (likely due to the effects of being able to move around and disperse more readily, thermal tolerances, biological traits, etc.) and the land appears to be responding more slowly, possibly accumulating an extinction debt (this happens when species are slowly declining or shrinking their ranges, such that a lagged effect of much later changes to abundance and diversity will happen due to events from the past).
Bowler et al. 2020 (Supp is one of many coauthors) Supp notes: This is another extension from the international team of researchers looking at biodiversity change. Here we take datasets that serve as measures for human impact across the planet and aggregate them together in one place for a synthetic assessment across the planet, including the land and sea. We highlight areas experiencing strong overlapping effects of humans and different kinds of pressures that are strongly correlated in the different realms (land vs sea).
Blowes and Supp et al. 2019, Science (Blowes and Supp shared first co-authorship). Supp notes: This is the first major paper that came from the international team of researchers looking at biodiversity change. We compare rates of change in species composition (changing identities) and species richness (the number of different species) across the planet and between the land and the sea. We identify the marine tropics as a hotspot for species losses and slower (possibly lagged change) on land compared to the ocean.