15 December 2017: Yale-NUS students present computational model at international ecology conference

By Daryl Yang | Images provided by Evan Asava Aree

Between 9 and 14 July 2017, Evan Asava Aree (Class of 2017) and Chen Haoran (Class of 2020) attended the 54th Annual Meeting of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation in Yucatan, Mexico. The duo was invited to present on a sampling model that they had developed of species succession in secondary forests.

Founded in 1963, the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) is an international body that was set up to foster scientific understanding and conservation of tropical ecosystems with members from over 65 countries. The meeting in Merida, Yucatan focused on research topics that examined the link between the ecological and social dimensions for the conservation of tropical biodiversity.

“Based on data from Dr Michiel van Breugel’s research site at the central Panama Canal Watershed, we created a sampling model that explores how certain parameters such as local pool sizes, affect successional changes in diversity patterns. To put it simply, there are factors that affect how trees are recruited into and die from plots of land, and we want to see how changing these factors affect the diversity of trees over time,” Evan shared.

Dr Michiel van Breugel is an Assistant Professor of Science (Environmental Studies) at Yale-NUS College who also presented his research at the same conference.

“We presented this model because it’s currently difficult to predict succession patterns of secondary forests. Existing research focuses mostly on the influence of one or two traits of the forest and tries to show how these traits are correlated with species succession. However, even such literature varies significantly in their results,” Haoran explained.

He added, “As there aren’t many modelling tools about species succession, we designed and presented this tool both for the prediction of species succession and educational purposes. Right now, we can see how some patterns will influence species succession and it resonates with the conclusions in many different areas of research.”

A major in Mathematical, Computational and Statistical Sciences (MCS), Evan explained that both he and Haoran were offered this opportunity after working as research assistants to Assistant Professor of Science (Life Science) Maurice Cheung for a research project on ecological modelling. He had applied for this position because he was “interested in complexity studies and wanted to apply the coding skills I had picked up in class”.

According to Dr Cheung, this research project was part of the research cluster on complex systems modelling, one of four research clusters at Yale-NUS College. Research clusters are small groups of multidisciplinary faculty who come together to explore a particular research topic. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, faculty collaborate to develop new insights through their synergetic research.

“The main aims of the complex systems modelling research cluster are to firstly, build connections between faculty from different disciplines to promote interdisciplinary research related to the use of computational modelling to study complex systems and secondly, provide opportunities for students to get involved in interdisciplinary research which could lead to possible capstone projects,” explained Dr Cheung.

“During and following a seminar series organised by the research cluster to promote collaborations between Yale-NUS faculty, some of us started a research project on ecological modelling, for which we recruited Evan and Haoran,” he added. Apart from himself and Dr van Breugel, Assistant Professor of Science (Mathematical and Computational Science) Michael Gastner was another founding member of this research project.

The two students worked closely with all three faculty members in both their research and preparation for the conference.

Haoran appreciated how he could, as a computer science student, work in the discipline of ecology with the support of professors across the different fields. For instance, they worked closely with Dr Cheung who guided them in the coding process, while Dr van Breugel worked with them on the ecological theories of succession which helped them to connect coding with theory. Finally, Dr Gastner offered them advice on the statistical elements of the model in developing it.

“The close-knit community at Yale-NUS and small faculty-to-student ratio has prepared me well for this conference. I had the rare opportunity to work with three professors on this project, and gain different perspectives that balanced each other,” Evan added.

“The night Haoran and I stayed up to do the first prototype of the model, Dr Cheung stayed up with us till 1am in school to answer any questions we had about the coding aspects, and gave us suggestions on how to avoid overcomplicating the model. All the professors were also readily available for discussions throughout the week and we could just drop by their office if we had any clarifications to make. Such an environment made me feel really supported throughout this whole process and encouraged me to do more.”

The conference also provided Evan and Haoran with valuable opportunities to meet with esteemed researchers and experts in the field.

“I managed to network with many promising figures in ecology. They were very helpful in providing secondary literature that helped me understand the field of ecology better and giving advice on doing computational ecology in graduate school,” Evan shared.

Dr van Breugel, who also presented at the conference, noted that while the simulation model that Evan and Haoran developed is “still work in progress”, there are plans to develop it further.

“The model has already been useful in generating some results, and interesting discussions with my colleagues at the conference. I have started conversations with colleagues in other parts of the tropics to use this model for comparative analyses of the successional patterns in different research sites,” he added.

For Dr van Breugel, observing Evan and Haoran’s active engagement and interest throughout the conference demonstrated what he considered to be crucial to a liberal arts education: finding interest in a broad range of topics, including the new and challenging; being keen on learning new things outside your comfort zone and finding ways of linking them to what you normally focus on.

“Though neither of them major in Life Sciences or Environmental Studies and have hardly any background in biology or conservation science, they really showed interest in many of the topics and attended a wide diversity of talks. During their poster presentation, they also engaged well with interested people – all if not most with a very different background – and discussed modelling and biology,” he reflected.

Dr van Breugel also noted that student involvement in faculty research is an aspect that he and many other faculty members enjoy about their work at Yale-NUS College.

“There are so many reason why the involvement of student researchers is important. If you are interested in science or more broadly in research in the social or natural sciences, getting really involved in research with a lot of direct interactions with the faculty member will allow you to learn about and gain relevant experience in scientific research,” he added.