Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) 2018 undergraduate summer researcher, Akshata Rudrapatna, a double major in Systems Biology and Origins Sciences at Case Western Reserve University wrote about her KBS Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) project working with the Litchman/Klaumeier Labs.
I came to the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) having absolutely no idea of what to expect. If you’d asked me at the beginning of the summer about stochasticity, the core-satellite hypothesis, or the four perspectives of metacommunity theory, I’d have stared at you in total bafflement. I’d had very little experience with theoretical ecology at that point in time. Therefore, I entered KBS with one clear thought – theoretical ecology would present entirely new challenges to a student who had primarily conducted research in biomedical sciences.
As a junior this year at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, I am double-majoring in Systems Biology and Origins Sciences, two interdisciplinary majors that allow me to explore my wide range of interests. Previously, I’d focused on several different areas in biomedical research, all involving human disease in some way or another. KBS gave me a chance to explore theoretical ecology as a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) student in the Klausmeier Lab.
Theoretical ecology focuses on proposing new models and methods of exploring ecological concepts, often using mathematical analysis techniques. An important topic in this field is metapopulation and metacommunity ecology, because these have multiple applications throughout ecology (in conservation biology, for instance). This summer, my mentors, Dr. Christopher Klausmeier and Dr. Thomas Koffel; another REU student, Brian Lerch; and I worked together on developing a new, general metacommunity theory as an alternative to the specialized perspectives that constitute the current theory. In more concrete terms: think of a single species of butterfly in a meadow. If you consider a network of these meadows within which the butterflies can migrate freely, you have a metapopulation. Finally, if you add several species of butterflies to each meadow, a metacommunity results.
Many of our discussions seemed entirely alien at first. Learning how best to speed up computations in Mathematica, discussing the mathematics behind different metapopulation and metacommunity models, and even learning the syntax of Fortran 90 provided me with my favorite types of challenges. although, admittedly, I had no idea before this summer that Fortran 90 is still used by many scientists today. These weren’t the only firsts I experienced throughout this summer. I spent an entire summer in a rural area. I saw toads in the daylight and fireflies in the twilight. I tasted vegan macaroni and cheese. And possibly most exciting of all, I touched a turtle.
I can truly say that my entire KBS experience has shaped me both as a scientist and a person. While research occupied an integral part of the summer, Professional Development and Eminent Ecologist seminars enriched my knowledge and skills as well, and the organized social activities connected me with the rest of the summer students. In the end, I leave KBS not only having gained a genuine appreciation for the beauty of mathematics and theoretical research, but also having met wonderful people who I hope to call friends and mentors throughout my life.