Computational Ecology

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What is a modeler?  What do modelers do?  This is an elusive mystery, wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in ambiguity.  People have been calling me a modeler for years, and I don't even know the answer.

The term "model" is so broadly applied that when a scientist says that he or she has constructed a model, it is almost impossible, without context, to know what that means.  It could be a calculation of sound speed in a dynamic ocean, or of ecological drift in the rain forest.  It could represent the movement of plate tectonics, or of people on a subway.  It could be physical, biological, geological, statistical, etc.  All you really know is that it might involve some kind of calculation or equation--but not necessarily.

Sometimes models get a bad rap.  For example, when the markets crashed last fall, and the global depression loomed, Alan Greenspan explained it by saying,
"I found a ... flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak."
When a lot of people rely on a model that turns out to have fatal flaws, modelers all over get a bad rap too, even if their models are nothing like the fatally flawed models.

We can't always help being pigeonholed.  Besides, sometimes it's nice being a modeler, since the term is broad enough to include almost anything.  Plus, we can make puns about "modeling" and "working with models all day long."  For what it's worth, here is a better explanation of what I do.

Most of my work in the EMLab falls under the growing field of computational ecology.  In a nutshell, this means using high powered computational tools and computer science techniques to answer ecological questions.  It involves synthesizing large data sets, working out theoretical ecological and bio-physical relationships, and setting up very large calculations that may take days to compute on our computing cluster.

While this might sound at first a little bit like counting eyelashes, it turns out to (usually) be fun and exciting.  We can apply this powerful field to tasks ranging from protecting endangered whales to understanding the ecological impacts of climate change.  It's a young field.  Universities are only just beginning to form computational ecology groups (e.g. Yale, Michigan State, UC Santa Barbara, et al.), and journals covering the topic are springing up (e.g. Ecological Informatics).  It's also a field with a lot of room for growth, since computing power is always increasing.

Here at the Seascape Modeling lab, the focus is the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.  There are a lot of open questions in this region--some of them fairly controversial.  Along with nets, hooks, buoys, and microscopes, one of the most fruitful tools is a massive series of high-powered computers.

...and, of course, a model:

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This page contains a single entry by Nick Record published on January 29, 2009 10:45 PM.

Mass Bay Forecasts--Coming Soon! was the previous entry in this blog.

Super-surface Planktivores is the next entry in this blog.

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