Thursday, March 5, 2015

DNA Barcode Conference Plenary - Jana Vamosi

Here is number two in our series of guest posts written by the Plenary Speakers for the Sixth International Barcode of Life Conference.

Jana Vamosi hails from the BC West Coast with a PhD from the University of British Columbia. She then went eastward for a postdoctoral position at the University of Toronto and is now an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary:

I am a biodiversity scientist who is exercised by the idea of functional diversity. Our understanding of the functional roles species play in ecosystems is slim and their importance is often underappreciated. I think Will Cornwell depicted it well in the figure below.

In endeavoring to make sense of the functional roles of plant species, my research encompasses aspects of macroevolution, macroecology, community ecology, and conservation biology of plants. Combining the ideas of functional diversity with data for which we have genetic data (e.g., barcode data) often leads me to incorporate phylogenetic approaches.

While I often keep a specific focus on the evolutionary ecology of plant-insect interactions, I’ve even extended this line of research to investigating the functional aspects of genome architecture in animals.

Researchers in my lab are currently involved in determining how speciation and extinction rates depend on past range expansion to locales where different pollinator guilds are predominant. We also investigate the role of plant trait diversity in determining stability and productivity of ecosystems.

Recently, my research on ecosystem function has taken a unique applied turn in investigating the important role plant biodiversity plays in sustainable agriculture. Understanding the role of species and their inherent traits in improving crop yields can go a long way to changing the public’s perception of the natural world from considering it a luxury to a necessity. To this end, I’ve teamed up with Mozilla Science to incorporate these ideas into video games.

The game in development is called Diversibee.  The game involves a beefarmer that has bought some acres of natural forested land that supports these species of bees. The farmer can deforest the land to plant a fruit crop and this will, at first, be a highly lucrative venture. But as more and more forest gets removed, the forest will cease to support the bee species necessary to pollinate the crop and the profit gained from the crop starts to diminish. The aim of the game is to find the optimal crop:forest configuration that maximizes the yield through maintaining healthy bee populations (and hence, profit to the farmer). How much forest should the farmer save? Should the farmer replant – if so, with which species? Should the traits of the forest be optimized for diversity to increase yield?

Though not a gamer myself, I’ve come to appreciate the value of play in teaching these concepts. Through increasing interest in functional aspects of species in a fun and engaging way, I hope to increase knowledge and appreciation on functional diversity.

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