Math on the Dynamic Ecology Blog

Dynamic Ecology is a group blog by Jeremy Fox, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Calgary, Brian McGill, a macroecologist at the University of Maine. and Meghan Duffy, an aquatic and disease ecologist at the University of Michigan. Invited guest posts are also occasionally published on the blog.

“We post ideas, opinions, commentary, advice, and humor that we think might be of interest to our fellow academic ecologists and ecology students,” the bloggers note. While the blog itself isn’t math-themed, there are many posts on the blog discussing math topics or ones that are relevant to folks working in a variety of STEM fields. Here are just a few interesting posts from the blog.

“Poll results: How mathy are ecology, evolution, and genetics?”

Duffy wrote this post in 2017, but it’s still informative. Three groups of people — 271 introductory biology students (at the beginning of the semester), 349 readers of the blog, and, more specifically, 225 readers of the blog who identified as ecologists — were polled about how much math they thought geneticists, ecologists and evolutionary biologists use in their work. Duffy shared the following results:

  • 75% of incoming Intro Bio students think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. But only 33% think ecologists do.”
  • 64.7% of Dynamic Ecology poll respondents think geneticists use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math. 78.5% think ecologists do.”
  • 80% of DE poll respondents who identified as ecologists said they use a “moderate” or “substantial” amount of math.”

“In other words: there is a really big difference between the amount of math that students just starting Intro Bio think ecology will involve vs. how much ecologists say it involves,” Duffy wrote.

“I’ve been thinking about how I will talk about this with students. I think that, at the start of the population ecology lecture, I will tell them that there’s something that often surprises students: ecology involves math. I will note that most people haven’t been exposed to ecology before taking the course – it was certainly true for me that I never thought about ecology before getting to college. I think that, as a first year college student, I didn’t really know what ecology was, but probably had a vague sense that it was what you see in the nature videos on PBS. It definitely did not occur to me that it involved math…My hope with this is not to scare [the students], but to better prepare them for what is coming,” Duffy added.

I also enjoyed reading the comments on this blog post. For instance, commenter Art Weis wrote:

When I teach Ecology, the first words out of my mouth are always the ecology in at it core a quantitative science. Each and every aspect of ecology can be boiled down to the question “under what conditions does the net reproductive rate of a population exceed 1.0, and what are the conditions where it doesn’t. Similarly, in the evolution course, the most basic question is when does the net replication rate of a locus exceed 1.0.? In any particular case the answer can be due to deterministic or stochastic processes, but, the key question is greater than or less than 1.0.

This post also left me wondering what can be done from the math instruction side of things to inform more students about connections between ecology and math.

“What math should ecologists teach”

This 2014 post by McGill builds on Fox’s “What should ecologists learn LESS of?” post (in which asked readers to “name the one thing you think it’s most important for ecologists to learn more of, and the one thing you think ecologists should learn less of, in order to free up time for them to learn more of whatever it is you think they should learn more of”).

“More math skills was a common answer of what should be prioritized,” wrote McGill, who notes in his post that his bachelor’s degree is in math. McGill then shares his thoughts on bridging the gap between the math he thinks ecologists should know and the offerings that are available to them through many university math departments:

I often get asked by earnest graduate students what math courses they should take if they want to add to their math skills. My usual answer is nothing – the way math departments teach math is very inefficient for ecologists, you should teach yourself. But its not a great answer.

He explains that a student would usually have to take “7 courses over and above 1st year calculus to get to all the material” he thinks “a well-trained mathematical ecologist needs!” His phrasing comes across as a bit strong to me in certain sections (such as this sentence: “This is an extraordinary waste of time since over half of what is taught in those classes is pretty much useless in ecology even if you’re pursuing deep into theory”). However, I think his overall message —  that the current math offerings aren’t meeting the needs of ecology students — merits consideration and brainstorming about how to enact changes that will benefit these students.

McGill closes out the piece by listing the topics he thinks well-trained mathematical ecologists need to know and discussing different options for delivering instruction on those topics. One alternative that I don’t see listed but that I wish universities would consider? Interdisciplinary courses co-taught by ecologists and mathematicians. I understand that could come with significant logistical challenges, but I think that if departments could make it work, it would be a great option for students. The post also drew (as of this writing) 44 comments from readers, which also enhance the discussion.

“Guest post: What if my hobby — what I do for ‘fun’ — is being a workaholic?”

Now, as much as ever, many of us are seeing the lines between our work and home lives blur. In this post, guest writer Greg Crowther, a biology instructor at Everett Community College in Washington, wrote about his decision to pursue therapy:

“Again and again, I devote unusually large amounts of time to certain work-related tasks, leaving less time for sleep, exercise, family, friends, and so on. You name it, I’m neglecting it (at least intermittently). If this lament sounds like a humblebrag, well, I don’t mean it as such.  I don’t like the health-neglecting, people-neglecting version of myself, and I’m about to get professional help.”

In the comments section, readers share many helpful experiences and insights about workaholism and pursuing their passions while also tending to their mental and physical health.

A four part “Mathematical constraints in ecology” series was also posted on the blog. It seems worth a read (although I’ll admit that I’m still working my way through it).

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