By Published: July 20, 2022

CU Boulder Assistant Professor Laura E. Dee named an Ecological Society of America Early Career Fellow, which reflects her contributions so far and yet to come

An interdisciplinary ecologist who holds a degree in economics has received a high honor for her collaborative efforts to help solve big environmental problems.

Laura E. Dee, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (EBIO) at the University of Colorado Boulder, was recently elected as an Early Career Fellow of the Ecological Society of America (ESA).

The society is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization of professional ecologists. It reserves the early career award as special recognition to ESA members “who have advanced ecological knowledge and applications and show promise of continuing to make outstanding contributions to the wide range of fields served by ESA.”

Dee earned a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2015. She recently answered questions about her work, its implications and more. Portions of that exchange follow:

Question: You are an ecologist who has a master's in economics, and you collaborate with other specialists across a range of disciplines; why is it important in your research to collaborate with other disciplines?

Answer: I think that the greatest challenges society faces—like climate change and biodiversity loss—require a perspective from multiple disciplines. We can't be siloed in our disciplines because the problems we face are not just a biology problem, or not just a sociology problem. They require a wide range of expertise.

I think that the greatest challenges society faces—like climate change and biodiversity loss—require a perspective from multiple disciplines.

A lot of my work involves collaborating across disciplines and also working with different stakeholders and government agencies, as well as other scientists.

Q: Can you share an example of how this interdisciplinary collaboration happens?

A: I've been working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Nature Conservancy to understand and improve prairie conservation in the upper Midwest. This group is a multi-agency collaboration monitoring and managing the remnant grasslands across Minnesota and South Dakota. These are some areas where native prairies are down dramatic amounts from their historic extent, but are valuable habitats, from the perspective of biodiversity.

These areas have lost disturbances that used to be part of the system, like fire and grazing by large ungulates (like elk or bison), which are critical for those systems to maintain some of these native species, as invasive species are taking over otherwise. However, there is a lot we don’t know about how these ecosystems are going to respond to factors like climate and management. Despite uncertainty, conservation cannot wait for better information given the pace of climate change and the high potential for extinctions.

With this group, we are undergoing what’s known as ‘adaptive management’—or management where we learn as we go to reduce uncertainty over how the prairies respond to things like climate and management. Through an iterative process of implementing grazing and prescribed burns, the group monitors the system to see what happens, and we use this information to update our understanding and models to improve future management decisions.

My research group developed models for this team to better-inform management decisions on their lands and use data science to maximize what we can learn from over 10 years of monitoring data. As a group, we're working with over 60 individual land managers through this partnership. Our lab group develops partnerships, so we can help with the science needed to inform management decisions, and then work with partners like these who are connecting with the people on the ground who are implementing measures like burning and grazing to conserve native prairies.

Laura Dee

At the top of the page: Bluestem tallgrass prairie plants in Minnesota (Justin Meissen/Flickr). Above: Laura Dee was recently elected an Early Career Fellow of the ESA.

More locally, I'm working with the city of Boulder’s climate initiatives to collaboratively look at the potential effects of climate adaptation on the benefits people receive from nature.

For instance, we (largely EBIO students Meghan Hayden and Rebecca McHugh) are measuring how vegetation, like trees and pollinator corridors, impact Boulder’s urban heat island effect and how temperatures in the city differ based on neighborhood demographics, from the perspective heat inequity in the city.  

We have air-temperature sensors in parks, mobile-home areas and different neighborhoods throughout Boulder. We're also working with the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab because they're interested in validating some of their satellite data with on-the-ground data across urban areas.

Q: Among other things, your lab aims to understand how ecosystems provide benefits to people, how global change alters these relationships and how best to adapt conservation and response; it seems we have much to learn in this area. Is that your perspective?

A: Yes. Let's take fire as an example. With students and postdoc fellows in my group (Dr. Katherine Siegel and PhD student Anna LoPresti), I am starting to work with fire scientists who study how climate change is changing fire regimes in the West. We're interested in how different management strategies like prescribed burning can alter wildland fire severity and minimize impacts to the benefits people rely on from forests.

Ultimately what we care about is how fire and forest management change the benefits that people get from a forest ecosystem. With our interdisciplinary approach, we can ask: what are the downstream consequences for water quality and quantity, and for carbon stored? How might the cultural benefits we get from forests change?

Q: Are there particular challenges in working across disciplines?

A: It's a big-time investment in developing relationships and establishing a common language, because people use different terms for the same thing or the same terms for different things.

Working across disciplines needs to be viewed as a collaboration and investment in relationships. There's a lot of push and pull where you need to identify shared interests, and a common problem that gives equal respect to what each discipline can bring to the table. For these collaborations to work, you don't want to just approach someone and say, ‘Hey, I want you to like take on this piece to this challenge we're working on.’ You really want to work together to view a problem from different lenses, so that everyone gets something out of it. Building that foundation takes time, but the product is often more innovative and transformative, and ultimately more useful outside of academia.

I'm really pleased to get this ESA award, because it signals to me that the norms of our field, and what can be defined as ecology, are changing to acknowledge the importance of interdisciplinary science.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

A: From a very young age: I grew up on the East Coast and would go down to the beach and would count snails on the different jetties. I had a failed snail-relocation project, where I thought that the tides were going to kill the snails before I knew anything about their biology and moved them to the higher title zone on to the beach. Then they all died, so that was a big signal that I needed to learn a little bit more about the science. But from a really young age, my mom introduced me to the natural history of coastal ecosystems. Despite now being in Colorado, I actually had my start in marine biology.

I'm really pleased to get this ESA award, because it signals to me that the norms of our field, and what can be defined as ecology, are changing to acknowledge the importance of interdisciplinary science.

Coming back full circle to some of the work we're doing in Boulder, I think the role of ecology in urban environments and cities could potentially create more those connections to science for a broader set of people.

Q: What else are you working on?

A: While I'm based in Colorado, I also still am doing coastal research and have a National Science Foundation grant on the consequences of climate change and species losses in the Gulf of Maine. More specifically, blue mussels are declining in the Gulf of Maine, but used to be highly abundant. The loss of blue mussel could trigger the loss of other species, because it serves as food and habitat for other species. Theory predicts even food web collapse and loss of critical ecosystem functions is possible. We are testing those predictions.

For that project, we're combining a boots-on-the-ground field experiment with tools from complex systems and network science to understand species losses in food webs. Food webs describe who eats whom in an ecosystem. With this approach, we want to understand the broader consequences of species extinctions from climate change for rocky shore ecosystems, since species are connected through a complex web of interactions.

This project has been really fun and exciting—especially because it has established a new collaboration between CU Boulder and Colby College in Maine (Dr. Allison Barner) that has allowed us to involve and train many undergrads and graduate students.

To broaden the scope and impact of this research, a PhD candidate in my lab, Aislyn Keyes, and I are developing an online game that will allow students from anywhere in the world to learn about the potential cascading consequences of species losses in rocky intertidal and salt marsh ecosystems for ecosystems and people.