James O’Dwyer: From physics to ecological theory
James O’Dwyer, an assistant professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois and member of the Institute for Genomic Biology, envisions a new approach for modeling the patterns and dynamics of ecological systems---things like how species are distributed through space and time.
At one end of the spectrum are tractable models with few parameters, but that can get basic predictions wrong, and at the other end are models that parameterize every detail, an almost impossible feat.
His challenge, and that of others in his field, is to take the best parts from these two schools of thought and combine them into a theoretical framework that falls somewhere in the middle.
“It’s exciting because all these variables make these questions really challenging,” O’Dwyer said. “But it is hard to know when you are leaving out mechanisms or variables that are important. I think the daunting part is how do we find ways to identify which are the key variables?”
The questions his team works on are biological. But solutions to these problems can come from combining the vast stores of knowledge biologists have accumulated on natural ecosystems, with tools from physics and mathematics for the analysis of complex systems.
O’Dwyer earned his doctorate in Physics from the University of Cambridge before moving onto a postdoctoral appointment at the University of Oregon where he worked on microbial ecology and evolution.
“Ecology is much harder because it doesn’t have any of the simplifying features that you find in physics,” O’Dwyer said. “Everything is different. Everything is contingent. Actually finding ways to get a handle on modeling in ecology is harder.”
About 250 years after an apple inspired Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity revolutionized our understanding of gravity in the same way that Henry Ford transformed transportation.
“Einstein’s gravity goes beyond Newton’s, it doesn’t completely disregard it. It allows you to predict more and create a more cohesive picture overall,” said O’Dwyer. “We have simplified ecological models that capture some phenomena, but we’re not completely happy with them because other predictions are clearly wrong. How do we take one step beyond this? That can be hard, and it might demand a new way of thinking.”
In a recent paper in Ecology Letters, O’Dwyer improved a 35-year-old ecology model that helps scientists understand how species evolve over decades to millions of years. But, as he will tell you, it’s just a small step in the right direction, not the ecological equivalent of relativity theory.
“It is an incremental step at this point. But we will need those conceptual leaps that incorporate the best parts of different models to really understand complex ecological systems better,” he said in a recent news release.
O’Dwyer was also an Omidyar Fellow, at the complexity-themed Santa Fe Institute, before joining the University of Illinois as an assistant professor in the School of Integrative Biology.
“One great thing about being here is that you have people doing interesting biology across different schools, different departments, and themes at the IGB,” O’Dwyer said. “I could probably meet with somebody for coffee every week and talk about something interesting and still be going at this point. And that’s what I have been doing.”
“Even though this university is huge, it is an extremely friendly and collegial place,” he continued. “That played a big part in coming here. I like that Illinois combines these two things. I really found that optimal combination of a big place with a lot of interesting science going on that also felt very friendly.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology newsletter.