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Math + Ecology = A Variable Research Career


Elise Zipkin, assistant professor of zoology, has combined her love of math and statistics with her passion for ecology to create a successful and highly rewarding career.

While working on her B.S. degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan, Zipkin—who developed an interest in conservation issues along the way—decided to pursue a second degree in ecology. She developed an undergraduate thesis modeling sea lamprey populations in the Great Lakes.

“That’s when I realized there is this whole field that marries math and statistics with ecology,” Zipkin said.

Research in Zipkin’s Quantitative Ecology Lab at MSU aims to identify climate and habitat factors responsible for variations in species distributions and abundances. The subject matter includes a wide range of taxa—amphibians, birds, fish, insects and mammals. But the common link is quantitative modeling.

“We’re really pushing the envelope in advancing these techniques,” she said. “I work on methods development, using statistical and mathematical models to address complex ecological problems. I’m especially interested in integrated population models, combining different types of data sources to answer large-scale questions.”

Zipkin’s newest method for analyzing count-based data is being used to understand the viability of populations.

“Traditionally, estimating recruitment and survival rates in populations requires intensive fieldwork where individuals must be captured and recaptured many times,” she said. “This new approach allows us to get the same detailed information with much less intensive collection methods. This saves time and money.”
This methodological advance and the model is already being used to study populations of northern dusky salamanders, black-throated blue warblers, brook trout, freshwater mussels and Adélie penguins.

One of Zipkin’s current projects is funded by the U.S. National Park Service.

“Our research shows that 8 out of 12 wetland-breeding amphibian species are declining in one particular wetland in the National Capital Region of the U.S. parks system,” she explained. “Given that all parks have slightly different conservation needs, we want to devise a strategy that meets those individual park goals, but also successfully protects species at the regional level. So we develop hierarchical community models to address these types of competing issues.”

Zipkin is developing new models for another project she’s been involved with for several years: wind energy development in the nearshore Atlantic.
“We are synthesizing available data to learn about the optimal placement of wind farms and the effects that will have on marine seabirds,” she said.
Zipkin has also collaborated on a project modeling monarch populations across North America. Through the North American Butterfly Association, citizen scientists across the country have been collecting data as part of the annual “July 4” counts, while other groups have been tracking monarchs more intensely at particular locations for many years. Combined, these data enable researchers to learn much more about this iconic butterfly.

“We’ve seen declines in monarch populations, particularly over the past two years,” Zipkin said. “Some of our previous work suggests that spring weather conditions—as the monarchs come up from Mexico—could be having a major effect on their populations.

“I get to work with so many different taxa on all different kinds of questions,” she added. “I love the math and the statistics; it’s so interesting to think about innovative ways to bring quantitative methods into addressing important conservation and ecological issues.”

Photo caption: Elise Zipkin discusses a project with Alli Sussman, an M.S. student working on predictive models to assess potential changes in seabird distributions as a result of wind energy development.

–Val Osowski, College of Natural Science

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