ICER Student Highlights: Alex Wright

Alex Wright's photo

Managing Natural Resources to Facilitate Biodiversity

Alex Wright is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University. There, he works under Dr. Elise Zipkin as part of the Zipkin Quantitative Ecology Lab. The primary focus of his research is to "solve pressing ecological problems to maintain basic ecosystem health for wildlife and humans alike.” His research supports the  modeling, monitoring, and managing of wildlife populations and natural ecosystems, to help develop landscape-scale conservation planning initiatives. Currently, his work  is focused on protecting amphibians within a network of National Parks. . Nationwide, amphibian populations are declining, on average, by 3.6% every year, so Wright is using statistical models to show which environmental changes are driving these declines and how management actions can restore these populations .

The research Wright is doing is uniquely important because it is part of a growing field that integrates data sets across multiple ecological processes, multiple scales, and multiple species into unified analytical frameworks. These advancements in quantitative ecology offer a detailed view of complex, large-scaled ecological systems and more precise and accurate statistical models, which allows conservation practitioners to develop and implement more effective conservation strategies. More broadly, his work is of a growing body of literature to understand the biodiversity impacts of global change across multiple scales, which is critical as we will have to continue to manage for new and growing environmental threats, such as climate change, the spread of disease and invasive species, and habitat loss. 

However, as with all research, Wright’s work has its own set of challenges. He shared that the most difficult part of his research is dealing with computer limitations. He states that due to the nature of his work, he often has to run “100+ models at once” and it is difficult to find adequate memory space to process so much data. Fortunately, he said that learning how to utilize HPCC services helped him overcome these computational obstacles. He uses HPCC services to run all of his Bayesian statistical models and simulation experiments. Bayesian statistical models use probability to integrate new information and existing information. Simulation experiments are used to show how events will unfold given a certain set of rules and accompanying data. 

All in all, Wright’s desire to “provide for the well-being, health, and sustainability of the planet” is what drives him to continue his work. He is passionate about understanding the ways to improve and sustain the environment that we all rely, and how human health and environmental health are intertwined. On the whole, it is clear that based on the work Wright and the Zipkin Lab are doing, he is on the right trajectory to achieve all of these goals.