Initiative to Make OSU Leader in Ecosystem Informatics

Oregon State University is developing one of the leading research and educational programs in the nation in ecosystem "informatics," or the combination of mathematics, computer science, and ecosystem studies to study complex ecological problems.

About $5.4 million in funding is being directed to programs in this field, in an initiative that will bring in new faculty, support 37 new doctoral students during the next six years, and tackle questions in terrestrial, aquatic and ocean ecosystems, ranging from climate change to biodiversity, invasive species and natural hazards.

The programs are made possible by combining a new $1.5 million commitment from the Provost's Initiative Fund at OSU with existing support from the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program, or IGERT.

"There may not be another university in the country that has OSU's ability to merge expertise in forestry, oceanography, atmospheric science and ecology with such a strong base in mathematics, computer science and engineering," said Julia Jones, a professor of geosciences and director of this new initiative. "A lot of institutions see the need for this, but there just aren't many that can do it."

"We are going to create a graduate education experience in ecosystem informatics that is unique, with graduates that will be sought by everyone from the land management agencies to the high tech industry," Jones said. "Integrated into that will be interdisciplinary research programs on some very important topics in ecology and the environment."

Computers and the use of sophisticated technology to address ecosystem issues have been available for decades, but researchers say that's almost part of the problem - there's now so much data from so many sources and different studies that it's difficult to bring everything together and provide more comprehensive answers to complex environmental questions.

The solution, they say, is the science of informatics, in which people with advanced training in computer science, models, mathematical analysis and ecology develop systems that can make sense of the vast array of data, determine levels of uncertainty, test hypotheses and aid interdisciplinary research.

"In a simple sense, this is an attempt to find meaning and understanding in all of the data and information we already have," Jones said. "This is especially important with the long-term, complicated issues that are pervasive in ecology."

Some other fields such as physics and biology are much further ahead in using informatics and computational approaches to problems solving, Jones said, but the idea is comparatively new in ecology. Officials believe OSU can become a national leader in the field.

Under the existing IGERT Program begun last fall at OSU with support from the National Science Foundation, a broad group of doctoral students will be trained in ecosystem informatics, and can combine a new minor in informatics with their existing major. Students are participating from seven graduate programs, including bioengineering, computer science, fisheries and wildlife, forest science, geography, geology, and mathematics. Internships are also anticipated with organizations in academia, government and industry.

No similar graduate program currently exists in the United States, OSU officials say. Four new faculty positions - in mathematics, computer science and forest science - will also be created under the new initiative, each of which will contribute to teaching, research and advising in ecosystem informatics. There will also be close collaboration with other multidisciplinary efforts at OSU, including the Institute for Natural Resources, Water and Watersheds Initiative, and the H.J. Andrews Long-Term Ecological Research Program.

The new faculty positions and the research funding they attract will provide an ideal mechanism to continue the programs in ecosystem informatics after funding for the IGERT Program concludes in 2010, officials say.

This initiative will also further several goals of the university's strategic plan, with new discoveries in mathematics, its focus on Earth system processes, development of new computer science tools, and improved ways to manage natural resources. Additional research funding from state and federal grants is anticipated.

Organizers say that the program is a logical linkage of Oregon's wealth of natural resources, unique ecosystems, expertise in information technology, and spirit of collaboration - and it should help address some of the state's most contentious issues of forestry, fisheries and urbanization.

"At OSU, there are very few barriers or walls between departments and disciplines," Jones said. "It's not always that way in academia. But here we have a real spirit of people willing to work with and learn from each other, and that's going to be a key in making this new initiative a success."