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2015 SRE Program Participant Profile: RYAN YAN

Ryan Yan photo.

Hometown: Centreville, VA
School: College of William and Mary
Major/Degree and Year: Mathematical Biology, Senior
SRE Mentors: Louis Gross and Daniel Simberloff
SRE Research Project: Invasive Species Movements through Shipping Routes

Why did you apply to the SRE program?
Simply put, it was the perfect fit. As someone fascinated by computer science, mathematics, and the natural world, I positively believe the future of scientific inquiry lies at the intersection of contrasting fields of study. The SRE was an excellent opportunity to work with highly renowned researchers from wide-ranging backgrounds. And given the collaborative work environment at NIMBioS, I had the rare opportunity as an undergraduate researcher to work closely with others outside my field of expertise.

What is the purpose of your research?
We aim to develop tools to better inform policymakers and managers in making decisions regarding invasive species. These are species that become established outside their native habitat, often spreading widely and causing harm to the local environment and native organisms. We're using statistical and computational methods to analyze a large amount of data on shipping and the spread of invasive species. Our goal is to utilize these data to model the spread of invasive species and assess the risks of invasion in different regions of the United States.

What does the research ultimately accomplish? What contributions to science and/or humanity does the research ultimately make?
Invasive species are the cause of an incredible amount of environmental and economic damage each year. The dollar cost of invasive species in the United States is often cited at $120 billion annually. In the field of invasive species management, prevention is truly the best measure we have. But because the span of invasive species is so wide and variable, it is a tremendous task to predict which species will become invasive and where based on biological characteristics alone. As such, it is of utmost importance to develop quantitative models that can deliver such results. Doing so will allow policymakers to act before alien species become established, in the end reducing both the amount of harm they cause and the cost of removing them.

Quotation image.

I think as a young researcher, there's truly no better way to become immersed in your field than in a place like NIMBioS. Quotation image.
– Ryan Yan, SRE participant

Describe a typical day on the job.
Coding, reading, thinking, and talking. I think it's nice that as SRE participants, we aren't really restricted in our day-to-day activities. We can decide where we want to meet and when. Regardless, I'll see my group pretty much every morning, we'll go over our goals for the day and ideas for the future. We'll end up working side by side and talk through any problems we encounter. Even though each day presents new challenges, the work doesn't feel too tiring. You want to get it done because you're invested in the project. And you're not alone - your team members are your friends as well as coworkers, so you never get too stressed out.

Tell us something about your field of study we would be surprised to know.
Although invasive species have been so damaging to the environment and to humans in the past, quite a bit is still unknown about what makes an alien species a successful invader. For example, one might look to the effect of species richness of an environment on alien species. It might make sense to think that a habitat with low biodiversity is more likely to be invaded due to a higher number of vacant niches, but experiments on the topic have returned mixed results. There still exist many subjects in invasion ecology that are up for debate.

Do you have an interesting "personal side" to your research experiences that will increase human interest in your story?
You shouldn't have to look far to get the "human element" in the invasive species story. Many invasive species are agricultural pests and plant pathogens, which take their toll on crop harvests yearly, and many others are highly visible in the public eye. No doubt you've heard of the invasion of lionfish in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. A vicious predator, these fish have greatly reduced the biodiversity of Florida's natural reefs. Part of the solution to dealing with invasions is getting the public's attention. In the case of lionfish, you can take a bite out of the problem by taking part in the "Eat the Invaders" initiative!

What are your favorite parts of the SRE program?
Meeting everyone, for sure! It's incredible to me, meeting so many new people coming from such diverse backgrounds, yet connected by a common thread. And the SRE isn't all work, for sure. The weekends (and even some workdays) have been a blast, thanks to everyone else in the program.

What new experiences did you gain that have helped you today?
Working here has definitely improved my ability to formulate research plans and quantitative models, not to mention getting plenty of practice coding and learning new computational and statistical analysis techniques. There's also the added benefit of being at the hub of a lot of research in mathematical biology. There are always working groups of visiting researchers from all over working on an incredible range of projects. It's been incredible being able to talk to all of these scientists who make up the field I want to become a greater part of.

What advice would you give someone who's interested in/curious about participating in the program?
This is a unique experience because while you have to be independent and self-motivated, you also have to learn how to be a good collaborative researcher. Before I applied, I would ask myself if I really wanted to be in a program where I'd be working closely with several other students or teachers and where I won't be told exactly what to do by my mentors. While it may be a new experience for some, I certainly think it's a valuable one that everyone could learn from.

Would you recommend our program to others?
Absolutely. NIMBioS is an incredible place to work, especially as an undergraduate. The mentors put a lot of trust in you, and with it, a lot of responsibility, because in the end, you and your group members control where and how far the project goes. But I think as a young researcher, there's truly no better way to become immersed in your field than in a place like NIMBioS. If you do end up participating in the NIMBioS SRE, be sure to talk to everyone! I might say that one of my favorite parts of the mathematical biology field is the people in it. Everyone is incredibly talented, but still great company. And since the field itself is still growing, you're likely to end up talking to the same people more than once. You might as well start getting to know them now!

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2015 summer program

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From 2008 until early 2021, NIMBioS was supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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