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Agents of Selection: Scientist Synthesizes the Myriad Causes

Cane toad, invasive species
Two of millions of cane toads found across northern Australia. (Image credit: Mark Lewis, Radio Pictures, Mullumbimby.)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Many factors contribute to selection in nature. Changes in climate, habitat, predation, parasitism and competition are among the environmental, ecological and social factors that help some individuals in a population survive longer and leave behind more offspring than others. Scientists lack a general understanding of which factors are most significant across different traits, taxa and geographic locations. Through statistical analyses and mathematical modeling, Ryan Martin, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, aims to fill these gaps in knowledge. He seeks a better understanding of the causes of selection and evolution in the wild.

Name: Ryan Martin Age: 32 Institution:National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis Hometown: East Longmeadow, MA Field of Study: Evolution and Ecology

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

In my sophomore year in college I responded to an ad for research assistants to help with lizard animal care and fieldwork. Getting involved in the day-to-day rhythms of a research lab, and the opportunities it provided to talk on a daily basis with working scientists, was the best introduction to life in science that I could have asked for.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

Likely the most formative advice my graduate advisor bestowed was what that the title of "graduate student" was an unfortunate misnomer. He told me that I was no longer only a student but also a practicing scientist. It was excellent advice that I think can be extended outside of the classroom to other aspects of life. Not to necessarily approach all problems as a scientist in a lab coat but to realize that the best approach to tackle many problems is to use the broadest tools of science — using observations, experiments and logical reasoning to understand the world around you.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?

Scientist Ryan Martin seeks a better understanding of the causes of selection and evolution in the wild. (Image credit: Brian Langerhans.)

None that I can remember outside of a school environment. I lived mostly in books, and played out thought experiments instead.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher?

The anticipation and excitement that you feel right before you dive into new data. At that moment it feels like anything is possible and you are staring into the unknown.

What is the most important characteristic a scientist must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist?

The ability to admit when you are wrong. It is often hard to let go of a favorite hypothesis when the data starts to weigh against it. However, finding unexpected results is also very exciting!

What are the societal benefits of your research?

The diversity of life forms in existence is, in my opinion, the most amazing feature of our planet. Evolutionary ecology, existing at the intersection of ecology and evolution, is an attempt to elucidate both how this diversity of forms interact and how this diversity of life came to be. In this way research in evolutionary ecology helps us understand the living world around us and our place in it.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

The way I approach and think as a researcher was very strongly shaped by both my undergraduate and graduate research advisors, both of whom stressed the importance of not being wedded to a single hypothesis or way of approaching a problem.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people first?

How interdisciplinary it is. I have conducted my research in the lab, using tools of molecular biology and genetics, in the field getting my hands dirty, and at the desk using mathematics and statistics.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office, what would it be?

My external hard drive, no question.

What music do you play most often in your office or car?

That depends on the activity at hand, writing or analyzing data in the office means classical or jazz.

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in ScienceLives articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.