Spotlight: Data is Burnett's motivation

Jessica Burnett
Jessica Burnett

Jessica Burnett spent four intensive years looking through publications, seeking the ones with biodiversity models that identify a shift in species, evaluating them and trying to determine whether there is a simpler, more accurate way to arrive at the same conclusion.

Along the way, she earned prestigious fellowships, including the Fling and Othmer ones from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and one with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, which took her abroad for three months. She founded the Association for Women in Science affiliate club at SNR that ended up catapulting the university to become a national-level member. And she served as a student representative for the faculty advisory committee and the Graduate Student Association.

On Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019, Jessica Burnett, of the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at the School of Natural Resources, graduated with a doctorate in philosophy, ending a relentless pursuit of a dream. At the end of the month, she’ll start her career as a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado, having earned their Mendenhall Research Fellowship. In that role, she’ll work to develop a web-based, interactive decision support tool that incorporates land forms, habitat features, and population modelling to inform on-the-ground management decisions by practitioners.

“UNL has been vital to me getting these opportunities,” Burnett said, reflecting on her time at Nebraska. She quickly lists all the people who influenced her work and supported her along the way: Nat Price, Hannah Birge, Mary Bomberger Brown, Drew Tyre, Craig Allen, Dirac Twidwell. The list goes on.

She had the academic and creative freedom to pursue her research interests, she said, and she’s thankful for it.

Diving into the data
Burnett’s work largely focused on the statistical methods researchers use to identify when the biodiversity of a place has increased or decreased. At what point does it become detectable?

To figure it out, researchers tend to devise mathematical, theoretical models in which they input conceptual and clean data to test whether it works. Practitioners, those in the field making the day-to-day decisions about ecosystem balance, rarely use the models because they are up against a variety of variables, including human data-collection errors. Their data isn’t clean nor is it conceptual.

“If we want to make these models usable by scientists, we have to see how robust they are with real data,” she said. “How robust are they to human error?”

So she got to work searching for every theoretical model she could find published in journals — she found at least 70 ― and then narrowed the pool to the most used and most cited methods. Those she analyzed for strengths and weaknesses, and then she settled on the Fisher method — one that can accommodate up to 100 species or variables — as the one to rigorously test. To help her analyze it, she wrote an R package, or a set of code designed to statistically compute a dataset (access it here), and then tested whether she could “see” the breaks data where known breaks in biodiversity occurred over the past millions of years.

Once completed, she revised the data, truncating it, and tested the methods again. Then reduced the variables, and tried again. Then revised the dataset and tried again, attempting to discover whether the method was sound, whether it was useful to practitioners, whether it could be improved.

Exactly what scientists are supposed to do, but when it comes to testing statistical methods, often don’t.

“We’re living in a time of unprecedented rate of global change,” she said about her reason for focusing her dissertation on this topic. “The scientific community is attempting to predict what will happen, and prediction is the Holy Grail of ecology.”

But we aren’t there yet.

Pursuit of a future
Burnett started her college career earning an associate’s degree from Valencia Community College in Orlando, Florida. One of her first opportunities to do science came there doing field research on birds.

“Birds are pretty cool,” she said. “Then I handled one and fell in love.”

What piqued her interest more than the birds, though, was the dataset. Counting and handling birds results in a large collection of information that — once interpreted — signals what is going on at a larger scale (think geographically and over time).

By the time she came to Nebraska to study under Allen and Twidwell, she was ready to pursue a doctoral degree in applied ecology, but the more she learned, the more she accomplished, the more her intent shifted.

“Data is now my motivation,” she said. “It opened doors to more interesting taxa than field work and allowed me to develop the skills I wanted to.”

Burnett’s interests fell solidly in bridging the gap between theoretical and applied science, especially when it comes to biodiversity. Most scientists don’t live in between the two.

“It’s a hard space to live in,” she acknowledged. “But I think this space is growing. We’re in a new era of computational ecology, and it will be more necessary in the future.”

More brains = better research
In pursuit of her future, Burnett landed a fellowship with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria. She wanted to get better at math, to improve her dissertation research, and to validate or clarify the work she had already spent years on.

The program, started in 1977, gives young scientists an opportunity to expand their research on issues of global environmental, economic or social change issues while building a worldwide network to tap into. Burnett was surrounded by scientists from 20 other countries and a diversity of fields, each presenting their work and their updates every two weeks.

“The questions they asked ultimately helped develop my project,” Burnett said. “It was really amazing, the exposure to new areas of research that I may not have otherwise (known about).

She gained mentors, peers to collaborate with, and this takeaway: The more brains on a project, the better it gets.

Advice from a (now) alum
Burnett can’t stress enough the importance of getting involved in the community around you. She did the second she stepped foot on a college campus, serving on the Valencia student government, and then she kept at it.

“I think I’ve always been pretty involved,” she said. “I understand the need to give back, to serve the community.”

She also understood it would grow her network, expose her to more opportunities and to different ideas. For Nebraska, her decision to start an Association of Women in Science chapter at SNR will have the most lasting impact for the university and future students. Her decision to partner with Birge, seek out Brown, and start a departmental club ended up propelling a movement across campus that turned into a Association of Women in Science. Starting in 2017, every student, no matter their gender, could become a member of the national Association of Women in Science for free.

That dedication stood out to her adviser.

“Jessica came to UNL, and to our Ph.D. program, as a first-generation college student,” said Allen, a professor at the School of Natural Resources. “She has successfully navigated academic hurdles at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate levels, and furthermore has contributed far more than average to creating or maintaining sustainable student-oriented institutions within UNL.
“She contributed significantly to the UNL Women in Science Program, the Graduate Student Association, and the Natural Resources Diversity Initiative. Those activities will leave a lasting legacy within SNR and UNL.”

One can bank on it that Burnett will leave a lasting legacy wherever she takes her career.

Shawna Richter-Ryerson, School of Natural Resources