Director’s Letter May 2023

“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a [silver] sixpence in her shoe.”

“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a [silver] sixpence in her shoe.”

You will have to bear with me to see how I connect the dots. But oddly enough this traditional wedding rhyme captures RMBL’s Science Strategy.

First, the old.

It’s great to see the exposure that the RMBL Phenology Project is receiving in the April edition of National Geographic. Beautiful photos and great writing, the article puts a well-deserved focus on long-term research. Initially the project provided a way to look closely at wildflowers. However, with increasing interest in climate change, the study provides one of the most comprehensive looks at ecological change. Started in 1973 by Dr. David Inouye (see adjoining article) the project has accumulated millions of observations and has grown from a focus on plant flowering times to include roots, climate, animal arrival data, and bees.

Something new.

That would be Dr. Ian Breckheimer (RMBL) and the Spatial Data Platform. Ian arrived in Gothic with a drone in hand in 2018. His goal was to use drones to look at plant flowering times across larger areas, taking advantage of machine learning techniques for processing the data. While sensors on a drone are not a match for the detailed observations made by the phenology crew, the phenology crew can’t match the scale of a drone. For the last three years Ian’s been building data products as part of the Spatial Data Platform that describes environmental dynamics across entire watersheds at the scale of meters. It is stunning work that is transforming how we see the world.

Something borrowed and something blue.

RMBL is traveling a path forged by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. From high throughput gene sequencing to documenting the diversity of life in deep sea thermal vents, to the use of deep-sea submarines, to a globally distributed sensor network, WHOI uses engineering to advance the understanding of one of Earth’s last unexplored frontiers, the deep blue ocean.

The challenges of reaching the far corners of the ocean, much less plumbing its depths, have always put a premium on the integration of technology into oceanography. Many a terrestrial scientist, however, has generated ground-breaking research relying on eyes, a notebook, and math that is equally at home on an abacus as on a computer. But emerging technology now offers satellites, planes, drones, and embedded sensors to link biological processes across scales from genes to ecosystems.

The power of RMBL’s approach, however, is not in replacing the old with the new, but integrating the two. Long-term studies give us a look back in time that cannot be recaptured with new technology. And while sensors are increasingly sophisticated in what they can do, these new technologies complement human observation, rather than replace it.

And the silver sixpence.

The sixpence represented prosperity for the couple. Without a doubt, maintaining the quality of life for humankind amidst rapid environmental change will require all our ingenuity. Investing in RMBL’s science strategy, integrating the old, in the form of long-term research, and the new, such as RMBL’s Spatial Data Platform, borrowing the successful approach of integration of technology and discovery that has been so successful in the oceans, is an investment in the prosperity of future generations.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL