Science Story January 2023
RMBL has a unique talent for turning budding scientists into fully formed researchers whose scientific contributions resonate around the globe. Case in point: Rebecca Prather. Fresh from finishing her PhD at the University of Oklahoma, she took a postdoctoral position at RMBL with two objectives: One, to collect flower field data for the long-term phenology data set started in 1975 by Dr. David Inouye; and two, to synthesize data from 15 scientists on how climate change is affecting the seasonal activity (phenology) of a diverse menagerie of species.
The data synthesis work has made her a lead author of a paper just published in the distinguished journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The paper demonstrates another unique gift of RMBL — the ability to integrate the work of very different research studies to reveal broad insights. In the paper, Dr. Prather and her team have summarized how wildflowers, birds, beetles, salamanders, ground squirrels, butterflies, and other species are altering their annual cycles based on cues from a changing climate.
The job itself was multilayered. Dr. Prather had to persuade principal investigators to contribute their data to the synthesis. Then she had to take the data she got from a hodgepodge of original sources, including field notebooks, and digitize it into a format that could be analyzed.
By collating data from 10,812 phenological events over 45 years and merging this with climate data collected by billy barr and NOAA’s weather station in Crested Butte, the end result has generated unexpected insights about how different species respond to climate cues. For example, all the species are responding similarly to earlier snowmelt dates. But not all species respond to other climate cues in the same way, which has implications for the mismatched interactions between plants and pollinators, among other effects.
Meanwhile, Dr. Prather has responded positively to all aspects of the project. “I really liked the field work at RMBL. You can’t beat that view and that weather,” she said. Yet she found the data processing equally fascinating, adding, “I liked thinking about how you format and combine all these different data sets to draw accurate conclusions — the problem-solving part of it.” Furthermore, she enjoyed working with the principal investigators. Being housed with other scientists at RMBL was a bonus, a way to learn more about not just what questions other researchers are asking but also the joys and pitfalls of day-to-day field work. Then there were plenty of baby marmot sightings in the Richards cabin.
Altogether, in addition to helping her mature as a researcher, this young scientist’s experience at RMBL has helped round out her skills.
Her work is bringing more attention to the value of integrating research across different disciplines. For us, this forecasts the future of science, itself.
Rebecca M. Prather, PhD, was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and grew up near San Antonio, Texas. She earned her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma. Currently working at the Department of Biological Science at Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, she continues working with Brian Inouye and Nora Underwood on the RMBL phenology project and has just started a two-year fellowship with the USDA.