Director’s Blog December 12, 2020
Written by Ian Billick, PhD
We are in a nice snow cycle, which reminds me summer is almost here. After 20 years as director, I’ve learned how quickly time flies. When the Gothic dining hall opens I tell staff that summer is almost over. They’ll often humor me with a chuckle. If they stick around enough summers, I start to see a glimmer of recognition.
We don’t know exactly what next summer will bring. How will the vaccine roll out? Will we get our act together on testing? We are cautiously optimistic. If the pandemic is no worse than last summer, we have plans for how we can house more people safely. We think we can do even better, especially as vaccines roll out and if testing improves. But we’ll communicate again in the spring once the future is closer. We’re keeping our eyes on whether Gothic residents will have access to vaccines and if so, which one. We will keep communicating.
We are substantially increasing fellowship support for scientists next summer. We are anticipating some scientists will experience roadblocks to field work for 2-3 more years. Summer undergrad research froze up last summer; not so fun fact-RMBL’s program comprised almost 10% all biology REU students last summer. We know grad student programs are stalling out. Colleges and universities are struggling. We don’t know exactly how we will administer funds, though we remain focused on early career scientists, long-term research, and maintaining our PI community. The more we know about your barriers, the better we can target funds where they will have the biggest impact. Science Director Jennifer Reithel is cc’d here. Please let both of us know how RMBL can help.
These plans are being made within the context of the 2021 budget. Feedback on the budget is welcome now, to Jennie or I, or board members<https://www.rmbl.org/about-us-2/our-board-of-trustees/>. We don’t post board email addresses on the web, but you can get email addresses from Katie Harper<mailto:email@example.com>. Our budgeting process is guided in part by our 2020 review of operations, found here<https://www.rmbl.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Memo-RE-Review-of-Summer-2020-operations.pdf>. In addition to having financial experts on the finance committee, we have scientists on the committee (and the Board). Dr. Dan Blumstein participates on the finance committee as President of the Board. Board member Dr. Amy Iler just stepped down from the committee to chair the Board’s diversity committee and Dr. Kate Maher has taken her place. Thanks to Dan, Amy, and Kate for representing a scientific perspective during budgeting. To help people engage effectively in RMBL’s financial plan
ning, Kelly Sudderth has been doing financial orientation sessions. Let her<mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> know if you would like to participate in future sessions. As a reminder, Emily Snow did some excellent work<https://www.rmbl.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Decision-making-at-RMBL-Final.pdf> on how RMBL decisions are made.
What else is going on? Too much for this blog post, but here is a high level overview. We are hiring an architect for North Village and anticipate an application to the Town of Mt. CB to entitle the property in January. We have NSF funding for a new cabin next to Crystal, which we will start next fall hopefully. Dr. Ian Breckheimer has been busy creating community spatial data products<https://www.rmbl.org/scientists/resources/spatial-data-platform/> and supporting efforts to sustain the work. Atmospherics research<https://sail.lbl.gov/> is coming to RMBL in a big way next summer-get ready for lots of sensors. Erik Hulm<https://www.linkedin.com/in/erik-hulm-885794178/>, a geophysicist, will be assisting staff with the large number of new projects.
We are very close to implementing the RMBL Portal-for next summer we will have a whole new process for how we will manage applications and billing. Thanks to Dr. Will Petry for responding to a blog post several years ago pointing out how archaic RMBL’s administrative processes are-online attachments that are hard to track, providing the same info year after year, etc. It’s taken a lot of staff work to bring the portal to life. Thanks to Brett Biebuyck and Chris Kittle for running herd. There will undoubtedly be some bugs, but we think the portal will make your life much easier.
As always, feel free to shoot me questions or feedback, or recommend subjects for future blog posts. If you make it to CB this winter, let’s have coffee or go for a ski!
Happy holidays and stay safe.
Director’s Blog September 18, 2020
Written by Ian Billick, PhD
This is an update on RMBL’s plans to expand in Mt. CB (North Village) as well as a call for feedback. With the recent conservation easement dedicating Gothic to research and education in perpetuity and the conservation of the surrounding ranchlands, as well as legislation being introduced by Senator Michael Bennet designating the valley for research, we have a rare opportunity to do something truly amazing. But we have to get the management piece worked out. North Village is a critical piece!
RMBL is negotiating a pre-development agreement with Yvonne and Claudio Alvarez, with the Board meeting to review terms on Tuesday. RMBL would get approximately 10 developable acres with infrastructure in Mt. CB for $2 million, payable no sooner than Nov. 1, 2021. The property is meant to accommodate RMBL’s long-term needs, as well as what would be built in the next 3-5 years (Phase 1). There are many reasons for why the project might go slower, but an aggressive, and reasonable, timeframe has approvals from Mt. CB by the summer of 2021, infrastructure going in 2022, and buildings opening the fall of 2023. To keep the project moving in the next 12 months we will be working on a master plan for the North Village campus as well as doing at least architectural work on the phase 1 buildings.
A design team including six scientists (Rosemary Carroll, Andy Gloss, Kailen Mooney, Kristina Stinson, Brad Taylor, and Ken Williams) conducted a survey of the RMBL science community in 2019 and provided considerable feedback that has informed our thinking.
We established the following priorities for the campus, in order: Housing, lab space, reduce public pressures on the Gothic Corridor, and improve Gothic bandwidth.
We established the following objectives for research space, in order: accommodate increased summer research demand, telecommunications, winter/year-round science, high-end equipment, and encouraging collaboration.
We established the following design guidelines, in order: Minimize the carbon footprint, flexibility, promote collaboration, dark skies, family and pet friendly, natural light, outdoor space, noise, power (220 V circuits, surge protection, back-up power).
What do you think? Did we get it right? Have things changed with covid? How might the North Village change how we think about the Gothic Campus? Should we put more of an emphasis on housing scientists engaged in the summer community? Move outreach/education programs that don’t take advantage of Gothic to North Village and move retail and as much of the general public intercept to North Village?
Your thoughts on the details of space would also be appreciated. We would like to design space for specific needs so the more we know about who will use the space and how, the better. If you might want either office, lab, or meeting space in the new facility, we would like to know. Knowing a bit more about demand will help us think about how much space is needed. We don’t want to overbuild, but we also have one research group that has indicated they are fairly certain they want a large lab on a year-round basis. Also, if anybody is interested in a first-use housing arrangement, let us know. That would definitely influence how much housing we build.
In addition to contacting me if you have feedback on our priorities or specific spaces (and I have kept, and been reviewing, feedback people have sent previously), or would like to express interest in either research space or housing, let me know if you would like to be more involved in general planning. It would be great to have some scientists beyond the board involved in planning. I’ve cc’d RMBL President and scientist, Dr. Dan Blumstein to make it easy to include him in your response. Also feel free to reach out to him or other board members, especially the RMBL scientists—Dr. Jill Anderson, Dr. Diane Campbell, Dr. Aimee Classen, Dr. Amy Iler, Dr. Kailen Mooney, and Dr. Ken Williams. As a courtesy, we aren’t putting the emails of board members on the website, but they are always available from me or our front-office person, Katie Harper (also cc’d).
Here is a bit more information about the project.
- Claudio and Yvonne, who own the property, are very committed to RMBL and our goals. They have identified the RMBL campus as one of their primary objectives, and have expressed a strong desire to help RMBL figure out how to reduce public impacts on the Gothic corridor. They need to make the project work financially, and there will probably be other partners in the project, but we are very fortunate to have them as partners.
- The master plan for the long-term is anticipated to accommodate 25,000 square feet of research/admin space, 12,500 square feet of seasonal housing, and 15,000 square feet of long-term housing.
- Phase 1, which will continue to change as we get your feedback and as we see how fundraising goes, currently anticipates 2800 sqft of research space, 2200 sqft of office space, 2700 sqft of meeting/visitor’s center space, 3400 sqft of long-term housing, and 4500 sqft of seasonal housing.
- Valuing mixed commercial/residential real estate in Mt. Crested Butte is hard, particularly for a 10 acre property. In CB, a single residential lot (no building) sold for $2+ million and commercial lots of 0.07 acres are going for around $200,000. There are 1 acre commercial lots south of CB that are going for $600,000 to $1 million.
- Claudio and Yvonne are still defining what they will do with the rest of the property. However, 100-200 community housing units are being considered, as well as some high end homes and commercial real estate (e.g., hotel). A substantial portion of the property is likely to be put in a conservation easement and the ultimate density will likely be much, much less than the 1800 units that had been planned.
- We are still thinking about how to do the Visitor’s Center. It is likely that Claudio and Yvonne will build the Visitor’s Center, and then lease/sell space within it to RMBL. It is still imagined that the Visitor’s Center will accommodate mass transit.
- We will be developing the site plan for the entire property in November and December. We anticipate starting a master plan for the RMBL property in March.
- We need to raise all of the money for the purchase of the land and the construction and design of the buildings. How quickly we can raise the money for land acquisition and initial planning expenses (approximately $2.5 million) will likely determine how quickly we move to construction. We will need to raise approximately $4 million (including the $2.5 million) to cost effectively get building pads. Depending upon how much we build, we’ll then need to raise another $4-6 million (not including endowment) to have buildings. We will save a lot of money if we are able to install the infrastructure on our property (e.g., create building pads) at the same time that roads and basic utilities go in. In similar fashion, we will save a lot of money if we build at the same time as other partners.
- Building RMBL’s endowment beyond the current size of approximately $2 million will be critical to RMBL’s sustainability. If you would like to help with this, either in the short term or through long-term estate planning, feel free to reach out to Kelly Sudderth. Demonstrating that RMBL has both a committed group of supporters and a long-term sustainability plan will help with fundraising for North Village.
As always, feel free to reach out directly to me, either about North Village or anything else that is on your mind.
Director’s Blog August 16, 2020
By Ian Billick, PhD
Miracles, Heroes, and Lessons
With no reported infections in Gothic and the end of summer fast upon us, we are almost ready to declare victory. Despite the reduction in research activity, I feel good about how much research happened, particularly in terms of early career scientists and long-term research projects.
Between expenditure cuts, a full undergrad program, and $250,000 from the payroll protection program, we expect a small year-end deficit at worst. NSF is funding a 3 bedroom, year-round cabin with integrated research space next to Crystal, and with an anticipated $1+ million in proceeds from the Gothic conservation easement, RMBL continues to be strong financially.
Given the viral and economic turmoil, the success with the research and education programs and the continued financial robustness of RMBL feels like a minor miracle.
The list of heroes that made this happen is quite long, but I will name a few. First, my hat goes off to Dr. Rosemary Smith. She, Dr. Jennifer Reithel, and Dr. Jimmy Lee completely redesigned the undergrad research program this spring. About 75% of NSF-funded undergrad biology research programs were canceled and our program is quite large, so the RMBL program really mattered nationally. Furthermore, the program was very important to keeping a number of RMBL research programs going. I know you worked your butt off Rosemary, and we appreciate your flexibility, creativity, and leadership!
Director of Administration Brett Biebuyck and Administrative Coordinator Katie Harper learned their jobs on the fly while completely re-inventing operations. Gothic was safe, welcoming, and effectively run. Kay Cook and the dining hall staff completely reimagined Gothic dining! Serving food to so many is never easy, but feeding field scientists in the age of covid19 was a whole new level of complicated.
I have to give a shout out to Rick Horn, Greta Holdcraft, and Rick Reavis with the Visitor’s Center. With no onsite retail sales (though you can now order RMBL swag online at www.store.rmbl.org<http://www.store.rmbl.org>), they cheerfully and quickly refocused their jobs to managing the public and picking up/delivering mail and groceries for the scientists and students. Furthermore, they went out of their way to connect to Gothic residents, particularly newcomers. Thank you Brett, Katie, Kay, Rick, Rick, and Greta. Under the sage and thoughtful direction of Chief Operating Officer Kelly Sudderth, you all kept RMBL safe while building community!
We are still thinking through the lessons of summer 2020, and we’d like to hear your thoughts. But I’ll throw out some thoughts for consideration. First, zoom is here to stay; we can make it easier for distant scientists to engage with RMBL, including seminars, the undergrad program, and discussions with board members. While the priority will always be on bringing students to Gothic, there may be a role for distance learning that I never imagined.
Second, the education program (undergrad, high school, and even younger programs), has been more important to research than I could have imagined. Multiple research programs benefited from the presence of young scientists, some of whom began getting engaged with RMBL science even before high school.
Finally, I learned that we can be successful despite the virus. Even if there is no widely available vaccine, by the summer of 2021 we will know a great deal more about how to test for, manage the transmission of, and treat, covid19. Given what we learned about how to operate with the virus this summer, on very short notice and despite limited knowledge, the summer of 2021 will be that much better.
As always, feel free to send me your thoughts, feedback, and/or ideas for future blogs. We will be starting our evaluation of summer 2020 soon, and identifying improvements for 2021, so this is a perfect time for feedback. For those of you still around, let’s connect in person if you have the time and interest. Stay healthy and enjoy fall!
Director’s Blog October 18, 2020
By Ian Billick, PhD
What does it mean to lead a scientific organization in a period of collapsing trust in institutions?
In an article in the Atlantic, “America is having a moral convulsion” David Brooks points out that social trust, or the confidence that others will do what they ought to do most of the time, is at an all-time low. Structural racial and financial inequality are among the many rational reasons distrust is increasing. However, distrust makes our lives poorer, literally. Higher trust nations have lower economic inequality and distrust is associated with depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Several years ago, RMBL Science Director (and in the interests of full disclosure, also my wife) Jennie Reithel asked when we became “the administration”. Having reconciled myself to this transition a decade or so earlier, I found the label less distressful. But I took her point. She does not see herself as “the other”. Starting as an undergraduate and having done grad work at RMBL, she sees herself as a scientist and former student, who for personal and professional reasons spends her time getting scientists access to research sites and fostering collaborations. She draws her energy from making good things happen for students and scientists. Subtle, and not so subtle, questionings of motivation are a symptom of growing general distrust. According to Brooks, most people in the US don’t trust others when they first meet them.
What does RMBL do to build trust? As important as shared intent, trust is gained when an organization actively works to effectively understand and respond to the needs of its stakeholders in service to its mission. We embed staff in the RMBL community to build reciprocal understanding and empathy. We rigorously evaluate operations through our online survey and personal interviews. We engage scientists on committees, from finance to research to diversity, with a focus on individuals advancing the collective good rather than personal agendas. Our Board includes a broad representation of scientists.
Engaging scientists in decision-making is challenging. You are pulled in a thousand directions, including your family, the institution that pays you, and your students. Decisions may not be as obvious as they seem, bound by financial and regulatory constraints that may make no sense, but which RMBL cannot avoid. Being empathetic to multiple perspectives imposes a significant cognitive load. But to build a high-functioning institution means that we can’t dismiss people who disagree with us by calling into question their motivations or suggesting they just aren’t bright enough to get it. Those arguments ring hollow; people don’t come to Gothic because they are motivated by fame or money, and everybody is smart.
As part of encouraging engagement, Emily Snow put together an excellent guide to RMBL decision-making. Is RMBL perfect? No. Are we always trying to be better? Yes.
Does building trust matter? Brooks cites ethicist Sillela Bok, “Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.” There are a lot of things that the RMBL community holds dear about our future, from maintaining the integrity of the ecosystems surround Gothic, to maintaining a priceless collection of long-term studies, that will only be achieved through collective action. Trust will be the foundation on which we stand; distrust will be the quicksand in which we sink.
Beyond the Gothic valley, humankind’s capacity to manage the world will depend upon the extent to which they trust, and follow, the science. In building an institution that scientists trust, while keeping our eyes wide open to the ways in which we can improve, we are providing leadership for taking on hard worldwide problems that will require collective action, from institutional racism, to climate change, to food insecurity, and pandemics.
Thanks to CB resident Michael Baim for pointing this article out to me. As always, feel free to reach out, express an opinion, or ask a question. I’m always looking for good reading material and topics for blog posts!
Director’s B;pg July 3, 2020
Written by Ian Billick, PhD
Hard to believe but RMBL has been fully operational for more than a month. For those of you that aren’t here, what does it feel like?
We have about 60 people onsite, with the numbers expected to continue to grow through summer. There are lots of ground squirrels and ground squirrel researchers this year. Seeing scientists walking around with clipboards and binoculars creates a reassuring sense of normalcy. Lunches at the community center usually involve 10-20 people spread outside. People are very good about wearing masks. As one senior scientist said, “it feels safe”.
On the other hand, Crested Butte doesn’t “feel” safe. Elk Avenue is packed. Tracking data indicates that most of the visitors are from Colorado, but there are plenty of visitors escaping the heat (and the virus?) in southern states where infection levels are high. Over the last week there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people wearing masks but there are some who oppose masks. Just recently there was an informal bike race leading to a spontaneous Elk Avenue party—just the kind of large event you don’t want with a disease that relies upon superspreading.
Despite the looseness, the numbers look good. There is a low number of new cases, but nothing unusual given what we have seen the last several months. The total amount of testing has been going up, which may explain some of the detected infections. On the hospital side, CB being CB, there are quite a few people going through the hospital with gravity-induced injuries, but no CoVID19 admits.
While the numbers look good, it could take one or two doublings of the number of people infected to see a jump in transmission. Most test reports come back within 48 hrs, but the state lab is a bit overwhelmed so there can be a week lag. Hospital admits lag infection rates even more. It’s hard to keep your eye on exponential growth when indicators lag 2-3 weeks.
On a separate note, RMBL will be doing a resiliency analysis this fall to help us think about what did and did not work in our response to the virus. As stewards of one of the largest collections of long-term research we have a responsibility to plan long-term. We can expect future crises, from disease to fire to financial meltdowns. We need to learn from this summer and the more we understand what worked (or didn’t) for you, the better prepared we will be for the next crisis. We’ll include questions about this in our summer operations survey, which you should fill out even if you didn’t come. And if you have thoughts now don’t hesitate to shoot them off to me.
Thanks to Dr. Diane Campbell for suggesting this subject. And if you have other ideas for future blog posts, please let me know! Have a happy, safe and fire-free July 4th!
Director’s Blog June 9, 2020
By Ian Billick, PhD
RMBL would like to add another dimension to your research. Three dimensions to be precise.
Time is already a RMBL strength. With many scientists returning to Gothic for decades of research, we have one of the largest collections of long-term research. Our goal is to add space to time so scientists can use four dimensions to drive discovery.
RMBL made nod towards the importance of place when we established our integrated Geographic Information/Global Positioning Systems 15 years ago. Knowing exact locations has allowed us to manage research, minimizing disruption to research plots.
Technology is converging, however, to enable much more. We can measure more things at lower costs. We can deploy sensors on a range of platforms, from satellites, to planes, to drones, to humans (and their smart phones). Building on digital elevation models and hyperspectral data, a range of data products are available to RMBL scientists. Furthermore, machine learning techniques make it possible to process massive data flows.
These resources have the potential transform field science. The combinations of technologies make it possible to link climate/weather to physiology, behavior, and population dynamics on ecologically relevant scales, including snow departure/onset, near-surface air temperature, and soil temperature and moisture. The spatial data products can be used to generate fine-grained insights into ecosystem dynamics and species interactions, taking advantage of data products like gross and net productivity, vegetation structural characteristics, phenology, and species distributions. These products can be used to contextualize individual plots. Heterogeneity that overwhelmed experimental design can now be a tool to understand fundamental processes as well as move ecology towards prediction.
Knowing that adoption is often slowed not by a lack of interest but because new technology involves new barriers, RMBL hired Dr. Ian Breckheimer to establish RMBL’s Spatial Data Platform. Not only is Ian supporting drone-based data (email him at email@example.com with requests), and access to existing data sets, but he has is also training, and collaborating with, scientists to turn these spatial data products into insights about pattern and process. If you are stuck in a home office unable to travel to Gothic, please consider whether there is a way Ian can support your research through drone-based data collection or whether now might be a good time to learn how to integrate these spatial tools into your research.
This is a big investment for RMBL. Our goal is not just to assist you with the logistics, such as meals, housing, and access, but to enable research tools that would be hard for any single scientist to develop on their own. Please give us your feedback, including how we can better develop the tools to serve your needs (see Ian’s implementation plan), whether there are barriers that we can help with, or even to let us know that these tools are just not for you.
As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or suggestions about future blog posts. With the virus it will be hard to connect this summer. If you have a moment, I’d love to schedule a zoom call to hear how you are doing professionally and personally. Stay in touch!
And in case there is any doubt (generated by either the virus or 5 inches of snow last night), summer is happening! It feels like a minor miracle to see students and scientists in Gothic again! Hallelujah!