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Highlighted Young PPE Member of the Month

Dr. Roberto Salguero-Gomez

An international researcher who is making strides in the field of comparative demography

By Nana Zhang, ESA Plant Population Ecology (PPE) section, and Roberto Salguero-Gomez 1/22/2015

While big data has become a very relevant topic in ecology and evolution, scientific research also faces the challenge of better integrating observational and experimental data to address timely questions. With this motivation in mind, the newly published paper on a revolutionary database of plant matrix population models, the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database (Journal of Ecology, 2015,103: 202-218), opens a long desired door towards the big data era for plant demographic research. COMPADRE (www.compadre-db.org) is an unprecedented, open-access database that includes high-resolution demographic, taxonomic, ecological, biogeographic and phylogenetic information for hundreds of plant species around the world. The leading author, Roberto Salguero-Gómez, has been chosen as the February 2015 highlighted member by our PPE section!

I was very impressed by Roberto’s CV when I first saw it. He enjoys combining computational research with fieldwork around the world (his sites include Spain, England, Germany and Australia), while keeping rather productive. When I talked with him, I realized what an international researcher Roberto is! Roberto obtained his bachelor’s degree in Spain (where he is from), and then furthered his education in the UK and Austria before moving to the US, where he received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. After that, he has been a postdoc in Germany and Australia. Right now, he holds simultaneous academic appointments with the Australian Research Council, where he is a DECRA fellow, the Max Planck Institute (Germany), and Trinity College Dublin (Ireland).. He said, “Moving around has radically changed the way in which I think about ecology.” He thinks of his job as one of his hobbies. Indeed, he keeps busy while having lots of fun.

When asked why he became interested in ecology, Roberto told an unexpected story. He said he was going through a difficult transition from high school to college in his freshman year, and his botany course did not go well. “My mom gave me a consolation prize when I failed my first botany midterm: a cactus. I was so fascinated with its form that I started collecting succulent and desert plants, and next thing I knew I had over 200 species around our house. It was at that time that I realized how abundant life is, and that I wanted to do independent research in biology”. He continued reading about desert ecology, and eventually decided to pursue a PhD in ecology.

Roberto has been very successful in garnering grant funding to support his research. He leads a group of 11 BSc and MSc students at the Max Planck who carry out the acquisition, digitalization and error-checking of data for COMPADRE, and supervises two PhD students. He said the “decent” productivitvity at work comes from his enthusiasm. “My friends view me as a bit of a ‘hyper-active’ person. They say I’m rather energetic.” About the secret of being energetic, he said, “of course I drink a lot ofcoffee, but I am truly inspired to do my work.”

His time management skills have improved during the training process, as “transitioning from one task to another is getting faster.” Meanwhile, he also emphasized the importance of getting involved. “You also need to get involved with mentoring, departmental and other activities.” Roberto has been the founding member of both the International Network of Next-Generation Ecologists (INNGE) and the Early Career Section of the ESA.  He was the ESA Student Section chair (2008-2010) and the ESA PPE Section student liaison (2009-2010) and secretary (2010-2012). Furthermore, periodically, he writes a popular science blog about his research to update his family and friends (See “Memories” on his website).

As an international student at UPenn, Roberto had to face an importance hindrance in applying for research grants: he was not eligible for major national funding due to his foreign status. Yet, he managed to use this to his academic advantage. “True, I wasn’t able to apply for major NSF funding, but I compensated by TAing more classes to obtain supplementary funds for my research.” Additionally, He advises students to, “…focus on smaller grants if big ones are not applicable… It is indeed critical to start as early as possible”. Currently he has received over $1 million in grants and fellowships from 15 different funding sources and five countries. He said, “The most important point is not focusing on one a single discipline. All the ideas and tools I learned over the years ended up helping me do a lot of different things, from biomolecular characterisations of oxidative stress to comparative biology. This approach requires constant movement among different fields”. An open mind, with a never-stop-learning heart, is the key to success.

Two of Roberto’s research interests are comparative biology and demography. The COMPADRE database is a huge leap forward in the field of comparative population ecology “I feel that ecology should put more attention on replication through space and time… how else are we going to know if an isolated observation really leads to a rule or to an exception?” Instead of finishing a PhD project over 4-5 years with one population, “we need longer intervals and to conduct experiments across greater spatial extents”. “Some theories have been developed with very limited data,” however, COMPADRE provides a platform to “re-test and re-evaluate these theories. In addition to the newly released COMPADRE database, Roberto is also the leader of the COMADRE animal matrix database (www.comadre-db.org), which includes data from over 1,300 animal species (soon to become open access online).

Right now Roberto is finishing some papers where he is examining the role of life history trade-offs in the evolution of senescence in plants and animals. Roberto’s plans for 2015 include finishing some papers where he is examining the role of life history trade-offs in the evolution of senescence in plants and animals. Also, he will be running a workshop at the ESA 2015 conference on comparative demography and phylogenetic analyses using COMPADRE. Roberto and his collaborators are currently developing two R libraries to interact with COMPADRE and facilitate comparative demographic analyses.

Roberto is currently looking for jobs in the USA and Europe; more on his research can be found here.

Nana Zhang is a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, and she thanks for the help of Lynn Adler, Aldo Compagnoni and Janette Steets for polishing this interview.