Dr. Jessica Gurevitch, professor of ecology at Stony Brook University, is revolutionizing the field of ecology through her large-scale studies of invasive species and use of meta-analysis to synthesize findings in the field.
Gurevitch’s work focuses on understanding the spread of invasive species and characterizing their predicted rate of increase. She explained that most non-native species do not become a problem—only a few become serious invaders. As a result, most scientists have studied invasive species only after they become serious invaders and therefore, know very little about the early stages of biological invasions.
Gurevitch aims to study the spread of invasive plants from the early stages on a large spatial scale to better understand the process. Her work focuses on spotted knapweed, a plant species that has been a problem in western America, but only recently appears to be spreading on the east coast.
“It’s becoming more and more of a problem in the eastern U.S.,” Gurevitch said. “We have a really good chance to follow this plant and see what happens when a plant is in the process of becoming a serious invasive threat.”
Gurevitch specifically focused on the process behind a plant becoming invasive. She and her collaborators at Stony Brook and the University of Texas wanted to determine if all of the different populations scattered across the landscape were behaving in the same way. They hypothesized that many of the populations are not changing or are even declining, while only a few of them are growing rapidly.
Gurevitch and her team found, measured and tracked a large number of populations of spotted knapweed in eastern Long Island and in the Adirondack Mountains.
“So far, many of the populations either disappear, stay the same, or decline, and only a few of them are exploding and growing rapidly, some increasing by as much as ten times every year,” Gurevitch said.
Many of the populations that are spreading rapidly are found in the Adirondacks, raising concern because the Adirondacks are a protected region of ecological and recreational importance.
By understanding which populations are growing the fastest, management teams might be able to better allocate resources towards the areas with the most aggressive populations of the species.
Another aspect of Gurevitch’s work focuses on applying meta-analysis, or the combining of findings of independent studies to draw conclusions, to ecology.
She said became interested in statistics early in her career. “The kinds of statistics that were easily available may not be suited to answer the kinds of ecological questions we had,” she said. “So I became very interested in developing and modifying those tools with collaborators in order to be able to get strong, clear answers to complex ecological questions.”
By combining the work of scientists who are attempting to answer the same question, meta-analysis allows for a more powerful conclusion than any of the studies on their own.
Gurevitch has worked on various problems in ecological meta-analysis, and is currently working with colleagues on a meta-analysis of latitudinal gradients of species diversity.
Her earlier work includes a major study that used meta-analysis to analyze the impact of competition among different kinds of species in nature.
“It had a really big impact in helping our understanding of competition, but also in introducing meta-analysis as a very powerful tool for resolving important questions in the field of ecology,” Gurevitch said.
In the future, Gurevitch plans to continue expanding the use meta-analysis and aims to work with collaborators to apply meta-analysis to genomic data.