SESYNC Welcomes Noelle Beckman



The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is pleased to welcome to our Annapolis center Dr. Noelle Beckman, a Socio-Environmental Immersion Postdoctoral Fellow. Get to know our newest researcher:

Name: Noelle Beckman
PhD: Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Hometown: Asheville, NC (Born in Nuremberg, Germany)
SESYNC Project: Developing a general classification scheme for assessing species’ risk under climate change in fragmented landscapes
Mentor/Collaborator: Dr. James Bullock, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, UK

How would you describe your primary field of study?

Based on my training I think of myself as a community ecologist, but the work I’ll be doing at SESYNC is more population ecology. A strong foundation in theoretical ecology underlies both of these perspectives.

What’s the difference between community ecology and population ecology, in terms of the questions you’re interested in asking?

From a community ecology perspective, I’m interested in what mechanisms can maintain biodiversity and support the many species we see coexisting. For example, my dissertation looked at tropical forests in Panama to better understand how different mechanisms such as seed dispersal, seed predation by insects, or plant diseases influence plant diversity.

From a population ecology perspective, I’m interested in what might explain population growth and population spread of plants, how that might relate to their characteristics, and how that might change with respect to climate change and landscape fragmentation.

Can you briefly describe your proposed SESYNC postdoctoral project?

At SESYNC, I’ll be developing a general classification scheme to easily and quickly assess the extinction risk for a broad range of plant species in fragmented landscapes under climate change. To develop this classification scheme, I will apply novel statistical and mathematical approaches to synthesized dispersal and demography datasets. One of my sources of data will be the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database, co-developed by SESYNC postdoc Judy Che-Castaldo.

Why is this research important?

My hope is that this classification scheme will aid the identification of species most at risk from ongoing climate change. The insights gained can help prioritize conservation strategies and policies for the management of landscapes that can be implemented with limited budgets but that have long-term benefits.

Why is SESYNC the right place to undertake this research?

Most of my previous work has been basic ecological research—and to be honest, I’m not sure how many people outside the field of ecology are interested in reading it. What I like about SESYNC is that it facilitates fundamental research in such a way that it can be usable by a wide range of stakeholders, both within and beyond academia. SESYNC is also ideally located near Washington DC, providing geographic access to many governmental agencies and NGOs that I hope could benefit from my postdoctoral research.

What are you reading right now?

Dispersal Ecology and Evolution, co-authored by my mentor/collaborator James Bullock. And I should probably finish Matrix Population Models by Hal Caswell, too!

What’s your favorite scientific theory?

My favorite is the set of hypotheses proposed to explain the adaptive function of secondary metabolites in ripe fruit. Why are some ripe fruit toxic? What is the role of seed dispersers, seed predators, and pathogens? I also work on the Janzen–Connell hypothesis a lot. It proposes an explanation for how insects, pathogens, and other natural enemies that kill and consume plants help maintain local plant diversity.

If you could attempt a profession other than your own, what would it be?

For a while I wanted to be a rock climbing teacher—but I’ve only ever been rock climbing twice. And I think DJ’ing could be a lot of fun, if I could stay up that late.

Could you describe a time when the element of ‘surprise’ played a role in your research?

You mean like the time I accidentally sat on a cactus doing fieldwork in the desert?

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Melissa Andreycheck, SESYNC