Young Researchers Award winner to use ecological community networks to model species co-occurrence

Juan M. Escamilla Mólgora, 2016 GBIF Young Researchers Award winner

Juan M. Escamilla Mólgora, 2016 GBIF Young Researchers Award winner. Photo courtesy of Mr Escamilla Mólgora.

Juan M. Escamilla Mólgora, a PhD student from Mexico, is one of the two recipients of GBIF’s 2016 Young Researchers’ Award (YRA). He attends Lancaster University in the United Kingdom and conducts his research within the Lancaster Environment Centre. Escamilla Molgóra was nominated for the award by GBIF delegation from Mexico, whose activities are coordinated by the national node, CONABIO.

The interdisciplinary project that earned Escamilla Mólgora the award, ‘A network-based geostatistical approach for reconstructing local ecological communities’, combines elements of mathematics, ecology and software development. Its goal is to produce open-source modeling software capable of predicting how likely a given species is to occur at a certain place and time based on the presence of other species. The resulting models could improve many types of analyses, including rapid assessments of extinction threats, land cover and ecosystem change, and risk from disease vectors.

The research will apply computational analysis and complex network theory to the species and groups of organisms that form constituent components of ecological communities, initially focused on Mexico. An initial statistical framework will use mathematical rules to define ‘equivalence relationships’ between species that hinge on presence of co-occurring taxa and environmental variables.

The modeling software that Escamilla Mólgora plans to develop would provide the means for using data available from sources like the GBIF network, combined with environmental and other data, to infer probable local patterns of species occurrence.

“My research really aims to improve our understanding of mathematical structures that link ecological and environmental processes,” said Escamilla Mólgora. “The information available through GBIF for taxonomic classifications, geographic locations and collection dates is essential to developing a data-science statistical approach to species distribution modeling. I’m honoured to earn the selection as one of the award winners.”

“Juan’s project is complex and novel because it takes into account the spatial and temporal dimensions of the species distribution together with the effects due to species co-occurrence,” said Luigi Sedda, a lecturer in Spatial Epidemiology at Lancaster University Medical School who supervises Escamilla Mólgora’s research along with Peter Atkinson, dean of the University’s Faculty of Science and Technology, and Peter Diggle, head of the Centre for Health Information Computation and Statistics at Lancaster University.

“He’s a talented informatics and data scientist with a huge passion for geographic information systems, biodiversity and ecology”, Dr Sedda added.

Juan Escamilla Mólgora is a member of Lancaster’s Data Science Institute and CHICAS (Combining Health Information, Computation and Statistics) group. He is the third Mexican national to win the YRA, following Emma Gomez-Ruiz (2013) and César Antonio Ríos-Muñoz (2011).

Escamilla Mólgora shares the 2016 Young Researcher Award with Bruno Umbelino da Silva Santos, a Master’s student from Brazil conducting research in the 21st Century Conservation Laboratory at the Federal University of Alagoas’ Institute of Biological Sciences and Health. The GBIF Science Committee commended both award recipients for embracing ‘research innovation, originality and the creative use of GBIF-enabled data.’

About the Award

The GBIF Young Researchers Award aims to foster innovative research and discovery in biodiversity informatics by encouraging graduate students to use biodiversity data mobilized through the GBIF network of member states and organizations.