Award winner addresses data bias while assessing trends in boreal butterfly diversity

Vaughn Shirey, a Ph.D student at Georgetown University, earns selection for study examining changes to Papilionidea richness in high-latitude forests in North America and Europe

(left) Vaughn Shirey, a Ph.D student at Georgetown University, is a winner of the 2020 GBIF Young Researchers Awards. Photo courtesy of Vaughn Shirey; (right) Silver-bordered frittilary (Boloria selene), Eastern Finland. Photo 2020 Jarkko Peltoniemi via iNaturalist Research-grade Observations, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Vaughn Shirey, a Ph.D student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., is one of two winners of the 2020 GBIF Young Researchers Awards.

An expert jury has recognized Shirey, who was nominated by the GBIF United States delegation, for their effort to address data bias while modelling the long-term impacts of climate and land-use change on a well-known family of organisms in poorly sampled regions: the butterflies (Papilionidea) that inhabit the boreal forests of North America and northern Europe.

Disparities in the availability of biodiversity data across space and time present challenges for modelling, measuring and mitigating threats like climate and land-use change. With the world's boreal forests now facing rapid warming and widespread land conversion, sparsity of data from these high-latitude environments only increases the difficulty and urgency of such challenges.

Combining butterfly data available through GBIF with trait data extracted from literature, Shirey's research both examines a family of organisms particularly sensitive to global change and provides a model for using data with known gaps and biases to analyse high-priority conservation areas. The results synthesize a macroscale study of butterfly richness and composition trends in North American and European boreal forests between 1940 and 2019.

"GBIF-mediated data serves here as the backbone for making inferences about butterfly communities in a time of global change," said Shirey. "The 'pseudo-sampling' technique I apply, alongside accounting for observer behaviors, can help develop best practices for using sparse, opportunistic occurrence records to understand biodiversity dynamics."

"Vaughn is a tremendously creative and independent thinker who has charted their own path since arriving at our lab, so this award is truly well-deserved," said Leslie Ries, Associate Professor of of Biology at Georgetown University. "With their combination of data science skills, passion for serving the community and commitment to high-latitude field work in a vast and logistically challenging ecoregion, Vaughn has all the qualities of a leader for the next generation of ecologists."

“I had the opportunity to supervise and work with Vaughn during their stay in Helsinki under a Fullbright Fellowship," said Pedro Cardoso, curator of arachnids, millipedes and terrestrial molluscs at Luomus, the Finnish Museum of Natural History. "They already had a number of ideas on how to best use GBIF data and overcome their limitations, and I never ceased being impressed by their work capacity. Seeing Vaughn going this far this fast is not really a surprise, but still makes me so happy to see their work recognized with such an important award!”

"I am both impressed with Vaughn’s existing record and their potential for transformational approaches to the use of GBIF data," said Rob Guralnick, curator of Biodiversity of Informatics at the Florida Museum of Natural History and University of Florida Research Foundation Professor. "Vaughn has already established themself as a next-generation leader in eco- and biodiversity informatics, especially given their focus on integrating machine-learning approaches into knowledge synthesis and citizen science-based work."

Shirey is the second U.S. national to win the award, after Kate Ingenloff (2018), the first from Georgetown, and the third nominated by the U.S. delegation to GBIF, following Ingenloff and Andrés Lira-Noriega, a Mexican researcher then studying in the United States, who received an award in 2010, the award's inaugural year.

Shirey shares the award with Ángel Luis Robles of Mexico. The pair will both receive a €5,000 prize and recognition at the upcoming GBIF Governing Board meeting.

About the Award

Since its inception in 2010, the annual GBIF Young Researchers Award has sought to promote and encourage innovation in biodiversity-related research using data shared through the GBIF network.

About Georgetown University

Established in 1789 by Archbishop John Carroll, Georgetown is the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States. Located in Washington, D.C., Doha, Qatar, and around the world, Georgetown University is a leading academic and research institution, offering a unique educational experience that prepares the next generation of global citizens to lead and make a difference in the world. For more information, visit

2020 Young Researchers Award Jury

  • Enrique Martínez Meyer: Jury chair, GBIF Science Committee | Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Mexico)
  • Nayarani Barve: University of Florida (India)
  • Jean Ganglo: University of Abomey-Calavi (Benin)
  • Emily Jane McTavish: University of California, Merced (United States)
  • Fatima Parker: SANBI, the South Africa National Biodiversity Institute (South Africa)