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A Model of Possibility Professor of Biology Robert Humston’s Spring Term course takes a deep dive into environmental problem-solving.

EcologicalModeling-600x400 A Model of PossibilityStudents work on an ecological model.

With spring in full bloom, Washington and Lee University students are busy tackling some of today’s most pressing environmental issues in the popular Spring Term course, Ecological Modeling and Conservation Strategies.

The objective of the class, taught by Professor of Biology Robert Humston, is for students to understand the foundational methods of ecological modeling and then apply those methods to problem-solving for conservation strategies. Structured as a workshop with both lab and lecture components, the course introduces students to advanced concepts generally taught at the graduate level. Humston appreciates how the immersive nature of Spring Term classes allows him to take a hands-on approach to complex topics and explore the practical application of ecological skills.

“I set out to create a course structure that could introduce these advanced concepts to an undergraduate audience and give them a chance to really engage with it,” said Humston, who has taught the Spring Term class for more than a decade. “We often talk about having breadth and depth in our curriculum here at W&L, and this class is the only one I teach that is all about depth. I feel no pressure to cover the breadth of topics in this field, and instead, I can focus on drilling down into the cool aspects of the areas we do cover.”

Ecological Modeling and Conservation Strategies is a great opportunity for students to dive into a complicated topic with practical applications. The first two weeks of the course are dedicated to building a toolkit of essential skills and practicing their application, then in the second half of the course, students focus on building their own models and applying them to contemporary conservation questions. Clara Albacete ’23 particularly appreciates how the focused structure of Spring Term allows her to fully immerse herself in the course material and focus on what she’s passionate about without the distraction of other classes.

“Conservation is some of the most important work people can engage in right now,” said Albacete, an environmental studies major with a double minor in biology and creative writing. “This class is geared toward just that — understanding the mechanisms of population growth and survival and then how we can use that understanding to determine the best conservation strategies for protecting different species.”

By emphasizing the practical applications of ecological modeling and its relevance to current environmental initiatives, Humston makes challenging content accessible and meaningful to the students. He enjoys being able to demonstrate the impact ecological modeling can have within the environmental field, and he looks forward to the second half of the term when he begins introducing advanced applications of ecological models for conservation and showing the students how the skills they are learning in his class can be used in more complex scenarios.

“These models are great for demonstration and inspiration,” Humston said. “In reviewing more advanced studies, my goal is to ‘take the lid off the box’ and show students the world of modeling studies that exist outside the basic applications they’ve learned up to that point in the class.”

A highlight of the course is the opportunity for students to tackle relevant environmental topics, such as protecting endangered species, controlling invasive populations and managing the harvest of wild populations to prevent collapse or promote conservation goals. This emphasis on exploring tangible and practical applications of modeling methods is what drew Marko Suchy ’24 to take the class. A physics major with a data science minor, Suchy said he does not tend to gravitate toward biology classes, but he thought Ecological Modeling and Conservation Strategies would supplement his existing interest in modeling complex systems such as voter behavior or innovation diffusion.

“This class gives me the opportunity to explore modeling from a unique perspective, analyzing the application of conservation tactics,” he said. “The goal, to understand what makes for effective conservation action, is much more tangible than the often-theoretical pursuits of physics modeling.”

As an example, each year Humston introduces students to a classic study where researchers used a model of endangered loggerhead turtles to test hypotheses about what conservation actions would be most effective to help the population recover. He describes the paper as “truly an elegant analysis” and an important example of how these studies can have profound impacts on conservation policy.

“I love introducing this study to my class because once they get past the initial challenges of understanding what was done and why, they can appreciate the value of the conclusions it produced,” Humston said. “Up until that point, the conservation context for the topics we cover is either fairly simple or hypothetical. I think a lot of students get inspired by the practical utility of ecological modeling when they see it applied in this paper.”

The culmination of the class is a group project, with each group choosing a different species and implementing the modeling methods they have learned to model the species’ population growth and analyze the effectiveness of different conservation or population control strategies on the population. Cooper Lazo ’24 and her group are studying wild “super pigs” and different control strategies for the invasive populations, and one of the most important things she has learned through the process is that models are only as good as the data used to create them.

“This class really highlights the importance of research and the continuation of data collection for all kinds of species,” she said. “I really enjoy looking at biology on a larger scale, and as a biology and anthropology double major, this class has been a cool way to explore how conservation depends on both the biology of different organisms and on where and how people choose to implement conservation strategies.”

Ecological Modeling and Conservation Strategies has also been the perfect opportunity for Alicia Nguyen ’23 to “devote my undivided attention to all of my academic interests.” Nguyen had been looking forward to taking Humston’s class since her sophomore year and feels it has equipped her with an in-depth understanding of the principles of ecology and ecological modeling and how to apply these principles to developing and answering research questions surrounding real-world conservation efforts.

“My academic ambition is to go into environmental modeling, so this class is a wonderful first step,” said Nguyen, a geology and environmental studies major. “I hope to explore different types of environmental models that in turn shape policies to conserve our natural resources and protect ecosystem services.”

With few distractions and immersive course material, Spring Term is a hallmark of the W&L experience, introducing students to diverse and engaging topics and allowing them to explore their academic interests.

“I honestly think Spring Term is one of the greatest parts of W&L,” Albacete said. “Every day is an adventure, and it is a huge part of what has made me love being a student here.”