Bill Nelson



Bill
Broadly speaking, I am interested in understanding the interaction between individual-scale life histories and population-scale ecological and evolutionary dynamics. I ¬†became interested in these kinds of emergent properties while I was doing my undergraduate at the University of Waterloo. At the time I was taking a number of courses in physics, and was interested to see that properties of complex systems could be understood based on the rules of its constituent components. After finishing undergrad, I went to study population ecology with Dr. Ed McCauley at the University of Calgary. Looking back on this time now, it was such an informative time for me both scientifically and personally. As I’m sure is true of many groups that pass through that department, the graduate students and faculty at the time were a group of energetic, supportive and quirky¬†people (myself included) who were continually challenging the way we approached problems and thought about paradigms. I couldn’t have asked for a better crucible to bring together and develop my scientific interests.

Being less than an hour away from the Rocky Mountains, Calgary was also a great place to let me pursue my love for outdoor adventure. I have very fond memories of summers spent hiking & climbing, winters spent skiing, and the times spent with wonderful groups of people who enjoyed the mountains as much as I did.

My next major endeavour was to develop my modelling skills further. Mathematical modelling is a natural tool for questions about the emergent properties of complex systems because they allow you to predict population-scale dynamics based on the cumulative action of rules at the individual-scale. Combined with experiments, this is a powerful approach. You can do experiments at the individual-scale to understand the rules at the lower hierarchical scale. This empirical evidence allows you to construct and parameterize a mathematical model to predict ecological and evolutionary dynamics at the higher hierarchical scale. Comparing these predictions with experiments at the population-scale then provides a robust and independent test of how much the individual-scale rules contribute to dynamics. I started using this approach in my PhD work, and then expanded my mathematical skills during a postdoc with Dr. Mark Lewis in the Centre for Mathematical Biology at the University of Alberta. Again, in retrospect, these were informative years for not only developing my modelling skills, but perhaps more importantly for developing a strong appreciation for the value of working across disciplines to solve biological problems.

Now as a faculty member here at Queen’s University, my lab and I are spreading out into new experimental systems, studying system with greater potential for emergent properties, and taking our traditionally lab-based experimental approaches to field settings. All of that amounts to very interesting projects that are all aimed asking whether we can discover underlying principles that help simplify our understanding of complex biological systems. While more often than not it means busy times, there’s still time for some fun. The gallery below shows some recent pictures [coming shortly!].