PeerJ Award Winner: Early Career Biogeographers Conference 2021

PeerJ were delighted to sponsor an award for Best Oral Presentation at the Early Career Biogeographers Conference, held virtually in October 2021. We recently talked to the winner, Oskar Hagen, about his research. If you are organising a conference and would like to offer a PeerJ Award, please email communities@peerj.com 

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The Early Career Biogeographers Conference was held on October 22-24, 2021, with more than 240 biogeographers attending from over 40 countries.  The conference included 160 inspiring talks and poster presentations from early career and established researchers, communicating the latest in biogeographic research from around the world.

Personally, I found this to be a really engaging conference, with so many great talks and posters. The mentor and journal discussion sessions and workshops were a highlight, and the presentations by early career researchers were fantastic to attend. There is so much interesting research being done!

Karen Faller, organiser.

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Oskar Hagen Post doctoral researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), Leipzig. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I’m a Swiss-Brazilian citizen, born in Venezuela and raised in the countryside of Brazil living now in Germany. About 16 years ago, when deciding what to study, I was torn between my two main areas of interest: Informatics and Biology. Therefore, after acquiring technical skills in informatics I merged course with Biology and Environmental Sciences, opening up possibilities for my multifaceted interests. Throughout my Master’s with Prof. Sebastian Bonhoeffer and Prof. Tanja Stadler at the Theoretical Ecology group, I enhanced my mathematical and modelling skills, specifically regarding speciation and extinction processes. My focus was to test and develop eco-evolutionary hypothesis and move closer to ecology and evolution using programming and math as a tool, and not as a primary object of study. After my Master’s, I worked in the public and private sector in different countries (i.e. Switzerland, Laos, Belize, Brazil), always with a link to natural resources management, while continuously undertaking scientific activities and keeping updated with the literature. During my PhD at the Landscape Ecology group under supervision of Prof. Loïc Pellissier, I was given the flexibility needed to develop my own project in line with my interests. I deepened my knowledge on the multiple mechanisms (biotic and abiotic) related with biodiversity gradients and dove into the world of paleo-environmental reconstructions, geodynamics and paleontology. In my PostDoc with Dr. Renske Onstein, Prof. Jonathan Chase, Prof. Thorsden Wiegand and Dr. Duarte SPT Viana, I catalyse the integration of eco-evolutionary processes across temporal and spatial scales converting at the metacommunity level in search and revision of the multiple proposed mechanisms behind Earth’s biodiversity.

What first interested you in this field of research?

I grew up in a rural area in Brazil, in a transition zone between the Cerrado and Atlantic rain forest with a few reminiscent vegetation in a matrix of invasive Brachiaria spp. When I was a kid, I constantly wondered nature and collected, observed and/or tried to raise insects, spiders, snakes, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, shrimps, lobsters and fishes. I loved to observe animals and learn about their diet, behavior and origin. At the same time, I was puzzled by how computers worked and loved computer games. As a teenager, I modified games and OS for fun. These were probably the first manifestations of my interests. Later on, during my Bachelor’s and Master’s I gained crucial skills and new insights that allowed me to investigate and reproduce some of the many intriguing patterns of biodiversity on virtual environments, which then flourished during my PhD.

You won the Best Oral Presentation award at ECBC 2021, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

At ECBC I presented how, using a novel mechanistic model of evolution on Earth could better explain why the rainforests of Africa are home to fewer species than the tropical forests of South America and Southeast Asia. The mechanistic eco-evolutionary modelling engine (named gen3sis) can flexibly consider multiple eco-evolutionary processes in a dynamic landscapes context and generates multiple emergent biodiversity signatures (e.g. species richness maps and phylogenies). gen3sis’ development included multiple interdisciplinary contributions, including the dialog between software engineers, geologists, modelers, and empiricists. Using gen3sis, we simulate species diversification over 110 millions of years of evolution and found that the key to this disparity, mainly lower African richness compared with Neotropics and Southeast Asia, rather than in current climate, lie in the dynamics and particularities these continents have evolved over time. We found a relaxed niche conservatism, species evolve to new climatic conditions at a rather lower pace, contribute to the pattern which emerges with a combination of higher extinction and lower speciation events in the Afrotropics compared to other regions.

What are your next steps? How will you continue to build on this research?

Developing gen3sis and tackling large scale biodiversity patterns has been an incredible journey, on which I learned about some main potentials and limitations in the field. Currently and on the short- mid-term I am committed to better understand and quantify how eco-evolutionary interactions and signatures differ at different temporal and spatial scales. Especially when considering different environmental regimes and landscape evolution scenarios. Formalizing and quantifying biodiversity theories in the form of eco-evolutionary processes interacting with dynamic landscapes can catalyse interdisciplinary biodiversity research and help us to better appreciate the complexity of life on Earth. Besides those next steps mentioned above, many more prospects to continue this research exist and will open up, impossible to tackle them all in a lifetime. Collaboration will be crucial. My wish is to continue research collaborating with many other scientists from different fields in order to see usefulness and or adjust eco-evolutionary modelling tools as well as satisfying my multiple interests.

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How did you find the virtual conference experience?

First, I was disappointed that the ECBC conference could not be held in Amsterdam. After long periods of isolation, I was hoping to have real interactions with early career Biogeographers. This disappointment proved unfunded and disappeared early on in the conference, when I joined the Games Room, a pre-event science games session. It was fun and I got to know some nice people, including their amazing drawing skills. The plenary talks were incredible, and a highlight for me was listening to Prof. Felisa Smith’s extremely interesting and didactic talk on the missing pieces: “late Pleistocene changes in mammal communities in North America after catastrophic biodiversity loss”. The talks and poster sessions were well grouped and were of adequate length. This, plus the number of participants, provided space for discussion and reflection. The poster sessions were very interesting, and I always managed to ask questions and get answers and new inspiration. The amount of participants in combination with the grouping of talks made it easy to re-meet conference colleagues throughout the event, providing a warm feeling, even virtually. With that said, I would like to thank all the organizers and the sponsors. It was a great conference!