CELS Big Thinker for October, Assistant Professor Brian Gerber

Sandhill cranes that migrate 8,000 miles a year; weasels in the wet jungles of Madagascar; toads that live in snow: Brian Gerber works with these astonishing animals.

The newest addition to the CELS Natural Resources Science faculty, Gerber is a conservation biologist who focuses on quantitative population ecology, which is to say he is a statistician.

Wild animals move around. Populations change.  It’s hard to tease out whether these changes are due to natural or anthropogenic reasons. “Statistics provide us with pathways to conservation based on empirical evidence, not just knowns and beliefs,” Gerber explained.

Statistics isn’t just dry numbers anymore either, he added. Most scientists now use code and computer programming too, instructing software to compute for them. So today, statistics is “as much about how you ask the question as being able to deal with the math.” A good amount of Gerber’s work is on endangered species, which means that his subject material is literally dying and disappearing. Working with managers on declining animal populations requires quickly translating scientific results into policy; and always being open new collaboration opportunities.

“Issues are more complex nowadays,” he said. “The message used to be stop overharvesting and wild populations will come back. Take the chytrid fungus for example. We don’t know where the disease pathogen comes from or how it distributes itself.”

In the last 20 years, chytrid fungus has been linked to massive die-offs of water-dwelling amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders. Gerber was part of a team of researchers and managers in Colorado looking at ways to address the spread of the disease among boreal toads that live at elevations between 6,000 and 11,000 feet, in the Southern Rocky Mountains.

Knowing enough to act

In a recent piece Gerber co-authored in The Conversation, an online op-ed platform for the academic community, he used the subheading “knowing enough to act.” The phrase captures the essense of work with endangered species. There is a limited amount of time left for saving these animals. That is why quick data analysis is so vital

“In science and conservation, there is this concept to not do any harm. We don’t want to exacerbate problems,” said Gerber. All too often, “scientists learn things and make vague comments about how it can help conservation. Meanwhile managers want to know how to make the best decisions but they don’t have all the knowledge.”

“In the boreal toad project, we got both sides together recognizing that you will never know all the information. This is a starting point. We’re at year zero.”


Value of partnerships

While at the Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Gerber created a decision-analytic framework with a multi-agency team of managers and scientists that includes U.S. Geological Survey and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife office. This is a successful example of science-based adaptive management, an idea that has been making the rounds in government conservation efforts throughout the United States.  “There’s a whole cycle. Science informs agency decisions. These decisions are implemented. Then there is monitoring which informs the science. And in theory, the process repeats endlessly until the problem is no longer an issue.”

Gerber sees it as a very transparent system. “Here is our data and this is what we think is the best thing to do at this time based on what we know, but we are also always updating our knowledge.”

A prerequisite for big ideas is being open to new opportunies, even in the most unexpected places. Partnerships can start as friendships. For example, while at Virginia Tech earning his Master’s degree, Gerber met Sunarto Sunarto, an Indonesian graduate student who was writing his PhD thesis on Sumatran tigers.

“We were using similar methodology so we chatted often about tools. This friendship extended into professional life after graduate school and presented Gerber with new opportunities for collaboration. Sunarto is now a landscape ecologist with Indonesia branch of World Wildlife Fund. “ It just worked out that he was looking for someone who focuses on wildlife statistics to come and partner with the World Wildlife Fund’s Indonesia office on its Javan rhino project.” There are only around 63 Javan rhinos remaining on Earth.

“Most of us in the sciences are at least mildly introverted.” But remember to connect with people who you have shared interests and goals with said Gerber. “You want to work with a collaborator because they have good ideas but also because you like them. When you find those people just keep going with it. That’s how you get to do cool things that you wouldn’t have thought possible.”

“I never thought I’d get to think about the Javan rhino as much as I have, or help that team with one of their national icons. That was really cool.”