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Professor’s Early Career Work Recognized With Award

August 24, 2016

Professor Jessica Blois's research takes her to some interesting places as she examines diversity patterns throughout time.Professor Jessica Blois is the newest recipient of the International Biogeography Society’s MacArthur & Wilson Award recognizing early career work and contributions to biogeography.

Blois, a paleoecologist with the School of Natural Sciences, is the only recipient of this year’s award, which the International Biogeography Society (IBS) gives biennially to faculty members who have completed their Ph.D.s within the past 12 years.

In nominating her, two professors and a research scientist from Yale, Stony Brook University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison — all of whom have worked with Blois — said she has emerged as a leading researcher in the new generation of biogeographers.

Her work focuses on integrating neo- and paleoecological approaches to understand the processes that control patterns of species distributions and diversity through space and time. She looks at the links between current diversity patterns and the long history of life on Earth, and uses the information to model how species and ecosystems respond to large and rapid environmental changes.

'Model of Modern Biogeographer'

“Her exceptional creativity in asking questions about diversity patterns is coupled with excellent computational and statistical skills; this toolkit allows her to effectively use fossil data, which requires unique expertise and methods when used to test general theories in ecology and evolution,” the nominators wrote in their joint letter to the IBS. “Blois has become a pioneer in using paleoecological data and approaches to tackle fundamental questions in biogeography. She is an outstanding early career scientist with a strong trajectory of innovative, high-quality research and the promise of more to come. She is the model of the modern biogeographer.”

The award will be announced in the next issue of Frontiers in Biogeography.

Blois said the award is a great honor. The IBS will support her travel to the next conference, in January in Tucson, where she will deliver a talk about the research she’s working on now.  

A couple of her current projects involve examining associations between genes and environments among wood rats and other small mammals by looking at the fossil remains in caves.

“We’re trying to determine what factors controlled the assembly of the small mammal communities from the last ice age on,” Blois said, “and learn what that can tell us about why species are present or absent at sites across time.”

She’s working with a former postdoc to use past plant-pollen information to test and improve current modeling methods. And she’s collaborating with fellow Professor Justin Yeakel and others searching for fossils of small mammals in the La Brea Tar Pits to better understand the associations between plants and animals so they can model which species are more likely to go extinct.

“If we want to be able to predict for the future, we have to understand all the variables that affect why populations of species evolve differently at different sites,” Blois said. “We need to understand the evolutionary legacy of responses to change.”

One of the hallmarks of Blois’ research is that she incorporates information from many different approaches, including modern and ancient DNA, to help her understand and demonstrate key mechanisms and outcomes of climate-species interactions and biodiversity dynamics over millennia.

Blois has published in several prestigious journals including Nature, Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She has a new paper out this summer in the open-access journal Ecography entitled “Community Functional Trait Composition at the Continental Scale: The Effects of Non-ecological Processes” that indicates that habitat breadth, terrestriality, diet breadth and reproduction could be used to measure functional aspects of environments in the past and present.

“Professor Blois’ work is a prime example of the type of interdisciplinary research that UC Merced was built on,” School of Natural Sciences Dean Juan Meza said. “She is a rising star in her field and we’re extremely proud of her receiving this award.”