Beneath our feet, out of our sight, is a world of complex interactions. Plants, fungi, and microbes work together symbiotically to make resources like carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients available to one another. “This very cooperation has propelled the evolution of all land plants and all terrestrial ecosystems ever since plants colonized land,” says incoming Omidyar Fellow Mingzhen Lu, a biogeochemist who holds a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton University and a BS in geosciences from Peking University. While these symbiotic relationships, as well as competition between individuals, can be viewed on a hyper-local scale, they also play dynamic roles in global ecology. Lu draws on principles from economics to build theoretical and computational models to help describe the complexity and variety of these dynamics across the world.
With the view of the Earth as complex system, Lu also studies regime shifts in biomes: how human activity impacts the boundary between the highly diverse Fynbos, a shrubland ecosystem, and the surrounding less diverse forest in South Africa’s Cape Floristic Kingdom; what the thawing of the Arctic tundra and its underlying permafrost could mean for future atmospheric carbon; and how the warming-induced Arctic vegetation shift from grass to shrubs will impact the Earth system.
“The future trajectory of our planet depends on the intricate feedbacks among the Earth’s natural components but is increasingly dependent on the behavior of human society,” says Lu. At SFI, Lu hopes to continue to expand the application of complex systems research on ecological questions, with a particular eye toward the impacts of human activities. “A complex-systems approach is crucial to understanding the problems we are facing as a society, and perhaps more importantly, how we can inform policy and decision making to act upon these problems.”