Our visiting PhD student from McGill University

My name is Emma Hudgins, I am a PhD student in Brian Leung’s lab at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. I won a scholarship to visit UQ for 3 months from the Canada’s National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to be supervised by Eve on a side project to my main thesis project. The topic of my PhD research is modelling largescale generalities across species invasions. Throughout this project, I have been building country-scale models of invasive species spread and establishment, both in forests and freshwater ecosystems. I recently built a general, spatially-explicit model for the spread of all invasive forest pests in the US, which I am using in my project at UQ to model optimal forest pest management in this system. I am interested in seeing whether there are generalities in optimal management strategies across species and space that mirror the generalities we have already observed in dispersal dynamics.

The goal of this fellowship is to hone my skills in decision theory – the mathematical study of optimal decision-making – as it applies to invasive species management. Eve’s lab is an ideal location to learn these skills, as she has extensive experience in decision theory, and is a chief investigator at the Centre for Excellence in Environmental Decisions (CEED). CEED is a globally-influential research center that specializes in responding to environmental management problems in the face of uncertainty. At CEED, researchers across many disciplines collaborate to solve complex problems relating to the optimal allocation of conservation funds. Researchers at CEED are well-positioned to aid me in developing advanced quantitative skills in a highly collaborative environment.

My project at CEED consists of building a model for the optimal control of the spread of invasive forest pest species within the United States. Earlier in my PhD studies, I created a general model for the spread of all invasive forest pest species present in the United States (find it on my website). Invasive forest pests cause billions of dollars of damages within the United States alone, and to limit their damages across space, forest pest managers are tasked with limiting their rates of successful dispersal. The gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) Slow the Spread campaign is an example of the use of decision theory to optimally control the spread of a particular invasive forest pest. This program is estimated to have reduced gypsy moth spread rates by 70%.

I will be extending the analyses underlying this management program across all invasive forest pests in the United States in order to determine how to apply management funding and effort in the most efficient way across all species. To do so, I will combine my existing spread model with information on the available management options for these pests within a decision theoretical model in order to calculate optimal management practices. The spatial structure inherent in my spread model will allow for the examination of the optimal spatial structure of management and to account for management costs that are unequal across space. I will use this model to determine whether there is a generally optimal pest management strategy across species and space.

This project is a more applied extension of my earlier spread research, but follows many of the same themes. It complements the search for generality in invasive species spread with a search for generality in optimal invasive species management. This model would have immediate value to forest managers, as it could be used to determine the most effective allocation of United States government funding for invasive species management. If generality in optimal management is observed, this model could produce useful heuristics for the best management practices across all invasive forest pests.

This visit is an important step in diversifying my research experience. I have spent all of my university education at McGill, and though this has allowed me to engage in highly stimulating quantitative research in a fast-paced environment and to excel within my chosen research program, I have been limited in my exposure to different scientific perspectives. This fellowship opportunity is a wonderful way for me to form new connections while engaging in the cross-pollination of applied conservation research ideas.

The large lab group at CEED is a very different research setting to the more intimate lab environment to which I am accustomed at McGill. While CEED researchers study similar themes to my lab in Canada, namely invasive species modelling and decision theory, it would be highly beneficial for me to approach these themes from the collaborative, interdisciplinary perspective present at CEED. The sheer size of the CEED group means that their research is inherently collaborative, and the interdisciplinary nature of lab members greatly increases the strategies employed to solve problems. Considering this diversity, the ability to discuss my existing work with these researchers would also allow for highly valuable feedback on all aspects of my PhD research.

I believe that this fellowship is the beginning of a lasting collaboration with CEED. If you’d like to know more about me and my research, check out my website at www.ejhudgins.com.