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Heather Lynch

It’s got great pictures and is good news. As a result, it’s a story heard around the world.

Back in 2015, Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, started the tedious yet important job of counting Adélie penguins in a place with a well-earned name: the Danger Islands. This chain of nine Antarctic islands is surrounded by rocks and potentially ship-trapping ice.

These parameters present a picture-perfect paradise for Adélie penguins, who live, breed, eat, squawk and poop there — more on that in a moment. Armed with drones that fly over these islands and working with collaborators from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution at Oxford University in England and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Lynch and others counted these flightless birds. The final number came to an astounding 1.5 million.

Wait, but how could a planet so well covered by satellite imagery, where you can see your car in your driveway through online apps, not know about a colony so large that it’s called a supercolony?

We kind of knew that they lived there, although not in such staggering numbers, when a plane flew overhead in 1957. It wasn’t until more recently, however, that Lynch and Mathew Schwaller from NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland, studied satellite images from guano stains — this is where the poop comes in — that they had an idea of the enormity of a population of penguins that would make Mr. Popper proud.

News outlets, including TBR News Media, couldn’t get enough of the story, grabbing the pictures, getting Lynch and her colleagues on the phone and learning about the creatures.

Publications of all political stripes, from The New York Times to CNN, to The Wall Street Journal to Breitbart News have all covered it.

“It’s a good news story,” said Lynch. “People latched onto that.”

Lynch said she spoke directly with 12 or more journalists. At the same time, about 360 stories mentioned Stony Brook and penguins.

Some of the coverage has included mistakes. One report, for example, had spectacular visuals. The narrative, however, suggested the Danger Islands was a hotspot for penguins because the location has been left undisturbed by people.

“That’s not what I said,” she said. “The question was, ‘Why hadn’t we discovered them before?’ The answer was because this is not an area where people go.”

That, she said, is not the same as suggesting that the penguins flourished because humans haven’t been there. It only means we didn’t know about them because visiting the islands is so hazardous.

Another outlet suggested that the Adélie penguins were on the verge of extinction. Not only is that inaccurate, but the population has been growing, as previous research from Lynch indicated.

While that may not fit a simple climate-change narrative, it supports the concept of a warming world.

To simplify the message, the climate-change community has made a link between population and climate, which is “impossible to break,” she said, even though it’s also inaccurate.

There is this “kind of tug of war between the scientists dealing with nuance and detail, and the conversation community,” she said. They don’t need to be at odds, she added.

Indeed, this colony thrives because the Danger Islands hasn’t increased in temperature at the same rate as other parts of the Antarctic.

The media spotlight taught her a few lessons.

For starters, in addition to the talking points she had during her interactions, she would include bullet points in the negative, to make it clear what the researchers aren’t saying.

Ultimately, however, Lynch recognizes the value of the photos.

“The drone footage is amazing and stunning,” she said. She gives credit to the Woods Hole staff. “If we didn’t have pictures” the story would likely not have received such extensive coverage.

What’s the lesson? From now on, she said, “I’ll think about the visuals in advance, if I want the attention.”

Adélie penguins jump off an iceberg of one of the Danger Islands. Photo by Rachel Herman from Stony Brook University/ Louisiana State University

By Daniel Dunaief

In October of 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik, people imagined that satellites hovering over their heads could see everything and anything down below. Indeed, in the early days, some Americans rushed to close their blinds, hoping the Kremlin couldn’t see what they might be eating for dinner or watching on TV.

Satellites today collect such a wealth of information about the world below that it’s often not easy to analyze and interpret it.

That’s the case with the Danger Islands in the Antarctic. Difficult for people to approach by boat because of treacherous rocks around the islands and sea ice that might trap a ship, these islands are home to a super colony of Adélie penguins that number 1.5 million.

Nesting Adelie penguins. Photo by Michael Polito from Louisiana State University

This discovery of birds that were photographed in a reconnaissance plane in 1957 but haven’t been studied or counted since “highlights the ultimate challenge of drinking from the firehose of satellite-based information,” said Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University and a co-author on a Scientific Reports publication announcing the discovery of these supernumerary waterfowl.

Adélie penguins are often linked to the narrative about climate change. Lynch said finding this large colony confirms what researchers knew about Adélie biology. In West Antarctic, it is warming and the population is declining. On the eastern side, it’s colder and icier, which are conditions more suited for Adélie survival. The Danger Islands are just over the edge of those distinct regions, on the eastern side, where it is still cold and icy.

A population discovery of this size has implications for management policies. At this point, different groups are designing management strategies for both sides of the peninsula. A German delegation is leading the work for a marine protected area on the east side. An Argentinian team is leading the western delegation.

Adelie penguins on sea ice next to Comb Island. Photo by Michael Polito, Louisiana State University

This discovery supports the MPA proposal, explained Mercedes Santos, a researcher from the Instituto Antártico Argentino and a co-convener of the Domain 1 MPA Expert Group. The MPA proposal was introduced in 2017 and is under discussion in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, where the United States is one of 25 members.

Said Santos in a recent email, “This publication will help us to show the importance of the area for protection, considering that decisions should be made [with the] best available information.” The location of the Danger Islands protects it from the strongest effects of climate change, as the archipelago is in a buffer zone between areas that are experiencing warming and those where the climate remains consistent over longer periods of time.

Whales and other mammals that eat krill create an unknown factor in developing fisheries plans. While penguins spend considerable time above water and are easier to monitor and count, the population of whales remains more of a mystery.

Heather Lynch with a penguin. Photo from Heather Lynch

Lynch said the more she studies penguins, the more skeptical she is that they can “stand in” as ecosystem indicators. Their populations tend to be variable. While it would be simpler to count penguins as a way to measure ecosystem dynamics, researchers also need to track populations of other key species, such as whales, she suggested. Humpback whales are “in competition with penguins for prey resources,” Lynch said.

The penguin data is “one piece of information for one species,” but MPAs are concerned with the food web for the entire region, which also includes crabeater seals. For the penguin population study, Lynch recruited members of her lab to contribute to the process of counting the penguins manually. “I figured I should do my fair share,” she said, of work she describes as “painstaking.” Indeed, Lynch and her students counted over 280,000 penguins by hand. She and her team used the hand counting effort to confirm the numbers generated by the computer algorithm.

“The counting was done to make sure the computer was doing its job well,” she said. She also wanted to characterize the errors of this process as all census counts come with errors and suggested that the future of this type of work is with computer vision.

Lynch appreciated the work of numerous collaborators to count this super colony. Even before scientists trekked out to the field to count these black and white birds, she and Matthew Schwaller from NASA studied guano stains on the Danger Islands in 2015 using existing NASA images.

The scientific team at Heroina Island in Antarctica. Photo by Alex Borowicz, Stony Brook University

This penguin team included Tom Hart from Oxford University and Michael Polito from Louisiana State University, who have collaborated in the field for years, so it was “natural that we would work together to try and execute an expedition.” Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, has considerable expertise in the modeling side, especially with the climate; and Hanumant Singh, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University has experience using drones in remote areas, Lynch said.

The penguins on the Danger Islands react to the presence of humans in a similar way to the ones elsewhere throughout the Antarctic. The birds generally don’t like creatures that are taller than they are, in part because they fear skuas, which are larger predatory birds that work together to steal an egg off a nest. Counting the penguins requires the researchers to stand, but when the scientists sit on the ground, the penguins “will approach you. You have to make sure you’re short enough.”

Lynch would like to understand the dynamics of penguin nest choices that play out over generations. She’s hoping to use a snapshot of the layout of the nests to determine how a population is changing. Ideally, she’d like to “look at a penguin colony to see whether it’s healthy and declining.” She believes she is getting close.

Heather Lynch at Spigot Peak in the Antarctic. Photo by Catherine Foley

By Daniel Dunaief

Counting penguins is like riding the highs and lows of Yankees rookie Aaron Judge’s home run streaks, followed by his series of strike outs. He’s not as bad as his strike outs suggest, although he’s also not a sure thing at the plate either.

Similarly, in local populations, the Adélie penguin, which waddles to and fro squawking on land and gliding gracefully through the water, isn’t as clear a barometer of changes in the environment. Also, like Judge, when populations rise and fall, people are eager to offer their explanations for exactly what’s happening, even if the sensational explanations — he’s not that good, no, wait, he’s the greatest ever — may overstate the reality.

Heather Lynch visits Cape Lookout in Antarctica during recent trip that included an NBC TV crew that produced a feature for ‘Sunday Night with Megan Kelly.’ Photo by Jeff Topham

“We have to be careful not to be overreactive,” said Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. “The concern is that, when we see increases or decreases, the implication is that there’s a miraculous recovery or a catastrophic crash.”

That, however, is inconsistent with Lynch’s recent results, which were published in the journal Nature Communications. Examining penguin data from 1982 to 2015, Lynch, Christian Che-Castaldo, who is a postdoctoral researcher in Lynch’s lab, and nine other researchers looked to see if there’s a way to connect the size of the population to changes in the environment. The study involved two teams of researchers, one supported by NASA and the other backed by the National Science Foundation.

“It’s a noisy system,” Lynch concluded. Managers of the populations of krill, small crustaceans that are the mainstay of the Adélie diet, try to use time series of key indicator species to understand what’s going on in the marine realm. In this article, Lynch said, local Adélie penguin populations may not be a clear signal of the health of the krill stocks because penguin abundance fluctuates for reasons she and her team couldn’t pinpoint.

These penguins, which Lynch has counted during her field work in the Antarctic, exhibit changes in population that can run contrary to the health, or stressed condition, of the environment.

“You can’t have your finger on the pulse” with the available data, Lynch said. “Part of our inability to model year-to-year changes is because we can’t measure the right things in the environment.”

The drivers of abundance fluctuations likely involve other animals or aspects of the krill fisheries they couldn’t model, she suggested.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about what penguins do under water, where they spend a large portion of their time and where they feed,” Grant Humphries, who was in Lynch’s lab for a year and now runs his own data science company in Scotland called Black Bawks Data Science Ltd, explained in an email. “The signals that drive year to year changes might actually lie there.”

Tom Hart, a researcher of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford who was not involved in this study, explores local scale variation in penguin populations. Locally, Hart said in an interview by Skype, “Things are incredibly noisy. When you aggregate, you get good signals, but with some error.” He suggested that this research drives him on further, showing that “local influences are important” because there’s so much variance left to explain. Lynch’s research is “a really good study and shows very well what’s happening on the regional scale, but leaves open what happens below that,” he said.

Indeed, Lynch suggested that by putting sites together, researchers can look at larger areas, which provide a clearer picture on shorter time scales.

Michael Polito, an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University who was not involved in the study, suggests that this extensive analysis indicates that “you can still look at the relationship between the abundance of penguins and the environment in a robust way. Even though any individual time series may not be the best way to understand these relationships, in the aggregate you can use them.”

Managers who set fishery policies in Antarctic waterways are often concerned about harvesting too much krill, leaving the penguins without enough food to survive and feed their chicks.

The challenge with this result, Lynch acknowledges, is that it makes setting krill boundaries more difficult.

A strategy that involves resetting conservation targets based on annual monitoring appears unrealistic given these results, Lynch said. “From a practical standpoint, we threw in everything we could and could explain only a tiny fraction of the variation,” she said.

Hart added that this is “not an argument to fish away,” he said. “We need to understand what’s going on at a local scale and we’re not there yet.”

To get people involved, Lynch and her team created a science competition, called Random Walk of the Penguins, to see who could predict the overall penguin populations for Adélie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins from the 2014 to 2017 seasons.

The competition, which was a collaborative effort with Oceanites, Black Bawks Data Science and Driven Data included $16,000 in prize money, which was donated by NASA. Entrants could use data from the 1982 through the 2013 seasons. The contest drew competitors from six continents. Of the five winners, all were from different countries.

Humphries, who was the lead on the data science computation, said the results were “somewhat humbling” because competitors were able to make “decent predictions” using only the time series. “With long-term predictions and for determining the tipping points, there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Lynch is relieved that her co-authors supported the direction the article took. “I’m a skeptic by nature and more than happy to throw orthodoxy (or even my own previous work) under the bus,” she wrote in an email. “I do hope that others will use our model as a starting point and we’ll never go back to the old days where everyone looked only at ‘their sites.’”

Front row, from left, Liliana Dávalos, Heather Lynch and Christine O’Connell; back row, from left, Robert Harrison, IACS director and STRIDE PI, Arie Kaufman, and Janet Nye. Photo from Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

If Stony Brook University has its way, the university will stand out not only for the quality of the research its graduate students produce but also for the way those budding scientists present, explain and interpret their results to the public and to policy makers.

Pulling together faculty from numerous departments across the campus, Robert Harrison, the director of the Institute for Advanced Computational Science, created a program that will teach graduate students how to use big data sets to inform difficult decisions.

The institute recently received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship for this effort, called Science Training & Research to Inform DEcisions, or STRIDE. The grant will be used for students in the departments of Applied Mathematics and Statistics, Biomedical Informatics, Computer Science, Ecology and Evolution and the schools of Journalism and Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

“This is unique,” said Arie Kaufman, a distinguished professor and chair of the Department Computer Science at Stony Brook. “It’s a new kind of approach to training and adding value to Ph.D. students.” Indeed, the students who complete the STRIDE training will earn their doctorates and will also receive a certificate for their participation in this program. Students in the participating departments will need to apply for one of the 10 positions available in the program next year. The partners involved in this program expect it to expand to 30 students within five years.

Kaufman said what enabled this collaboration was the range of skill sets across Stony Brook, including the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which is a growing program that already offers the type of training more typical for an actor studying improvisation techniques than for a scientist studying neurotransmitters or DNA.

The Alda Center is “creating a new course,” said Christine O’Connell, an associate director at the center and assistant professor in the School of Journalism. She is currently working on developing the course description, which will include communicating to decision makers. O’Connell, who has a doctorate in marine and atmospheric sciences, sees her work with the Alda Center and with STRIDE as the “perfect combination in bringing the decision making piece to work with scientists to help them talk about their research.”

Scientists who take courses at the Alda Center with STRIDE learn how to understand their audience through various role-playing scenarios. They will also develop their abilities to present their goals or messages in a visual way and not just talk about their work.

Heather Lynch, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution who is also a co-principal investigator on the STRIDE grant, will help design the program, mentor students and develop courses. She’s been involved with this proposal since its inception, over three years ago. “In many ways,” she explained in an email, “my interest stems from my own difficulties communicating effectively with policy makers, and finding tools and visualizations that are compelling to a non-scientist.” Lynch recounted her frustration with presenting science to help a policy making body, such as a committee, with the kind of analysis she believed they were seeking. After she did her best to answer the question, the committee sometimes dismissed her work as not being what they wanted. “That’s frustrating because that means I failed at the outset to define the science question and that’s what I hope we can teach students to do better,” Lynch explained.

Lynch said she wishes she had the training these students will be getting. For scientists, computers are an invaluable tool that can help delve into greater breadth and depth in analyzing, interpreting and collecting information. The STRIDE effort includes a greater awareness of the way computers can inform political or social science. Researchers generate “tremendous amounts of data that can be used to analyze trends or detect diseases,” Kaufman said. “The data science is tremendous in every discipline.”

The faculty who are a part of this program said they have already benefited from the interactions they’ve had with each other as they’ve developed the curriculum. “I know a few people in Ecology and Evolution and I know more people in Marine Sciences, but these particular individuals were new to me,” said Kaufman. “We have already been communicating about ideas for how to use the Reality Deck for other projects.”

Completed in late 2012, the Reality Deck is a $2 million rectangular room in the Center of Excellence in Information Technology building. The room has hundreds of monitors that cover the wall from floor to ceiling and provides a way for researchers to study images in exquisite detail.

Other scientists in the program include Liliano Dávalos, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution, Janet Nye, an assistant professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Joel Saltz, the founding chair of the Depatment of Biomedical Informatics, Erez Zadok, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Mighua Zhang, a professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

Lynch said the program will bring in people who are working on real-world problems, including those in government, industry and nongovernmental organizations who are “in a position to take science and use it for practical purposes.” As a part of the program, the scientists will monitor the progress of the STRIDE candidates, O’Connell said.

The evaluations will check to see if “they become better communicators and better at interpreting their data for different audiences,” O’Connell said. “The evaluation piece built in will help us assess the program.”