For this data-driven Antarctic ecologist, it all adds up

Penguin empress: Stony Brook University ecologist Heather Lynch, chilling out down south.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

From the bottom of the world comes Stony Brook University’s latest top scientist – a Big Data-driven ecologist with an unprecedented passion for penguins.

Adélie penguins, to be precise, and other Antarctic penguin populations, whose migratory patterns and colony sizes have lots to say about the health of the Southern Ocean ecosystem – and the global effects of climate change.

Such is the purview of Heather Lynch, an associate professor of ecology and evolution in SBU’s College of Arts and Sciences and one of three winners of the 2019 Blavatnik National Award for Young Scientists. Bestowed by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and administered by the New York Academy of Sciences, the awards annually honor laureates – ages 42 and younger – in three categories: Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering/Chemistry.

Lynch conquered the Life Sciences category (and claimed its $250,000 “unrestricted scientific prize), selected from 31 national finalists who themselves were whittled down from 343 total nominees, representing 169 different U.S. research institutions – the largest nominee pool in the history of the Blavatnik National Award, according to SBU.

Cold facts: Lynch at Cape Lookout.

The ecologist, also a faculty member at Stony Brook’s Institute for Advanced Computational Science, was recognized by award sponsors for “her unique synthesis of cutting-edge statistics, mathematical models, satellite remote-sensing and Antarctic field biology.”

Lynch’s pioneering work on the penguins’ spatial and temporal patterns has given her a unique ability to predict colony sizes and “possible extinction in the face of climate change,” according to the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

And while the associate professor is definitely a boots-on-the-ground-type – an SBU faculty member since 2011, she’s personally led expeditions to Cape Lookout and other points on the Antarctic Peninsula – her use of the IACS’s supercomputing capabilities is proof-positive of Big Data’s importance in virtually all scientific fields, according to Stony Brook President Samuel Stanley Jr.

Samuel Stanley Jr.: Data commander.

“Big Data is a vital component in efforts to preserve our planet,” Stanley said Thursday. “It is only through data-driven interventions that can we strategically pursue a more sustainable future.

“This award is a testament to Heather Lynch, whose work will provide key insights on global ecosystems and generate solutions to the most pressing issue of our time: climate change,” added the outgoing university president, whos set to take the reins of Michigan State University this summer.

Michael Bernstein, who is succeeding Stanley as interim SBU president, said Lynch – whose unique quantitative ecology has repeatedly earned international recognition – has “once again proven herself an outstanding rising star at Stony Brook University.”

“I look forward to seeing many more accomplishments from this extraordinary colleague,” Bernstein said in a statement.

Lynch joins Ana Maria Rey of the University of Colorado-Boulder (Physical Sciences) and Emily Balskus of Harvard University (Engineering/Chemistry) to complete the first all-female laureate class in the Blavatnik National Award’s 13-year history.