Welcome Isabel C Barrio - NEW SE

Submitted by editor on 5 August 2022.

We are very happy to welcome Isabel C. Barrio (Professor, Agricultural University of Iceland) to our editorial board!

Website: https://tundraecology.hi.is/isabel-barrio/

KEYWORDS: tundra, herbivory, alpine, grazing, invertebrate herbivory, biotic interactions

1. What's your main research focus at the moment?

I am a field ecologist interested in understanding how ecosystems work and how they respond to changes. Tundra ecosystems provide an excellent model system to address these questions because they are, in principle, relatively simple and they are changing fast. In these systems, herbivores play a central role and plant-herbivore interactions have cascading effects to the whole ecosystem. I am particularly interested in understanding how different species of herbivores coexist and how the effects of different herbivores combine to influence ecosystem responses.

The interactions between herbivores and the plants they eat vary depending on where and when herbivory happens. Given this context dependency, ecologists need to collect data at multiple sites, across broad environmental gradients to be able to address more general questions. In this sense, coordinated research efforts have become an essential part of terrestrial ecology, and more so in remote locations like many tundra sites. In 2013, together with some colleagues we established the Herbivory Network, a collaborative research network that aims at understanding the role of herbivores in arctic and alpine ecosystems. Within the network we have been developing several projects, for example on the patterns and drivers of herbivore diversity in the Arctic, synthesizing knowledge on herbivory studies in the Arctic and describing patterns of invertebrate herbivory across the tundra biome.

Fieldwork at one of our sites in Iceland (with Laura Barbero-Palacios)

2. Can you describe your research career? Where, what, when?

As an undergraduate student I spent many hours studying the lizard collection in the basement of the Biological Sciences building at the University of Salamanca and birdwatching. I was very fortunate to join some field trips to study habitat use by lizards in the Balearic Islands and spent my summers volunteering for environmental organizations. During my PhD I studied rabbits in Southern Spain, which made me realise how complex human impacts on the environment and management priorities can be. Rabbits are a native species in Spain where they are both considered a species of conservation concern in natural ecosystems and a pest in agricultural landscapes. My PhD focused on the latter, trying to come up with non-lethal ways of mitigating rabbit damage to vineyards.

After my PhD, I moved to the Pyrenees where I studied alpine marmots at the Pyrenean Institute of Ecology and then to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, for my first postdoc. I spent four summers up in the mountains of the Southwest Yukon studying marmots, pikas, ground squirrels and caterpillars. Those were very happy summers, living out of a tent for three months, experiencing the strong seasonality of sub-arctic alpine summers and truly doing on-the-ground field ecology. During my postdoc years I also had the opportunity to join an expedition of the French Polar Institute to the Subantarctic Islands where I studied flightless flies and to help out with an Indigenous youth camp in the Northwest Territories.

I moved to Iceland for another postdoc in 2015, focusing on sheep grazing in the highlands, trying to better understand their impacts on tundra ecosystems that had not coevolved with large herbivores. In Iceland I had the great opportunity to work with the UNESCO Land Restoration Training Programme, with which I am still involved, teaching and supervising fellows. I am currently professor at the Agricultural University of Iceland, where I teach courses in Grazing Ecology and Scientific Writing among others.

Throughout my career I have been very privileged to work with many inspiring mentors and colleagues, and now I hope to create similar opportunities for my students.

3. How come you became a scientist in ecology?

When I started my undergraduate studies in Biology I was not sure if I would end up in a lab or chasing lizards in the field. I deeply enjoyed the courses in biochemistry and microbiology, but I soon realized that lab coats were not really my thing. I felt more at ease in the field where I could combine my curiosity for the natural world and my love for the outdoors. Once I realized that, I took full advantage of opportunities to participate in different field projects that have taken me all around the world, including Spain, Iceland and the Yukon, but also Australia, Costa Rica, remote islands in the Southern Indian Ocean, Svalbard and Mongolia. Different field settings pose different challenges, but one thing they all have in common is that field data are often messy. Learning about analytical tools and quantitative methods to uncover patterns and drive general conclusions with such messy datasets is a fascinating exercise. Spending time coding and plotting graphs is a nice complement for when I am not in the field!

In recent years I have become more interested in ways of synthesizing knowledge. Tools like meta-analyses, systematic maps and systematic reviews can help us navigate the ever-growing body of scientific literature and build new conceptual models that allow knowledge to move forward.

4. What do you do when you're not working?

In the last years I have been quite busy at work and learning Icelandic at the University of Iceland. Being a student again has given me a very valuable perspective and helps with my teaching too. But I do have a lot of plans for when I have a bit more free time: I cannot wait to pick up my cello again and continue playing with the orchestra in the town I live. I immensely enjoy spending time outdoors and love hiking and running. When the weather is not so good a cozy evening reading a good novel will also do.